Have you fallen into the habit of getting quick meals on the go? Not paying much attention to what food groups you're eating or missing in your diet? Or eating the same things all the time with no diversity in your diet?
If you're wondering where to focus your efforts moving to a more plant-based way of eating, one thing that may help you develop healthier eating habits is to think about foods as groups of foods. It’s not overwhelming to start to nudge your diet in a healthier direction when you think about categories of foods that you should eat everyday. It also helps you more easily make sure that your meals are balanced.
The Categories of Foods You Should Be Conscious of Eating
There are a couple ways to begin learning about all the different plant-foods out there and how to balance them all. If you’re just staring out and trying to get more healthy whole food plants onto your plate, first start to think of the general categories listed below, and as a minimum, get one serving from each everyday.
Nuts & Seeds
After you become familiar with these, they can be broken down further into more detail, for example, like the colours of your foods. You know, how everyone says “eat the rainbow”? It’s true we should eat the rainbow, and all the colours in plant foods contain different antioxidants and plant compounds that our body needs. You want to keep things simple though to start, so get to know what is in each of these categories.
To help new eating habits take root, start by adding foods before you take any away.
It’s also good to know that just adding foods to your plate, before you actually take away or replace anything can be easier, and it’s a good way to start. Of course if you’re a little more all-in and want to replace things right away, feel free! Although there are exceptions to every rule, know that habits that stick around for a lifetime are usually built up one day at a time through being consistent, not with radical change.
Right now, let's look at these major food groupings as a start to becoming a healthier plant-based eater.
There are a lot of different types of grains out there, so there are lots of choices. Look for ‘whole’ grains. Whole grains are one of the foundations of healthy eating. Whole grains are complete, nutrition-wise, containing three parts (bran, germ and endosperm). Refined grains are not complete and don’t contain all three nutritious parts, only the endosperm.
Whole grains contain vitamins, minerals, nutrients and fiber. A diet high in whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Aim to eventually eat three servings a day. A serving would be 1/2 cup of hot cereal or any other cooked grains, as well as pastas. It could also be 1 cup of cold cereal or 1 slice of whole wheat bread.
Rice falls in this category, and there are many types of rice to start with. We love sprouted brown rice, wild rice and riceberry rice. We first encountered riceberry rice when we lived in Thailand, but since see that it’s available in Hong Kong, and I’ve seen it in the US too. It cooks just as easily as jasmine rice. We recently found brown sprouted basmati rice too at a local Indian grocery.
A short list of other whole grains that we rotate and use often include:
Oats (steel cut & rolled are good, stay away from instant oatmeal which is more processed)
Quinoa (technically a seed and also a complete protein)
Whole Wheat Pastas
The category of legumes is what I’ve seen missing most often in my client’s diets. It’s a big vacancy, as it’s a really filling and extremely nutritious food group. There are thousands of different types of legumes, with about a dozen being commonly used.
Technically legumes are a type of plant, versus pulses being the seeds of some of those plants. In this category are your peas, beans and lentils. They are a source of fiber, carbs and protein. In other words they are a perfect package of nutrition and should be on everyone’s plate, every day, for optimum nutrition.
Pretty much fat free too, and with zero cholesterol, they are my number one pick for those trying to get healthier and/or loose weight.
Split peas, tofu and tempeh are included here, as is hummus (made from chickpeas).
Legumes are particularly good for your gut, because they are high in the resistant type of fiber. This is a fiber that doesn’t break down until it reaches your gut. Then all the good bacteria in your gut feasts on the fiber, and more good gut bacteria is encouraged to develop.
Because the fiber doesn’t break down until it reaches your gut, you stay full longer, which really helps any weight loss aspirations.
Some people find beans difficult to digest. This is usually because they haven’t been eating them often, so there’s not enough of that good bacteria already there to easily digest them. The solution here, is to get your body used to them by eating a small amount every day, and gradually increase the quantity over time. But have that small quantity often, not seldom, try starting with a tablespoon at first before working up to a serving size of a 1/2 cup of cooked beans. Work your way up to three servings (1.5 cups) of beans or other legumes per day.
Some of our favourite beans include:
Christmas Lima Beans
Scarlet Runner Beans
This one is pretty standard. I think most of us are conscious of trying to eat vegetables every day, yet they may not make up a significant part of our daily diet. If you are already conscious of this, there is another, more focused way to look at it, that can start to up your overall nutrient intake. Try to eat three categories of vegetables every day to get a share of the best types of vegetables in your diet. These categories would be leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables and ‘other’ vegetables.
If you don’t normally get all three of these categories every day on a consistent basis, start with trying to eat at least one serving of each category.
Leafy greens include kale, cabbage, arugula, romaine and beet greens. One serving would be one cup raw or a half cup cooked. Try to work up to two servings per day eventually.
Cruciferous vegetables include cauliflower, broccoli, bok choy and Brussel sprouts. A serving would be a half cup, chopped. Brussel or broccoli sprouts count here as well, and a serving would be a quarter cup.
Other vegetables outside these two categories would include the following:
A serving of these vegetables would be one cup raw or a half cup cooked. Try to get up to two servings per day eventually here, just like the leafy greens.
This is the other category that I think most people are also already conscious to try to eat everyday. We therefore divide this category into two subcategories that we eat every day: berries and other fruits.
If you haven’t been consciously thinking about eating your fruits every day, try to start by adding a half cup serving of fresh or frozen berries every day in addition to one cup of chopped ‘other’ fruit. If eating a whole fruit, that also counts as a serving. Eventually work your way up to three servings of fruit outside the single serving of berries.
Berries have a lot of phytonutrients, which are antioxidants. In particular, blueberries are known as a health powerhouse. That’s because of the anthocyanin, a type of antioxidant that is especially concentrated in their skins. One interesting thing, is that the smaller the blueberry, the more anthocyanin because there is a higher skin to flesh ratio. The skins are more concentrated with these anthocyanin antioxidants. It’s what gives red wine it’s color, and what gives red wine it’s healthier (than white at least) heart benefits. So the moral of this explanation is to look for smaller blueberries, particularly wild blueberries if you can find them.
Fruits have lots of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants as well as fiber. They also have a high water content, so they are great for weight loss and helping you feel full because of the fiber and water. They are a great source of natural sugar. One fruit we love eating in the summertime is frozen seedless grapes - they taste just like a little pop of sorbet in your mouth and are very satisfying!
To inspire you beyond the most commonly eaten fruits (banana, apples, oranges) here’s a short list to get more variety on your plate:
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds are the last category to eat every day. Don’t overdo this category. Aim for a quarter cup of nuts or seeds per day. If looking for benefits of nuts verses seeds, they each contain different advantages and it's best to mix it up a little everyday, getting some of each. With all the other categories, it's preferred to eat more than a single serving, but not with nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds are high in fat, so you don’t want to over do it.
You can also include nut flours and butters in this category to keep it interesting. With the butters, be sure to either make your own, or buy a brand without added sugar, oil, salt or preservatives.
There also is one type of seed that I’d single out from other seeds. That is flax seed. In addition to the quarter cup of any other nut or seed, try to add in one tablespoon of ground flaxseed to your eating routine everyday.
Flax seeds are one of the richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which we don’t often have enough of in our diets. There’s also a host of protective abilities and benefits that flax seeds have, such as having about one hundred times more cancer fighting lignins that other foods. They also have been shown to control cholesterol and keep blood sugar levels in check as well as reducing inflammation.
So there are the main categories of foods to eat every day. You can further ingrain the habit as part of your routine if you note this list every day in your diary, and make sure you check off at least one in eat category. Best if you can get more than one serving of all except the nuts and seeds. But start somewhere, and hold yourself accountable to make progress. Serving suggestions that we follow and recommend are from one of my favorite nutrition sources, Dr. Greger.
If you'd like a more detailed list of foods to keep in your pantry while eating a plant-based diet, sign up for our mailing list and get a free copy of our pantry checklist HERE.
Stay tuned for more, as we continue mixing our nutrition knowledge with practical culinary knowledge to help you better manage getting more plants on you plate!