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How to Eat Plant-Based for Health while Ditching Diet Mentality

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Are you interested in a plant-based diet because you heard it will benefit your health? 

While it is true that eating an abundance and variety of plant foods can positively impact health (plenty of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients do wonders for our bodies!), it’s not a magic bullet and there is much more to health than what we eat. 

That doesn’t mean you have to abandon your plant-eating ways, but I have some pointers to help you think more broadly about health and move away from dietary restriction and control and instead focus on permission, enjoyment and self-care.

A little about me: I’m a vegan registered dietitian and I work with both vegan and non-vegan clients on healing their relationship with food. Unfortunately, going on a plant-based diet hasn’t always been a positive thing for my clients. Many of them fell into a restrictive, fearful eating pattern when they went plant-based. Which ended up harming their health rather than improving it.

There is loads of diet-y plant-based content on the internet that convinces people they have to fear and cut out a long list of foods in order to protect their health. This just isn’t true! Nutrition isn’t black and white and neither is health. 

And guess what? Stressing out about what we eat isn’t good for health! If eating plant-based is causing you lots of stress and anxiety, you might be negating all those positive benefits of eating plant-based.

Here’s how to enjoy the benefits of eating an abundance of plant foods, without falling into a restrictive mindset or disordered eating pattern!

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Understand Determinants of Health

What we eat isn’t all there is to health. In fact, diet makes up just one small piece of the puzzle. Health behaviors (aka what you do), including what you eat and how you move your body (along with smoking and other important factors) account for about 30% of health. The other 70% includes accessibility of quality healthcare, education, employment, income, community safety, air and water quality, and more. 

Yes, nutrition is important. And, it isn’t the sole or even main determinant of health. Stressing and obsessing about nutrition isn’t required for a healthy diet and it’s likely taking a toll on your mental health. So, take a deep breath and relax a little.

Approach Food Through Self-Care Rather than Self-Control

There is so much good that food does for us! From physical nourishment to emotional comfort to social connection and more, food has a lot of functions. Can you appreciate food for all that it does and move away from using food to manipulate your body? 

The more we try to use control and willpower with food, the more likely we are to feel obsessed, anxious, and even out of control around food. Compared to when we approach food in a gentle, curious, compassionate way and listen to our bodies, we can enjoy a peaceful relationship with food. If you like the way that sounds, I suggest you check out intuitive eating – it’s a science-based framework that my clients really love! 

Connect with Your Body and Focus on How You Feel

Do you often think about how eating a particular food may impact the way your body looks? Let’s shift that focus to how eating food makes you feel. How does it taste? How satisfying is it? How does it feel in your belly? How does it impact your energy level? How does it impact your mental clarity and focus?

In other words, bring the focus to the inside, rather than the outside. When we eat for genuine self-care and well-being, we’re more likely to enjoy a natural balance of nutritious foods and fun foods without having to try so hard. Resist the urge to diet to shrink or manipulate your body. Research shows that dieting is not only ineffective in the long run, it actually takes a toll on our health.

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First Add Rather than Subtract

One easy way to prevent plant-based eating from feeling restrictive is to emphasize adding plant foods (rather than taking away certain foods). Where can you add more colorful veggies? Where can you add more legumes? Where can you add some sweet fruit? Where can you add some crunchy nuts and seeds? Where can you add some chewy whole grains?

Here are some ideas:

  • Add colorful, crunchy layers to sandwiches with veggies such as sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, onions, avocado and lettuce
  • Add a big handful of leafy greens to smoothies, soups and stews
  • Add berries into yogurt
  • Add cooked whole grains and beans into salads
  • Add veggie-loaded salsas to tacos and burritos
  • Add chopped veggies into marinara sauce
  • Add nuts and seeds into oatmeal

Explore Legumes

Legumes are where to go for plant-based protein. Anywhere you’d typically eat meat, fish or eggs, you can eat legumes! Beans, lentils, peas and peanuts are legumes. This includes tofu, tempeh, soy-based meat, pea protein-based meat and peanut butter too. 

Examples of tasty ways to enjoy legumes:

  • At breakfast: scrambled tofu, peanut butter toast, bean breakfast burrito
  • At lunch: chickpea salad, soy-based deli meat sandwich, split pea soup
  • At dinner: bean burger, lentil meatballs, tempeh stir-fry
  • At snacktime: hummus and veggies, refried beans and tortilla chips, peanut butter and pretzels

Make Veggies Tasty

The tastier the veggies, the more likely you are to eat them and enjoy them! There is no need to eliminate oil and salt. In fact, you need dietary fat to help you absorb vitamins A, D, E and K! A little fat and salt goes a long way when sauteing and roasting veggies to give them lots of delicious flavor. Consider adding your favorite herbs and spices and don’t be afraid to play around with sauces!

Here are my favorite ways to enjoy lots of tasty veggies.

Don’t Restrict Fun Foods

If you’re eating plant-based for health, you may be tempted to remove all non-whole foods from your diet. This is not a good idea. Here’s one reason why: The more we tell ourselves we “can’t” or “shouldn’t” eat certain foods because we’re afraid of them, the more likely we are to crave them and even binge on them. 

The truth is there are no foods that you must completely eliminate from your diet for good health. Nutrition and health don’t work that way and it’s not true that a single morsel of any food is going to radically shift your health status.

When we give ourselves permission to listen to our bodies, honor our cravings, and savor what we crave mindfully, we’re more likely to have a peaceful relationship with those foods. Satisfaction is a very important part of good nutrition!

Connect with Ethical Reasons to Eat Plant-Based

In my experience counseling plant-based clients, most said that exploring the ethics of veganism helped them connect with reasons for their dietary choices that extended beyond their own health and appearance. Cultivating values-based intentions for their decisions felt liberating and actually helped them move away from restriction and toward joyful eating. 

Veganism extends far beyond eating plant-based, and if you’d like to learn more, check out these posts:

Do a Plant-Based Diet Culture Detox

All those oil-free YouTubers? Unsubscribe. The raw and fruitarian Instagram influencers? Unfollow. The coaches promising lasting weight loss when you do their juice cleanse? No thanks. The doctors touting a diet that cures all diseases? Bye bye. The bloggers telling you to nix all oil, avocados, nuts and seeds? Be gone!

Do a quick audit and jot down all the sources of plant-based information you take in. Now think about their messages. Are they giving you rules to follow? Telling you to restrict certain foods? Making grand promises and sensational claims? Causing you a lot of stress and anxiety about food? These are all red flags. 

To learn about plant-based nutrition without the diet culture nonsense, enroll in the Anti-Diet Vegan Nutrition Online Course. This course is pre-recorded so you can listen at your own pace. It tells you how to meet your nutrient needs through plant-based foods, beverages and dietary supplements, without any restrictive or disordered advice. And it gives you loads of trusty resources for where to go to learn about plant-based nutrition and find community!

Work With a Registered Dietitian

Navigating confusing and conflicting information on the internet can be frustrating and overwhelming. And maybe your doctor isn’t giving you very clear answers or helpful advice about food and nutrition, either. This is where registered dietitians come in. 

Registered dietitians have undergone years of schooling, training and continuing education in order to practice nutrition and help individuals learn how to eat to manage their health conditions and feel their best. RDs take into account health history, preferences, resources, abilities and much more when providing personalized medical nutrition therapy.

Want one-on-one help from registered dietitians who specialize in plant-based nutrition? You’re in the right place! Our registered dietitians specialize in a gentle approach to plant-based nutrition and help our clients cultivate a peaceful relationship with food and body. Click here to learn more and apply for nutrition counseling! 

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