I hear all about plant-based diets now and see many different foods in the stores marked with different “veg” labels, but I wonder if these are actually healthier for us than their animal versions? I want to change my diet to lose weight and improve my health problems, but I don’t know how to replace the animal foods that I eat to make better choices — and not worse! Please help.
With plant-based eating continuing to garner popularity and go increasingly mainstream throughout many parts of the world, there has been a tremendous increase in plant-based versions of animal products on the market. One can literally have a plant-based version of nearly any dairy, meat, seafood, or even egg product. However, most of these, especially when not homemade, range from being mildly processed to highly processed foods. For example, plant-based meats are typically based on refined forms of soy and wheat, full of sodium, oils, genetically modified ingredients, and various additives. Commercially-made non-dairy milk is a highly watered-down almond, soy, coconut, or other plant food extract and typically includes added oils, sugars, stabilizers, thickeners, and other fillers. The more the food comes from a major brand, the more processed and low quality it tends to be. Therefore, if we are eating a plant-based diet for health benefits, we want to reserve these types of foods for rare occasions if we choose to eat them or use them as temporary transition items on our way to plant-based eating. If, on the other hand, we are going plant-based strictly for ethical or environmental reasons and our personal health is not our priority, then such items can be consumed to whatever degree each person deems appropriate.
It can still be argued, however, that even at their worst, plant-based animal food alternatives are still better for numerous reasons than their actual animal foods. But here is the best part: we don’t have to pick between two bad choices when so many better options exist. For example, many small plant-based companies produce all kinds of plant-based products to replace their animal counterparts, which are quite pure, wholesome, and not too far off what we can make ourselves at home. These can most often be found in natural health food stores and farmers’ markets and can provide great replacements for common animal foods. New vegan companies are popping up each day and creating numerous plant-based alternatives. Thus, there is a vast range in the quality of these plant-based meat and dairy alternatives, and the most important thing is always to read the ingredients to understand what we are actually eating. This alone will help you determine whether the food item is in alignment with your health and nutrition values or not.
When it comes to our health, the ideal way to eat a vegan or plant-based diet is to make it based mostly or fully on whole plant foods. This means foods that are in their natural forms, as nature creates them - real fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, herbs, and spices that have not been processed or refined in any way and come with no additives. Basically put, what you see is what you get. In addition, minimally processed forms of these foods would be second best and include foods that are still kept whole but modestly processed in some way. For example, a whole grain flour without any additives would be a minimally processed whole plant food, and a whole grain pasta or a whole grain bread made of such flour would be a moderately processed plant food. On the other hand, refined wheat pasta (white pasta) and refined wheat (white bread) would be heavily processed and non-whole plant food.
The more we eat whole plant foods, the more we supply our body with nutrients that provide healing and protective properties to keep our bodies functioning healthily and supporting their self-healing abilities. Likewise, the more we eat whole plant foods, the less we put into our bodies foods that cause it harm, such as inflammation, toxicity, and acidity, leading to all states of disease, weight problems, and a decreased quality of life.
So for those who wish to eat in such a nutrient-dense and highly beneficial way, it makes the most sense to bypass all of the “fake foods” and go straight to the “real foods.” Of course, old habits are hard to break, and the emotional connections most people have to their food make them crave the foods they have always relied on. Additionally, many people who transition to plant-based eating just don’t know where to start and how to embrace a new perspective on meal preparation and cooking. Thus, one of the common dilemmas of going plant-based is how to replace common animal foods with plant foods. The good news is that we can replace many animal foods with whole plant foods, as I will outline and describe below.
Wholesome Plant-Based Meat Substitutes
The following wholesome plant and fungi foods are the best way to replace meat as they provide tougher and chewier textures and can be seasoned to your preferred flavor in the same way as meat:
- Tempeh - This is a firm, block-shaped food made of whole fermented soybeans. It is extremely nutrient-dense, very high in protein, has both prebiotic and probiotic properties, and natural antibiotic-like properties that make it exceptional for our digestive and immune system health. It can be sliced or cubed to mimic chicken and other meats and added to any dish, including wraps and sandwiches. A grilled and seasoned slab of tempeh also makes a great substitute for a meat patty in burgers. Choose organic tempeh to avoid genetically modified soy.
- Extra Firm Tofu - This kind of tofu can take on quite a rubbery texture when roasted or grilled and can provide another good chicken substitute. Since it has a neutral flavor and light color, it can be flavored and colored naturally with spices to take on a very meat-like appearance. Like tempeh, it is very high in protein, provides lots of vitamins and minerals, and can be sliced or cubed to mimic chicken and other meats when added to any dish, including wraps and sandwiches. A grilled and seasoned slab of tofu also makes a great substitute for a meat patty in burgers. Choose organic tofu to avoid genetically modified soy.
- Jackfruit - This is one of the most overlooked and unknown foods, though it is gaining popularity in plant-based restaurants. As its name implies, this is a fruit, albeit a very unique one, and it comes from the tropical regions. When it is ripe, it is mildly and pleasantly sweet and lightly chewy and can be eaten raw. When unripe and immature, jackfruit is cooked, and it has a fibrous, tougher, and chewier texture just like meat, and it looks just like meat too in its flaked form. In this form, its flavor is mild and neutral, and it can be seasoned and flavored in any way to replace chicken, beef, and even some fish in numerous dishes. Jackfruit-meat tacos and jackfruit-meat stews and curries are some of its best uses.
- Roasted Coconut Flakes - These can be easy to find in nearly all stores today, and they can provide a crispy and savory bacon-like topping for salads and other dishes, especially when they are seasoned with a little Tamari, which is a healthier version of soy sauce.
- Baked or Dehydrated Eggplant - This versatile vegetable can be easily made to resemble and replace bacon. When cut into strips, seasoned appropriately, and baked or dehydrated, it takes on the appearance, flavor, and texture of bacon. Here is an example of a recipe for dehydrated eggplant bacon.
- Portobello Mushrooms - This wonderful mushroom provides an excellent substitute for meat in many dishes, thanks to its tougher and chewier texture and meaty appearance. It can be used whole and grilled or roasted to act like a patty in burgers, or it can be sliced or cubed and added to almost any savory dish to replace meat. It is highly nutritious, high in protein, virtually fat-free, and beneficial for the immune system.
- Oyster Mushrooms - These versatile mushrooms are best for replacing fish or chicken in dishes. They are excellent to use for such purposes when cut into strips or flaked. Like most mushrooms, they are highly nutrient-dense, they provide the right texture to mimic and replace meat, and can be flavored and seasoned in numerous ways.
- Shiitake Mushrooms - These beautiful brown mushrooms are also a great substitute for meat in numerous dishes, given their appropriate texture and appearance. This mushroom is also one of the most valuable mushrooms for our immune system and a highly nutrient-dense food source.
- Chicken-of-the-Woods Mushrooms - True to its name, this mushroom has the flavor and texture of chicken. Unlike the other mushrooms, which you can easily find in grocery stores, this one tends to be cultivated and found in the wild, unless you are lucky to have a wild mushroom farmer at your local farmer’s market. It is nutrient-rich, versatile, and can replace chicken or even fish in numerous dishes.
- Lobster Mushroom - This mushroom, also true to its name, is the perfect non-animal, compassionate, and healthy replacement for lobster meat. Its color, texture, and flavor are all remarkable in how they mimic lobster and even crab meat. The mushroom can be sliced, slivered, or flaked and further seasoned to provide a nutrient-rich and healthy seafood alternative. Like the previous mushrooms, Lobster mushrooms are either harvested in the wild or found at local farmer’s markets.
Wholesome Plant-Based Dairy Substitutes
The following wholesome plant foods are the best way to replace any kind of dairy as they provide rich and creamy textures and can be flavored to resemble sweet, sour, or savory dairy foods:
- Raw Cashews - When raw cashews are soaked and blended with a high-powered blender, they create one of the best and most versatile creamy substances. How much water you add when you blend them will depend on whether you create a milk, cream, yogurt, soft or hard cheese, or ice cream. When some lemon is added, you can get an excellent replacement for sour cream, and when some maple or date syrup is added, you can get a delicious sweet cream. If you add various herbs and spices, along with some lemon or lime, you can make some of the best and most versatile creamy vegan sauces and dressings for your salads and other such meals. If you add soaked raw cashews to some frozen fruit or blend it with some fresh fruit and then freeze it, you can create some of the best non-dairy ice cream combinations. If you obtain some agar, you can even make amazing spreadable cream cheeses using such cashews.
- Raw Almonds - Similar to cashews, when raw almonds are soaked and blended with a high-powered blender, they create one of the best and most versatile creamy substances that can be made into milk, cream, yogurt, soft or hard cheese, or ice cream. The potential is immense, as is the variety of flavors and food uses. The best part is that this type of homemade dairy alternative comes without any of the risks associated with dairy while providing you with lots of protein, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus for your bones, as well as healthy fats.
- Fresh or Dried Coconut - Both of these forms of coconut can also be blended with water to produce all kinds of milk, cream, yogurt, soft or hard cheese, or ice cream. Like with the above-mentioned nuts, how you flavor your mixture will depend on whether you get a mild and neutral-tasting non-dairy alternative, a sour one, a sweet one, or a savory one. The bright white color and rich consistency of coconut make it an ideal dairy replacer. Its higher saturated fat content can also be helpful for young and growing children who require more such fat.
- Avocado - Even though it is green, the soft, creamy, fat-rich, and spreadable nature of avocados makes them a perfect replacement for butter and margarine. Even though the latter is plant-based, it is a very unhealthy and highly processed food product. You can spread a little or a lot of avocado onto a healthy slice of bread and enjoy it topped with lettuce, tomato, other veggie slices, and your choice of one of the meat substitutes from above to make a great-tasting and filling sandwich.
- Nut or Seed Butter - When you would like to create a sweet-tasting sandwich, wrap, or crepe filling, you can replace dairy butter with any nut or seed butter that you enjoy. For example, pure peanut butter or pure almond butter goes great with banana slices. If you want to make a savory sandwich or similar meal type and you don’t want to use avocado, then sesame seed butter, also known as tahini, will provide one of the best dairy butter replacements.
- Soft, Medium, or Firm Tofu - The white color of tofu and neutral flavor mean that you can make it resemble any sweet, sour, or savory dairy food, depending on what you mix it with. Which texture of tofu you choose will depend on what you want to make, but in general, tofu can be made into all kinds of dairy replacements, including ice cream, yogurt, creams, cheeses, and other spreadable foods. Tofu is a great dairy replacer when you want a low-fat and high-protein plant-based option compared to nuts, seeds, and coconut. While nuts and seeds are high in protein, they are also high in fat, whereas coconut is low in protein and high in fat. As shared in the meat substitute section, be sure to choose organic tofu to avoid genetically modified soy and its related health problems.
In general, almost any nut or seed can be used to replace and made into almost any dairy product. The key is to experiment and figure out what works best for you and appeals most to you. You will notice that I did not mention soybeans or soy nuts, aside from mentioning tofu. This is because while you can easily find soy milk, soy yogurt, soy cheese, and soy ice cream in stores today, it is not easy or practical for most people to work directly with soybeans or soy nuts themselves and turn them into such foods. Therefore, tofu provides the closest and most practical way to quickly and easily make your own dairy replacement foods at home from soy.
Wholesome Plant-Based Egg Substitutes
The following wholesome plant foods are the best way to replace eggs as they provide some of the same characteristics that eggs have:
- Medium or Firm Tofu - This type of tofu can be easily made to resemble the texture, flavor, and appearance of scrambled eggs. You can make the tofu scramble take on a firm or runny consistency depending on the tofu form you use. Similar to eggs, tofu is high in protein. However, unlike eggs, which are very high in fat, tofu is naturally low in fat and contains no cholesterol or any other problems associated with eggs. Here is a sample recipe for a tofu scramble, which can be used as a side or as part of a wrap or sandwich, and even made into a tofu-egg salad.
- Chia Seeds - When these seeds are exposed to water by being soaking for a few minutes, they gel together and take on the gelatinous and slimy consistency of raw eggs. The seeds are then able to bind ingredients together when mixed or blended; think of them as binding agents. These features allow the seeds to replace eggs in many recipes for baked goods. They have a neutral flavor that does not interfere with any recipe. Chia eggs work best in recipes that call for no more than 2 eggs; otherwise, they will make the final product too dense. The most common ratio is to use one tablespoon of chia seeds with three tablespoons of water to replace one chicken egg. Stir the chia seeds and water and allow them to sit for about 10 to 15 minutes to form a gel before using it in your recipe. Chia seeds can also bind together gluten-free flours when making crepes or pancakes without any eggs. If you are using a gluten-containing flour, then no eggs or egg replacements are needed to make crepes or pancakes. Ground flax seeds can also be used similarly.
- Unsweetened Apple Sauce - This can be another possible egg replacer for certain baked goods when eggs are called for in the recipe to provide some moisture and light binding properties. To replace one chicken egg, use about 1/4 cup of applesauce. You can also use half of a banana that is fully ripe, soft, and mashed in a similar manner.
- Aquafaba - This is the thick, yellowy liquid found in a can of chickpeas or leftover in the pot after cooking chickpeas. Its properties are unique in that it can act like egg whites and be whipped and added to recipes that would call for such an ingredient. As such, it can replace both egg whites and whole eggs in both stovetop and baked recipes. Here is a resource to learn more about aquafaba - how to make it and how to use it.
When it comes to eggs, there are even recipes for hard-boiled vegan eggs and sunny-side-up vegan eggs. The amazing versatility of whole plant foods provides us with so much potential and so many new and amazing ways to enjoy our food in a way that is in alignment with the needs of our human body and our health.
Optimally Healthy Plant-Based Eating Summary
Even though whole plant foods provide so many ways to replace animal foods in meals and recipes, ideally, we want to aim for not needing to replace them at all. Yes, we got conditioned to view certain animal body parts and excretions as “food,” but with enough education, time, and adjustment, we can easily de-condition ourselves from such views. The most liberated path forward is not to keep looking back at what was and how to replicate it but to adopt a new approach to our food and eating habits.
Aim to place into your shopping basket plant foods that are real, natural, and wholesome, and organic as much as possible. Bringing the right foods home is the first, most important step. The second is to actually use them to make meals and snacks and not fall back on or resort to processed food and fast food. You will be amazed by what you can do with whole plant foods and the infinite ways that you can combine them into mouth-watering, filling, and satisfying meals, snacks, and treats. I provide complete guidance about this in my online video course Cook Real Food - How to make quick, easy, and delicious plant-based meals.
As I shared initially, there is no shortage of plant-based alternatives to common animal foods today. However, to rely on them means to rely on processed food and subject ourselves to health problems associated with high-sodium, high-sugar, and high-fat diets, amongst other things. So we need to be wise in this regard and aim to do the best that we can for our bodies by relying first and foremost on all of the different fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, seeds, and mushrooms that are available. With these incredible plant and fungi food groups, you can be sure that you are making the best nutrition choices for your health and weight.
Just give yourself time to transition, learn, and adapt along every step of the way. You don’t need to rush, and you don’t need to aim for any state of perfection, as such approaches can overwhelm you and derail your efforts. Instead, take it meal by meal, day by day, to convert your old diet of processed foods and animal foods to wholesome plant foods. Get to know your food along the way and develop a healthy relationship with your food, seeing it as the source of nourishment and health that you are gifting yourself by eating what is best for your human body.