The plant-based principles of diet and nutrition

WORDS: Karla Gilbert PHOTOGRAPHY Food Photography: @valeria_aksakova

There have been many compelling arguments in the media as to why we should ditch or at least reduce the amount of meat we consume in our diet. The trend towards eating plant-based proteins is growing rapidly and if you are not a recent (or old) convert, I am sure you know someone who is.

Whether it’s for ethical or health concerns, environmental or religious decisions – for a developed country, we collectively consume more meat than dietary recommendations. Australia is renowned for the high regard meat occupies in our diet. This cultural tide has unfortunately led to a diet lacking in variety and nutrients and with excess saturated fats from snags on the BBQ, lamb chops or the humble meat pie. For these reasons, choosing to include more plant-based foods in your diet can be a step in the right direction.

Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten to keep things basic, particularly when it comes to consuming whole foods. To ensure we are including at least the recommended amount from each food group per day, it may be worthwhile taking an inventory of your daily intake. For example, one serve of vegetables could be one cup of salad, ½ cup of cooked legumes or vegetables – and you are looking at at least five servings of these to fit your daily quota. Quite often, whole food choices are crowded out by refined and processed fast foods that fit into our often-chaotic, busy lifestyles, leaving us not only overweight but nutrient deficient.

Eating in a way that includes more plant-based foods and proteins isn’t newly-found rocket science – it is simply a return to how we should have been eating all along. Call it flexitarian, call it what you will – focussing on eating more protein-rich whole foods improves the quality of the diet while slashing kilojoules, cholesterol, oxidative stress and inflammation. Our guts thrive on the fibre from whole grains and starchy vegetables, promoting a diversity of gut bacteria and a stronger immune system.

To eat healthfully with less meat, it’s important to include plant proteins such as nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas and whole grains. While these are incomplete proteins, lacking the full spectrum of essential amino acids in sufficient amounts on their own, the amino acids in grains complement those in nuts and legumes, so together they are complete.

Here are some simple ways to include more whole plant foods and plant protein in your diet.

Include beans, lentils and peas

Begin by substituting half your meat intake with legumes. Turn a family favourite dinner such as spaghetti Bolognese into brown lentil and beef bolognese, which includes lots of grated veggies.

Nut and nut butter 

Straight out of the jar, include in a bliss ball recipe.

Seed and seed butter (chia, hemp, sesame, sunflower)

Sprinkle on salads, add to smoothies and in baking.

Increase whole grains (quinoa, oats, brown rice, dark, whole grain flours)

Always ask yourself: “Can I swap out the grain I am eating with a whole grain substitute?”

Shop for plants first

Vegetables, peas, spinach, broccoli. Add a variety of colours through slow-cooker prepared meals, in bakes and make them the rock star of each meal.

Try one new recipe each week

Get your cooking skills up to speed with meals that don’t rely on meat. We are spoiled for choice in the supermarket, so become familiar with legumes and beans by experimenting with new flavours and methods.

Be wary of plant-based meats

There’s a lot of processing that goes into making these so-called plant-based alternatives. Because the nutritional content is similar to beef, these plant-based meats are about equal in kilojoules and saturated fat and higher in carbs and sodium. Make your own veggie burgers instead.

Choose seafood and eggs more often

Start the day right

Think veggies for breakfast. Baked beans on whole-grain toast with avocado, black bean cheese and spinach tortillas, green smoothies with chia, hemp or spinach.

Join the Meatless Monday bandwagon

Swap up your meat and three-veg combo for new and interesting dishes.

Have plant-based foods ready in the pantry

If you have meat, team it with a legume or bean, or use it as a flavouring. Not only is it better for your hip pocket – it adds bulk to a meal so you have enough to freeze for another meal or lunch the next day.

Karla Gilbert OAM is a former professional athlete who helps individuals and corporations as a nutrition and health coach. Visit for more information on her health coaching, her eBook, Naked Habits, and healthy recipes.