There are many good reasons to choose a plant-based diet: improvement of health, increased energy, better appearance, and prevention or healing of chronic diseases. And it’s not only your physical health that benefits – your brain likes plants too. It’s been shown that a clearer mind, improved mental capacity, improved mental performance, and decreased anxiety and depression are often the results of maintaining a plant-based lifestyle. Over 225 years ago, Benjamin Franklin, a frequently criticized vegetarian, said that he was rewarded with “greater clearness of head and quicker comprehension.”
“Your diet will impact your thinking, the way your body feels, and your mood.”
When you think about it, your brain is always on. It works hard day and night managing your movements, thoughts, breathing, and heartbeat, among other things. Because of this, it needs a constant supply of fuel–the right fuel. This comes from the food you eat, and the type of food you select will make all the difference. It will impact your thinking, the way your body feels, and will even affect your mood.
Studies show that traditional Mediterranean and Japanese diets result in the risk of depression being 25% to 35% lower than the typical “Western” diet. [i] These more traditional diets tend to be high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains which are unprocessed and nutrient-rich. They also tend to be low in refined sugar. A typical western diet is often high in refined sugars which promotes inflammation and impairs the body’s regulation of insulin. The western diet is also harmful to the brain and can worsen symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.
You may think that moving to a plant-based diet is a great idea, but it can be downright overwhelming as you wonder where to start. I myself faced this dilemma as I desired to move from a cheese-laden, vegetarian diet to a planted-based diet. For me, the biggest obstacle was my memory of some plant-based meals that were bland or even horrific. If I couldn’t enjoy my food, then a plant-based diet would not be a lifestyle that was sustainable. After all, who likes rubber pancakes, dry, crumbly carrot cake, or a mushy, flavorless casserole? However, over time, I found some wonderful recipes and also learned how to turn some of my old favorites into new favorites as I learned how to adapt them.
So, how do you eat only plants and maintain a balanced diet? It’s important to first understand the basics of food. There are three categories of calories: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Many whole foods contain all three, but usually more of one than the others.
Carbohydrates are the ideal source of energy for our bodies to use instead of protein and fat because they can most easily be converted to glucose, the form of sugar that is transported and utilized by the body. There are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates include starch and dietary fiber that slows down the uptake of sugar and thus sustains the body longer. Simple carbohydrates are naturally found in fruits and vegetables, but also found in refined foods such as white bread, sweets, and soda. Eating refined and processed carbohydrates stripped of dietary fiber can cause health risks such as type 2 diabetes. Healthy complex carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes. It is recommended that one consume 60-65% of one’s calories from carbohydrates. This is obviously against the common “diet” culture of low carbs, but, over time, those diets are quite dangerous, because, if you are not eating carbohydrates, all that is left are proteins and fats. Proteins and fats eaten in excess lead to most of the diseases of Western lifestyle (think heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, hypertension, peripheral vascular disease, and even cancer).
Another essential component of a balanced diet is protein. While many believe that sufficient protein cannot be provided by a vegetarian or vegan diet, this is a common myth. You can get plenty of protein without meat, eggs, and dairy. For example, one cup of black beans contains 15 grams of protein. Humans need 45-55 grams of protein per day. It is recommended that no more than 15% of daily intake of calories come from protein.
There might be a few people that look at plant-based protein sources and tell you that you’re eating incomplete proteins. The problem with the complete/incomplete protein concern is this: it assumes we only eat one type of food. While it’s tempting to want to combine these “incomplete” proteins to form a whole, the truth is, there is no need to combine protein sources within a given meal. Our bodies pool the amino acids (building blocks of protein) we need as we eat them, and we use them when needed. You’ll be just fine, as long as you eat a variety of protein-containing foods on a daily basis. Most people are aware that plant-based proteins include soy foods like tofu, tempeh, and soybeans, but a lot of protein is derived from beans, legumes and even whole grains.
The last category is fat. Choose healthy unsaturated fats such as avocados, olives, oils, nuts, and seeds. Fats should provide 20-25% of total daily calories.
As your food lifestyle evolves to a simpler, whole foods, and plant-based lifestyle, I would encourage you to read food labels so that you can make informed decisions without being tricked. One of the best tips may be to completely ignore the front of the packaging and go directly to the label. The front label often makes health claims that convince you that the product is healthy, when in fact, it is misleading or even completely false.
When looking at the label, start with the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. Those in the largest amounts are listed first. A good rule of thumb is to scan the first three ingredients, as they make up the largest part of the product. Choose foods that have whole foods listed as the first few ingredients. If the first few ingredients include some type of sugar, hydrogenated oils, or refined grains you can assume that it is not a healthy product.
Serving sizes may also be misleading. People will often think that a serving size is the whole container of something, when in fact it may be several servings. Therefore, people may be consuming many more calories than they think. It may require a little simple multiplication to know the nutritional value of what you consumed.
Some of the more common misleading claims will be:
Multigrain – This just means that a product contains more than one type of grain. If it’s not marked as a whole grain, then it is refined.
Natural – This means nothing, other than at one time the manufacture worked with a natural product at some point, such as barley.
Organic – Doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Read the ingredient list.
Low-fat – Fat may have been reduced by adding more sugar, therefore there is more sugar and less fat per serving
Made with whole grains – If whole grains do not fall in the first three ingredients, it does not amount to much benefit
In addition, a product may be loaded with sugar even if it isn’t listed in the first three ingredients. Manufacturers will hide the amount of sugar by using various types of sweeteners. Watch out for these names: beet sugar, brown sugar, date sugar, coconut sugar, evaporated cane juice, organic raw sugar, carob syrup, honey, high-fructose corn syrup, agave, rice syrup, crystalline fructose, malt powder, barley malt, and molasses. These are just a few of the names, but there are many more.
The best way to ensure that you are eating healthy is to avoid processed foods and eat whole foods. Whole foods do not have a label. Think a peach or a banana. If you do decide to buy prepackaged food, you can simply read the labels to sort out the good from the bad.
To start you on your plant-based journey, there are a couple of cookbooks that I highly recommend. They are simple and a great place to start: “Plant to Plate” by Tami Bivens and “Brighten Up Breakfast” by Erica Nedley.
In conclusion, we have seen that a traditional “Western” lifestyle diet high in saturated fats, high in cholesterol, high is processed foods, high in simple carbohydrates, and high is sugar-sweetened beverages is not only dangerous for our physical health, but may also be equally dangerous for our mental health. If our goal is to live a life that is full of pleasure, sparing of physical impairments and rich in mental health, it would seem obvious that a plant-based diet could be the best thing we could ever do for ourselves.
Please contact us first before publishing this or other Let’s Talk Mental Health articles.
References: [i] MD, E. (2020). Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/nutritional-psychiatry-your-brain-on-food-201511168626