Embracing a diet of plant-based foods and fewer animal products is “healthy, sustainable, and good for both people and planet”, says the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health. But while meat is known as an important source of nutrients, such as protein, iron and B12, is it possible to get the equivalent value from plant-based alternatives?
“Yes, but it depends how you do it,” says Priya Tew, director of Dietitian UK. Relying on ultra-processed ready meals or plant-based “meatballs”, say, is not going to be nutritionally superior to meat. In fact, adds Tew, “that can be worse”. Instead, adopt a variety of plant-based sources – fruit, vegetables, legumes, soya, wholegrains, pulses, nuts, seeds – and cook as much as you can from scratch, which, of course, requires some planning. Here’s a start: easy ways to swap animal protein for plant-based alternatives.
Tofu is a versatile and nutritious meat substitute, and the top choice for Tew and Dr Shireen Kassam, founder and director of Plant-based Health Professionals UK. “It contains a good range of nutrients, such as calcium and iron, and it’s a great protein source,” says Tew. Happily, this simple soya bean product comes in various forms, meaning there’s a tofu for every occasion: plain and firm (for stews and stir-fries); custardy silken (think sauces, “mayos”, scrambles), smoked (add to salads), fermented (eat as a condiment).
Variety is, of course, the spice of life, and this goes for protein, too. “If you’re using chickpeas, which aren’t a complete protein, you’re going to be missing one or two of the essential amino acids that our body needs,” says Tew. This isn’t necessarily a problem, though, if you’re eating a range of sources – tofu, nuts, seeds, for example – throughout the week: “You’ll catch yourself up on all the protein and amino acids you require.”. Make friends with lentils and beans too, whether that’s adding the former to a pasta sauce or the latter to a casserole. “People assume a plant-based diet means a vegan diet, and it doesn’t have to,” adds Tew. “You can use less meat and add these additional plant proteins and benefits in.”
Deep-fried firm tofu might make a fine alternative to white fish for a chippy night, but consider why fish is helpful in our diet in the first place. “It’s a source of omega-3 fatty acids and particularly the long-chain DHA and EPA. However, there is conflicting data on that, so it’s not clear how useful those sources are,” says Dr Shireen Kassam, founder and director of Plant-based Health Professionals UK. “Fish get those DHA and EPA from microalgae and other sea vegetables, so we can do the same.” So, get those essential omega-3 fatty acids by incorporating flax, chia and hemp seeds, leafy greens, walnuts and soya into your meals.
You may think the biggest hurdle for a cheese substitute is the taste, but you also need to pay attention to what’s on the label of a plant-based cheese: “Some are based on coconut oil, so that’s not going to provide anywhere near the same nutrition as cheddar,” says Tew. “If you’re just using cheese as a flavour, then it doesn’t really matter, but if you need it as a protein source, you may want to add nutritional yeast flakes or sprinkle nuts and seeds on top.” Artisan nut cheeses are worth considering but, says Kassam, be wary of the salt and fat content – and don’t have them every day.
Last year, the research agency Mintel found that nearly one-third of Britons drink non-dairy milks, so it’s hardly surprising just how many options there are: soya, oat, nut, rice, coconut, pea. “Soya milk followed by oat and pea are probably considered the most healthy and sustainable,” says Kassam – just make sure they’re fortified. “They don’t always have calcium, iodine and B12 added, so it’s important to check the label,” adds Tew. For children, Tew says it’s worth remembering that plant-based milks aren’t equivalent to cow’s. “They’re lower in fat, and often lower in protein. With oat milk, for example, I’d recommend a higher-fat version because children have additional needs for growth and development.”
“You tend to be able to do a straight swap,” says Tew. “We don’t rely on yoghurt as we rely on milk – children can be drinking milk quite a bit.” For Kassam, soya is hard to better, and she picks the pots that are unsweetened, calcium fortified and, if it’s your thing, with live cultures.
Eggs are high in protein, and a source of some B vitamins, vitamin D and iron (to name a few); from a cooking point of view, they give structure, moisture, and bind ingredients. What alternative you go for – aquafaba (AKA chickpea water) for “mayo”, mashed banana, or soaked flax/chia seeds for bakes –really depends on what you’re making. Kassam might knock up a tofu scramble (an 80g serving of tofu has 6g protein, is low in saturated fat, and contains choline, selenium, and iron)or a chickpea flour “omelette”, but, again, look at the bigger picture. “The overall quality of the diet is far more important than any individualcontribution by a single food.”