What is a plant-based diet?

I am often asked about ‘my diet’, and ‘what type of diet I follow’. I’m not a fan of the term ‘diet’ because to me it implies that you are giving up something, which could lead to binging later. Besides, how many people are on a diet that lasts longer than a month? I find that when you think of your food as nutrition, it gives you a more wholesome approach to what you put into your body. And that way of eating becomes your lifestyle. Plant-based simply means consuming less processed foods, selecting foods that are nutrient-dense, eating clean, and as close to raw as possible. You are eating fruits, vegetables, and grains at its source, pure and unrefined. I have been meaning to write about my experiences dabbling into the plant-based world over the last two years, and recently I’ve found myself talking about it more than before. Here are some questions I’m asked all the time:

Disclaimer: I am not 100% vegan, but I have vegan tendencies. I am not 100% vegetarian, but I have vegetarian tendencies, hence I call myself a flexitarian.

  1. Where do you get your protein from? (quinoa, brown rice protein powder, lentils–that’s easy, I’m Pakistani)
  2. Does your family eat the way you do? (some eat everything, some won’t eat anything. I have to keep trying, right?)
  3. Do you count calories? (never, no need)
  4. What do you eat? (some of what I eat: protein pancakes, egg white omelets, whole grain pasta, Pakistani food, black bean burgers, quinoa bowls, green smoothies, loads of brussel sprouts, fish and lean meat…and of course good dessert)
  5. Why? (I can’t think of any reason why not? It’s better for my health, the environment, the animals, and it is also following the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad).
Rockin' Moroccan Bowl @ Native Foods Cafe

Rockin’ Moroccan Bowl @ Native Foods Cafe

It’s been about 5-6 years now that I’ve migrated to a more ‘flexitarian’ lifestyle, but the last 2-3 years are more focused on plant-based. Leaving meat behind was something I found challenging, especially growing up in a Pakistani household where meat is on the table every single day, and more often than not, twice a day. Consider my challenge cutting meat to only once or twice a week! My parents were at a loss and very confused when I would come to visit and announce I would not be eating what they served, or that I wanted vegetables, without the meat. But you need protein, they would insist. And my husband and I would start reciting all the alternative sources for protein and maintain that surely we were not robbing ourselves of nutrients. Aside from the dozens of documentaries that have come out in recent years, all touting the wonders of eating clean, more plant-based and ‘meatless Mondays’, there are traditions in my faith that also encourage eating meat sparingly.  Fast forward to now and I’m happy to say they’ve also changed their ways and we’re all on our way to eating healthier and sourcing more plants into our diet.

So, you’ve always wondered how to get yourself started?  Here are 10 ways you can jump start a plant-based lifestyle.

1. Swap out dairy for  nut / seed milk – not only will you feel instantly better, but you will save yourself the calories and fat. I’m not lactose intolerant or completely dairy-free however, I still enjoy greek yogurt 🙂  Soy is a suitable alternative, when consumed in its purest form.

2. Add brown rice protein powder to smoothies. Either as a replacement for whey protein, or to increase your daily protein consumption. If you are loading up on fruits for carbs, then adding brown rice protein to the smoothie will balance out your glycemic index.

3. Love your spaghetti? Consider roasting spaghetti squash and using the flesh as the ‘pasta’ instead. Finish with your favorite marinara sauce. This is a lot of work, but if you are interested in trying new things, it’s worth it. Of course whole grain pasta is not a bad option either 🙂

My favorite quinoa bowl

My favorite quinoa bowl

4. Swap out rice for quinoa. This one is tough to accomplish in the Pakistani household, but I sometimes keep 1 cup of cooked quinoa on hand because it is so versatile (can be eaten cold or hot).

5. Love stirfry? Swap out chicken for extra firm tofu. My son doesn’t mind the difference.

6. Drink a green smoothie daily. Get your fruit and veggie fix: kale, bananas, pineapple, berries, beet greens, spinach, peanut butter, hemp seeds, maca powder, you name it. Add some chia seeds for extra fiber and brown rice protein to balance out the glycemic index and at 3pm you’ll be more energized that that coffee you were previously drinking. (I also make fresh juices in the summer for a couple days at a time).

Juicing for 1-2 days

Juicing for 1-2 days

7. Construct massive salads.  If you want to eat plant-based, then, well, you have to eat plants. Rotate your leafy greens on a weekly basis, and add various sources of protein to it. Here’s where you need to be creative: seeds, nuts, fruits, tofu, beans, veggies..

8. Love wraps? Consider using a collard green as the wrap, instead of a tortilla. Lightly warm up the green on the stove to soften it and fill it up as you would a tortilla. Not only completely green, but also gluten-free.

9. Love burgers? Here’s the real challenge for me! I do love my burgers, after all I’m a Chicago girl and appreciate a good burger 🙂 Black bean burgers, or even garbanzo bean burgers are equally satisfying and easy to make at home.

Overnight oats

Overnight oats

10. Oatmeal for breakfast. Even though this sounds obvious, how many of us skip breakfast? This is perhaps the most portable, perfect breakfast you can consume. Load it up with nuts, cinnamon, cacao nibs, dried fruit. And in the summer, opt for overnight oats and eat them cold right out of the fridge in the morning. Check out Oh She Glows for some awesome starter ideas!

The bottom line is that eating more plants has made me feel lighter, healthier, and responsible. I have never been stronger and more physically fit than before, and I really attribute a considerable portion of that success to eating more plant-based foods.

A Turkish Vegan Affair

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The Grand Bazaar, Istanbul, Turkey Photo: A. Akhtar

I visited Istanbul a few years ago and fell more in love with the culture. I loved Turkish food (and coffee) even more after visiting cafes, spice markets, Doner kebab stands, and restaurants where your food is cooked in a clay pot and cracked for you at tableside.

When your food arrives at the table and the server cracks it open, you don't ask any questions. Just eat.

When your food arrives at the table and the server cracks it open, you don’t ask any questions. Just eat. Photo: O. Akhtar

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