Clients new to a whole foods plant based diet commonly ask “What do I shop for and where can I get it?” Grocery shopping can initially seem daunting if you are new to a whole foods plant based diet. Thankfully, increasing consumer demands has resulted in most supermarkets now offering a few shelves of foods that were once only available in health-food shops. Many also carry their own brand of ‘free-from’ options and organic produce. As usual, shop around for the best prices, quality and brands you prefer.
Having your kitchen stocked with healthy, healing food options can make it so much easier to follow through on your decision to eat healthy and to prepare tasty lunch options or a nourishing meal after a busy day. To make your transition more budget-friendly you can choose two or three new foods to buy each week. Think about the meals you want to prepare for the week ahead, and then look around your kitchen to see what you have and jot down a grocery list.
Dry Food Staples: long shelf life
I like to transfer nuts, beans, grains etc. from their plastic packaging into airtight glass jars. It helps to retain freshness and keeps the kitchen presses tidy.
Raw Nuts and Seeds
Choose raw nuts and seeds rather than roasted, salted or sweetened ones. Raw nuts and seeds are a rich source of healthy fats, protein, amino acids, antioxidants and a wide range of vitamins and minerals, plus fibre. They are versatile, satisfying and a nutritious staple ingredient that lend themselves to so many recipes. They make for a tasty snack on their own or can be added to give a creamy texture to smoothies, used in pesto recipes, vegetarian/vegan meat-less loaves or nut burgers, sprinkled on salads, desserts, used in breads and biscuits, to make protein balls or nut butters.
I usually have a good variety of nuts and seeds in the press. The best nuts and seeds include: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chia seeds, hazelnuts, hemp seeds, flax seeds, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and walnuts.
Legumes (pulses): beans, peas and lentils
Beans, peas and lentils are an excellent source of protein that contains both soluble and insoluble fibre and complex carbohydrates. They can easily be used as a main dish or in place of meat in most recipes. They are also very economical, especially when you get into soaking and prepping them yourself. If a tin of Heinz red beans or hummus is as far as you have gone, to date, with legumes then opting for tinned varieties is a good place to start. Later down the road you will want to buy the dried varieties, which definitely taste better.
Some people fear beans due to their reputation for inducing flatulence. Begin by eating small amounts of beans once or twice a week and then gradually increase the quantity. To reduce the incidence of gas, with tinned beans discard the soak water and rinse under clear running water before adding to your recipe. Add herbs and spices that calm the digestive system (carminatives) such as a few bay leaves, ground or fresh ginger, cumin, fennel or cardamom seeds. When using the dried legumes it’s important to pre-soak for the appropriate amount of time, adding baking soda or unrefined sea salt to the soak water and cooking slowly with some carminative herbs or spices helps to remove most of the oligosaccharides that cause flatulence.
Beans are naturally low in fat and provide important nutrients such as calcium, iron, folic acid, magnesium and potassium. Beans are associated with many health benefits related to heart disease, diabetes and cancer.1 There are almost 14,000 species of beans, the most commonly used include the following:
- Adzuki beans: Soups, sweet bean paste, and Japanese and Chinese dishes
- Black beans, also known as turtle beans: Soups, stews, rice dishes and Latin American cuisines, when combined with rice these form a complete protein.
- Black-eyed peas, also known as cowpeas: Salads, casseroles and Southern American cooking
- Borlotti beans, also known as Roman beans, saluggia and rosecoco beans: Mediterranean cuisine
- Cannellini Beans: Tomato-based soups like minestrone and Italian dishes.
- Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans: Casseroles, hummus, Middle Eastern, Spanish and Indian dishes
- Fava beans, also known as broad beans: Stews and side dishes
- Flageolet Beans: French cuisine and in tomato sauces.
- Great Northern beans: Mostly used in baked beans, they easily take on the flavours of other foods they’re cooked with, good in casseroles.
- Lentils, green or red: Soups, stews, salads, side dishes and Indian cuisine
- Lima beans, also known as butter beans: Casseroles, soups and salads
- Navy beans: Baked beans, soups and salads
- Pinto beans: Mexican dishes
- Red kidney beans: Stews, salads, chilli and rice dishes, they are higher in antioxidants than blueberries.
- Split peas: have a mild flavour and go well with garlic, onions, dill, curry and ginger.
Whole grains include breads, oats, barley, cereals, etc. Whole unprocessed grains contain all three edible parts: the germ, endosperm, and bran. Choose whole grain rice and pastas over the white varieties. Brown rice is rich in magnesium (a needed electrolyte) and selenium (a super antioxidant). Millet is one of the most easily digested grains and is high in B vitamins, magnesium and essential amino acids.
Pseudo-grains are seeds that are commonly confused with grains. They are gluten-free, less starchy, and easier to digest. These are: amaranth, buckwheat, wild rice and quinoa.
Gluten-free flour substitutes
A blend of gluten-free flours works better than any one used alone. Quinoa flour contains all essential amino acids making it a complete protein that is also high in calcium, iron and minerals. Amaranth flour is high in protein and is best used in savoury recipes as it has a grassy flavour. Brown rice flour is high in fibre and tastes slightly nutty. Potato flour works as a good binder for ingredients.
Healthy Oils and butters
Minimally processed oils derived from whole foods provide essential healthy fats like Omega-3 and Omega-6. Hemp oil has the highest percentages. Healthy fats support healthy hormones and brain functioning, help keep your immune system strong, fight inflammation and help you burn fat.
For dressings look for cold-pressed unrefined oils such as extra-virgin olive oil, flaxseed or sesame oil, there are many to choose from. All oils have a ‘smoking (flash) point’ that means they will burn and become carcinogenic when they reach a certain temperature. Use avocado oil for cooking; it can safely be heated to 520 F (271 C).
Coconut oil also has a high flash-point for cooking and baking. Although coconut oil is high in saturated fat it is also rich in medium chain triglycerides which are readily are readily burned for energy. Always look for virgin coconut oil instead of refined versions, which can be partially or fully hydrogenated, thereby negating any positive health benefits. Coconut oil is anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal.
- Sautéing: Use water or vegetable broth.
- Baking: Apple sauce or mashed beans can be used in place of oil, using a 1:1 ratio. Use what you have or go by colour, for example use black beans in brownies or white beans in banana bread.
Herbs and Spices
Herbs and spices offer many health benefits. They are nutrient dense foods that can add seasonal flavours and interest to your recipes. Dried herbs and spices retain their optimal flavour for up to a year, after which they begin to lose their potency. Store them away from direct light, heat and moisture. If you are new to using herbs start by using small amounts to see what you like. As you discover which herbs and spices you favour most you will intuitively know which herbs and how much to use in your favourite recipes.
General guidelines to using culinary herbs and spices:
- Never use more than 3 herbs in any one dish.
- Don’t mix two strong herbs together; rather mix one strong herb or spice with one or two milder ones for a nice balance of flavours.
- The more subtle the flavour of the food the less herbs are required.
- Dried herbs are more concentrated than fresh herbs, and powdered herbs are more concentrated than flaked herbs. Add dried herbs and spices early in the cooking process to allow more of their flavour to develop. If using fresh herbs, chop the leaves very fine to release more of the oils and flavours. Add fresh herbs near the end of cooking or they can become too bitter.
- Never cook with cayenne or other peppers, instead add just before serving. When pepper is cooked the molecular structure changes, so it becomes an inorganic irritant (as high heat changes the cayenne, black pepper, and spices from organic to inorganic), and this is the only time when damage results.
Alternatives to Refined Table Salt
Sodium plays an important role in maintaining the body’s hydration levels, electrolyte balance and blood pressure. It also assists with proper muscle contraction and the transmission of nerve impulses. Refined salt contains anti-caking agents that can prevent sodium from dissolving with the water and fluids in your body, which can cause it to build up in your organs and tissues.
Look for unrefined sea salt or Himalayan pink salt, both of which contain minerals such as magnesium, copper, potassium, iron, zinc and calcium. Sodium occurs naturally in most plants and most processed foods contain added salt. If you have been advised to lower your salt intake try combining coarsely ground pepper and savoury herbs with powdered kelp.
Refined white sugar has no nutritional value and is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, it produces a rush that triggers the pancreas to try and re-balance sugar-levels in the blood. Too much sugar over-activates the pancreas, absorbs calcium from your bones and teeth that later gets deposited in your muscles, arteries, joints and major organs, which causes inflammation and can lead to arthritis or osteoporosis. Sugar lowers immunity and creates imbalances throughout your body.
All sugar alternatives are sugar and will have similar negative effects, use them sparingly as you wean yourself off refined sugars.
Most brown sugars are caramelised white sugar. Honey is higher in sugar content than refined sugar. Organic blackstrap molasses is made from the ingredients removed from sugar before refinement, it provides iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, and is alkalising to the body. Coconut palm sugar is a minimally refined sugar that is rich in magnesium, potassium and zinc. Stevia is a leaf extract that is 250 to 300 times sweeter than sugar and is an excellent alternative to artificial sweeteners. Agave is an unrefined sweetener that is high in fructose and is 50% sweeter than sugar.
If you are switching to a plant-based diet it can be frustrating trying to find something to replace the power of eggs to bind ingredients together. Depending on whether you are making a sweet or savoury recipe some of the following options are good substitutes.
In place of one egg use:
- 1 tablespoon of Chia seeds with 3 tablespoon water (best)
- 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed meal with 3 tablespoon water
- 1 tablespoon arrowroot flour mixed with 3 tablespoons of water.
- ½ mashed banana
- ¼ cup applesauce or pureed fruit
- ¼ cup mashed lightly steamed potatoes
Some Dairy Alternatives
- Milk: Almond, oat, coconut, hazelnut, hemp or rice milk.
- Parmesan cheese: Nutritional yeast
- Cheese: Nut-based cheese alternatives or nutritional yeast.
- Butter: Coconut butter, tahini, nut butters
- Ricotta cheese: Firm organic tofu, drained and crumbled.
Top of my list are dark leafy greens, which I consider to be the most medicinal of foods. These include: Arugula, bok choy, butter lettuce, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, endive lettuce, kale, mustard greens, romaine lettuce, green and red oak leaf lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens, and watercress. Eat leafy greens on a daily basis for high levels of chlorophyll which helps builds blood and increases the levels of oxygen in the body. They are full of B vitamins and minerals to feed the nervous system. They provide us with a host of nutrients and beneficial health actions.
Another green food I love is avocados. They are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and contain nearly 20 vitamins and minerals.
Select a good variety of vegetables to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs. Asparagus, beets, carrots, cauliflower, peppers, sweet potatoes, turnips and parsnips, courgettes, celery, garlic, ginger, onions and tomatoes to name a few. Opt for seasonal, local and if possible organic.
Eat at least one serving of fruit a day to add fibre, vitamin C and beta carotene to your intake. Berries, citrus fruits, melons, apples, pears and bananas are all good choices. Buy fresh or frozen. Dried fruits such as goji are full of energy, figs and prunes are cleansing so don’t overdo them.
Discovering whole, plant based foods can be a delicious adventure. Some whole foods take getting used to, but as your palette is cleansed you will begin to notice more subtle flavours and your tastes will change. So many overly refined foods contain trace chemicals that enhance sweet, salty and umami flavours and mask bitter and sour ones. The real benefits of a whole foods plant-based diet come when you start experiencing improved health and energy levels.
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