Starting from the day we were born—long before we can remember—our parents gave us food to eat. It began with milk, but it soon moved beyond that. And it’s a good bet that our parents gave us the kind of food their parents gave them, which would have been much the same as what their parents fed them before that. Our earliest food experiences tend to be guided by the preferences of our parents and so our food choices today are influenced by what we grew up experiencing as the “norm.”
Old food traditions tend to die hard. A heavy, hot, cooked European-style Christmas lunch is still a staple in many Australian homes even though it’s consumed in the middle of summer. And in Singapore, where it’s hot and humid all year round, having the family gather around cooking food by dipping it into a boiling pot of broth over a constant flame, like a fondue, is the norm, especially during Chinese New Year celebrations. We are creatures of habit. We know what foods we enjoy eating, and we don’t like to stray from that unless it’s necessary. And sometimes, we simply don’t see some food items as an option, because they’re not part of our normal choices: You may walk straight past the dragonfruit at your local supermarket, because you simply have no idea what to do with it.
But sometimes issues arise in our lives that can cause us to change our food choices to something different from what they’ve always been.
This might be because of a medical diagnosis. For example, people who are found to be lactose intolerant have to look into milk alternatives such as soy milk or almond milk to see which one works best for them. Others may discover that they’re gluten intolerant, and they have to learn to enjoy substitutes for breads, biscuits and pastries. Then there are those who choose to follow a plant-based diet because of a change in their religious faith, their newly formed convictions about the mistreatment of animals, a particular health reason or simply because of a personal choice.
Fortunately, in today’s world there are a variety of substitutes for meat that can make the switch to a plant-based diet much easier.
From meat to vegetables
Most people don’t follow a totally meat-based diet. Rather, they eat both plant and animal foods, with plant foods usually making up the bulk of their diet. So in theory, making the jump from a meat-based diet to a vegetarian one shouldn’t be that hard. After all, only one food group changes. How hard can that be?
One of the problems is that people who include meat in their diet generally use it as the base for their meals. The classic, quick, no-fuss meal for many is a cut of meat plus three vegetables—the idea of a meal being just the three vegetables doesn’t seem very desirable. Furthermore, such a meal can be nutritionally unbalanced for those who aren’t familiar with vegetarian cooking.
This is where meat substitutes can help. These products typically use vegetable proteins or ingredients such as beans, and they’re designed to mimic the taste, texture and nutritional content of meat while avoiding the problems that are associated with its consumption. Meat analogues such as veggie sausages, veggie patties, veggie schnitzels and even veggie “bacon” are all available for plant-based eaters who are looking for nutritious alternatives to meat.
These products have often been made of refined proteins such as soy or wheat gluten to give them a chewy, meaty texture, with colour and plant-based or artificial flavours used to approximate the taste of meat. Today’s products also include a wider range of ingredients based on whole foods, such as brown rice, black beans and grated vegetables. The homogenous brown lump that used to pass for a veggie patty is, thankfully, now a thing of the past.
Beyond their ability to satisfy the desire for a certain taste and texture, many meat analogue products are also fortified with key nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12, making them a convenient alternative for people who are new to a plant-based diet. A quick meal of veggie sausages can be a stress-free alternative for those looking to move away from meat but aren’t yet confident on how to replace the nutrients they were getting from meat in their previous diet.
Despite research proving the health benefits of a vegetarian diet, the consumption of meat is still very much part of mainstream culture. Healthy eating guidelines around the world often encourage including “meat or alternatives” as part of a meal, but incorporating meat alternatives into the diet still requires new skills and knowledge.
Legumes, nuts, seeds and eggs are all considered suitable alternatives to meat when looking to ensure nutrition balance is maintained. While a good source of protein, iron and zinc, most people still balk at the idea of a meal that consists of beans and three vegetables. It can be even more confusing working out just what they’re supposed to do with nuts and seeds and how to put them into a meal.
Eat more than one serving of [legumes] per day to maximise the benefits from these nutrient powerhouses.
And in spite of the strong reasons why they’ve chosen to omit meat from their diets, many still miss the taste and way of cooking they’re most familiar with, even if they now fundamentally object to it. And for those who want to keep including their meat-eating friends and relatives in their meal gatherings, meat analogues provide an easy middle ground that potentially suits everyone.
Meeting your nutritional needs
Of the key nutrients that must be accounted for by those who omit meat from their diets (zinc, iron and vitamin B12), vitamin B12 is especially important, because it’s found only in animal products such as meat, poultry, dairy and eggs. But this doesn’t mean that meat is needed in the diet. The majority of vegetarians use dairy products and eggs, and they don’t need to worry about getting enough vitamin B12 (see box on page 11). Even if you choose a vegan diet—one that doesn’t include any animal products—there are alternative sources of food products, such as soy milk and Marmite®, that are fortified with vitamin B12.
Nutritionists generally recommend that an average adult consume one serving per day of meat or meat alternatives, which equates to one-third cup of nuts or legumes, such as beans, lentils, split peas and chickpeas, or two small eggs. You don’t have to consume everything at one meal either. Adding nuts to a stir-fry at lunch and chickpeas to a curry at dinner will enable you to meet your daily nutritional needs. The good news is that legumes also count as a vegetable, so you can eat more than one serving of these per day to maximise the benefits from these nutrient powerhouses.
The move from a meat-based diet to a plant-based one doesn’t have to be difficult or intimidating. Just be sure that you’re getting enough of the nutritious plant foods found in the meat alternatives and be aware of the products that can help you make the transition. By doing so you’ll reap the many health benefits of a plant-based diet while avoiding the pitfalls that come with poorly planned diets of any variety.
A word about vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that’s needed to maintain good health, but it isn’t found in plant foods. The only natural sources are meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. However, it’s still possible to get adequate B12 from plant-based foods by choosing those that have been fortified with vitamin B12. These include fortified soy and other nondairy milks and fortified meat analogues such as veggie sausages. These are all convenient ways for plant-based eaters to meet their daily vitamin B12 needs. Keep in mind, however, that not all of these products are fortified with B12, so check product nutrition labels. Finally, vitamin B12 supplements and injections are also available, but do make sure you speak with your doctor before beginning supplements. Finally, if you choose to follow a completely plant-based diet, you might also find it helpful to discuss your nutritional needs with a professional who can help you to determine which sources of vitamins and nutrients are the best option for you.