How to Be Healthy: The Basics

Read the updated version this post: How to Be Healthy: The 6 Basic Principles

I do my best to post new information on a regular basis to keep educating you all about nutrition and health as well as myself, but these are the basics that can help you get started on a plant-based lifestyle.

Focus on Whole Foods

Being a vegetarian doesn’t make an individual automatically healthier than a non-vegetarian. While studies show that vegetarians (strict and ovo-lacto) do have a smaller average BMI than that of non-vegetarians, it is not uncommon to find overweight vegetarians. A lower BMI does not necessarily signify a person is healthier, even though health and BMI are often correlated.

Focus needs to be placed on eating whole, minimally processed foods. For example, there are many vegetarian-friendly options at the grocery store that are still unhealthy. One of the best known examples is Oreos. Oreos have long claimed to be without animal products. However, this is not something that anybody should consume on a regular basis. First of all, the first ingredient on the package is sugar. That means the most prominent ingredient in Oreos is refined white sugar, unsurprisingly. Here are the other processed products in the ingredients list: unbleached enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate {vitamin B1}, riboflavin {vitamin B2}, folic acid), high oleic canola and/or palm and/or cocoa (processed with alkali), high fructose corn syrup, leavening (baking soda and/or calcium phosphate), cornstarch, salt, soy lecithin, vanillin–an artificial flavor, chocolate. Secondly, there isn’t even a set recipe. There are a lot of ‘and/or’-s in there to have a set list. So if they run out of one ingredient, they use another on hand. Great stuff, huh? Another thing that is distasteful is the presence of artificial flavors.

So while it may be comforting to have non-dairy butter, cheese, and yogurt and eat chicken, steak, and egg replacements at first to transition into a strict-vegetarian lifestyle, none of these foods promote health. They are only slightly better than their counterparts. Despite that they may contain less cholesterol in them, they are more processed and oftentimes flavorings and additives are mixed in to create the texture and appearance that consumers expect.

Focus on Macronutrient Ratios

Read Macronutrients for more in-depth details about macronutrient information, what macronutrients are and more; for now I will give you the basics. Macronutrient ratios will change depending upon your age, body, current diet and activity levels, but the ratios I give work as an outline for all typical adults. Pregnant women, children, and teens will have to alter these recommendations to fit their bodies a better, specifically with more fat and protein.

  • Carbohydrates: 70-80% of daily calories
  • Protein: 10-20% of daily calories
  • Fat: 10% of daily calories

One thing that many people going vegetarian don’t do is lower their fat intake level.  Instead of decreasing the fat they consume, they just change the type. Ovo-lacto vegetarians can replace meat fat with more eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese among other products. Strict vegetarians can replace animal fats with oils, nuts, seeds, nut butters, and soy replacements.  None of these fats mentioned are inherently bad. They can all be incorporated into a healthy diet and all can have negative health effects when had in the wrong amounts. It all depends upon the quantity in which they are eaten and how often.

Don’t Rule Any Food Out

One of the reasons that some vegetarians quit the lifestyle is because they make absolute rules for themselves. Strict vegetarians may tell themselves they are not allowed to have meat, eggs, honey, yogurt, pizza, ice cream, fish, etc. ever again. They rule out certain products for good because of arbitrary rules that fit the label have chosen to live by. They say they CAN’T eat this and CAN’T have that. Their choices focus about what they cannot do. This can be a mental struggle for individuals because if they absolutely cannot have something, it almost always makes it more desirable. Instead, focus on what you can nourish yourself with.

On a whole-foods, plant-based diet nothing is ever against the rules. While moderation can be very difficult for many people because of the inherent question of “How much can I have?”, it is the healthier mentality to have about diet. The majority of what we eat should be provisions that promote well-being like vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruit. Seeds or other fats are encouraged to be included in small amounts every day. Animal products can be added in the diet a few times a week in small servings.

There are products and dishes that I will probably never have again; nonetheless that is my personal choice. CHOICE. I have chosen to not trash my body with some of the particularly bad processed food available for purchase. If I ever wanted to eat something like a handful of M&Ms, I could do that.  That type of food would be a very rare experience for me–I wouldn’t be doing that on a daily or even weekly basis.

Enjoy What You Eat

For some reason, many people say they cannot be vegetarian or plant-based because they don’t like beans. I’m not sure what they think people following a WFPB diet eat, however it sure isn’t beans and iceberg lettuce all day! Yes, legumes (which include beans) are a great staple on a WFPB diet, but that doesn’t mean you need to just have beans. Lentils are legumes. Chickpeas are legumes. Cowpeas, peanuts, lima beans and soy beans are all legumes. I would be highly skeptical if a person told me that they didn’t like any sort of legume. Even though beans are a fantastic staple on plant-based diet, they aren’t necessary

Many individuals have trouble taking in the recommended amount of produce each day, especially vegetables. Nonetheless, more are inclined to include daily vegetables and fruit if there is some added salt or sugar. While added salt and refined sugars need to be minimized in a WFPB diet, the first thing that needs to happen is start eating healthier foods. Cutting out both salt and sugar and adding lots of vegetables that are disliked to a diet make meals feel more like punishment than an enjoyable task. Eating healthy shouldn’t be a chore. It should make you feel happy and enthusiastic. So if you are one of those individuals that doesn’t like peas without some salt or fresh strawberries without some sugar, go for it! Simply start choosing vegetables and fruit; once eating healthy becomes habit then start to wean off added sugar and salt.

As a last note on this topic, make the meals you love. There is no need to be without lasagna or tacos or pasta. These selections can be made healthier by simply making a few switches to the ingredients. Lasagna can be made with whole wheat noodles or zucchini noodles and a chickpea spread adds creaminess to lasagna without the fat and cholesterol of cheese. Use lentils or beans for the base of tacos instead of beef, cut out the cheese and tacos are instantly healthier. Pasta is easily made more nutritious by substituting white pasta for whole grain pasta like whole wheat, brown rice or buckwheat and getting creative with an Alfredo sauce (like using cauliflower!) or use a meat-less marinara.

Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

Numerous people trying to become heathy and lose weight turn to calorie restriction in order to drop the pounds. While this can be an effective means for losing weight, people oftentimes gain all the weight back and more after they are finished with their “diet” and return to eating the same foods they did before. Getting healthy and thin cannot be quickly done with a temporary diet.  Permanent results mean permanent changes need to occur. A switch to not only a WFPB diet but also lifestyle ensures that results are long-term given an individual keeps following that lifestyle. The WFPB lifestyle doesn’t restrict calories; it allows people to eat as much as they want of food that is nutritious and health-promoting.

Provided you focus on nourishing yourself with whole plant selections like spinach, strawberries, tomatoes, lentils, brown rice, etc., you will not have to worry about calories and how much you intake. Your body will tell you what the proper amount is and when it is full. There is no need to preoccupy yourself with worries of overeating when meals are highly nutrient-dense. More care needs to be exercised with processed selections like pasta because it is not as dense in vitamins and minerals for the amount of energy it provides compared to a minimally-processed potato, for example.

While calorie counting creates a negative mentality about food consumption, caloric density and nutrient density need to be kept in mind when choosing meals and snacks. The best foods are full of vitamins, nutrients, water and fiber though are not calorically dense. Many people have a habit of eating with their eyes without considering energy content or nutrients. So while a large bowl of salad is a lot of volume, it may contain only 100-200 calories with a fat-free dressing. The same bowl filled with plain pasta could easily triple that or be over 1,000 calories if oils and cheese are added. Many people don’t recognize the difference and thus change consumption accordingly. By picking meals that are less calorie-dense and more nutrient-dense we feel as if we are consuming more energy because of the increased volume and water content when in reality we are actually taking in less calories.

Our stomachs rely more on volume and less on calories to make us feel full. So if you drank 800 calories worth of oil, your body would be confused because of the high caloric content with low volume. On the other hand, you will feel more satisfied if you eat a high volume of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains with fewer calories. Getting more volume and nutrients per calorie encourages health and weight management.

Power Through It

It takes time for taste buds, taste, and food preferences to change from unhealthy to healthy. One example of this is my boyfriend. He has always been thin, but he used to love peanut butter and eat unhealthfully. He still enjoys the taste of peanut butter yet because his body has learned to prefer nourishment that contains a large amount of carbohydrates and low amount of fats; it is not enjoyable for him to ingest a large amount of peanut butter at a time. In addition, he detests his daily brazil nut (for selenium) because a very large percentage of its calories come from fat. He eats the Brazil nut for nutritional purposes, though he hates the taste. He complains it tastes like butter. You too can change your taste preferences. It will take time; nonetheless over weeks, months and years you can learn to prefer and maybe even crave healthy foods instead of junky ones.

While there is no set time it takes for good habits to form, a general consensus is that we start to become accustomed to new habits after around 3 weeks. I can attest that the first month of being plant-based was the hardest. I didn’t care much for meat before I switched, but nevertheless there were foods that I missed and routines I had that needed to be changed.  It was different for me to ask what ingredients the products contained. When I went on a family road trip during the first week of my switch, I was exhausted of looking at dozens of ingredient lists and looking up nutritional information online for dishes in restaurants we ate at (or ate from in the case of fast food).

After over a year and a half of eating plant-based, I do not notice the small things that used to be hassles before. Checking labels has become routine to check for animal products and also determine the healthiness of the product by looking for acceptable sodium levels, added sweeteners, the number of ingredients and oils. I have not only become accustomed to the routine, it is something that I want to do now because my health has become a larger priority throughout my plant-based life.

  • Updated a couple of years ago
Sara Binde

Sara is a health and nutrition coach. She advocates for a whole foods plant-based lifestyle and teaches the world how to achieve weight loss.