How to get started eating plant-based

Interest in vegetarian food is increasing in Hong Kong and all over the world. The reasons for eating plants over meat vary and there are many different varieties of vegetarian diets.

Vegetarian in practice
Some choose vegetarian food for environmental reasons or health reasons, others for ethical or religious reasons, or simply because they think it's tastes better. Some call themselves vegetarians, but sometimes eat foods from the animals, or just a few selected foods, such as fish or chicken. Some eat milk products and maybe even eggs. Buddhists in Hong Kong may avoid eating animals, but also onions, garlic, chives, green onions and leeks. Others completely refrain from food from animals - this is actually the original meaning of vegetarian food. But common to all variants is that the base is food from the plant kingdom.

It's not hard to be a vegetarian, all you need is some general knowledge about nutrition. To fuel you with the nutrients your body needs, there are some foods that are particularly important in vegetarian diets:

  • Legumes, such as soybeans, peas, lentils, tofu or other soy products
  • Whole grain products, for example brown and red rice, quinoa, buckwheat and corn.
  • Vegetables and root vegetables, such as avocado, edamame, kale and sweet potatoes. 
  • Fruits and berries, for example apples, apricots, bananas and blueberries
  • Canola oil fats

There are great health benefits to gain from eating a lot of vegetables, fruits, legumes and other foods from plants. For example, vegetarians run less risk of suffering from a variety of diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

Vegetarian foods can contain all the nutrients the body needs. But the more food you avoid, the more important it becomes to understand the nutrition from the foods you do eat.

Variants of vegetarianism
Vegetarian food is traditionally divided into different groups:

  • Vegan / Plant based food consists entirely of vegetables without any ingredient from the animal kingdom, ie neither meat, fish, shellfish, milk products, eggs or honey.
  • Buddhist vegetarian is varied but usually include vegetables, excluding onions, garlic, leeks, green onions and sometimes coriander.
  • Lacto-vegetarian foods contain vegetables and milk products.
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian foods contain vegetables, milk products and eggs.

Plant based protein

Some people are afraid that their protein intake will be too low with vegetarian food, but there is rarely any cause for concern. Protein is certainly important: it's the body's building blocks and is needed in everything from small enzymes to building muscle. But by eating a variety of plants they have all the proteins you need. The prerequisite for the body to be able to use the protein properly is to acquire enough energy. Otherwise, the protein is used as fuel instead. Which means you have to make sure you consume enough calories everyday.

Good vegetable protein sources are, for example, whole grain foods, nuts, seeds and legumes, such as beans, peas, lentils, tofu or other soy products. The benefit is that these foods not only contain protein, but also many other important nutrients. 

Fat from plants
Fat is an important source of energy for our bodies and the right kind of fat in a proper amount is crucial for good performance. The vegetarian diet often contains less saturated fats than meat or dairy based foods. 

Because the vegetarian diet does not contain fish, getting enough omega-3 is important. Therefore, it is good to use canola oil when cooking. Unlike, for example, olive oil, canola oil contains omega-3 fat. It is not the same omega-3 fat found in fish and shellfish, but the body can convert some of the canola oil to the right kind of omega-3. Other plant based sources of omega-3 fats are walnuts and chia seeds. 

Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are an important source of energy. By choosing carbohydrates that have a natural fiber content, you get food that also provides a lot of nutrition. Examples of such foods are whole grains, vegetables, fruit, berries, nuts, seeds and legumes, such as beans, peas, lentils, tofu or other soy products.

Carbohydrates also include sugar. Just like everyone else, vegetarians should eat sparingly with sugar because sugar does not contribute any nutrition.

Vitamins and minerals

Riboflavin 

Riboflavin is a vitamin B that is mainly found in meat, fish and dairy products. For vegetarians who do not eat milk products, it is important to find another source of riboflavin. Riboflavin is needed for the degradation of fat, carbohydrates and protein.

Legumes such as beans and soybeans, green leafy vegetables such as kale and whole grain products contain riboflavin. Some beverages are also enriched with riboflavin, such as soybean and rice drinks. 


Vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 is mainly found in meat, fish and dairy products. For those who do not eat milk products, it is therefore important to find another source of vitamin B6. Vitamin B6 is needed, to maintain normal nerve function in the body.

Vitamin B6 is found in for example, legumes, green leafy vegetables, potatoes, fruits, berries, almonds and sesame seeds.

Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is mainly found in meats and in enriched vegetable foods. It is necessary for the blood and the nervous system.

For vegans, it may be a good to eat B12 supplements to make sure the intake is enough. Even for vegetarians who eat eggs and milk, intake may be too low, although vitamin B12 is present in both milk products and eggs. Dietary supplements may therefore be necessary. It is also important that pregnant and breastfeeding women get enough B12.

Fermented products may contain some B12, but the content is too uncertain to be considered as a reliable source. Nor is the form of B12 that can be found in algae a reliable source.

Vitamin D
The sun is the best source of vitamin D. When the sun's ultraviolet rays reach the skin, vitamin D is formed. In Hong Kong not getting enough vitamin D is rarely a problem, but in Northern climates where the sun is low throughout the winter months this may be a concern.

There are few vitamin D sources in vegetarian foods. But there are two different forms of vitamin D that are used in dietary supplements and enrichment in for example soy milk. The most common form is called D3 which in many cases comes from sheep wool. The other is called D2 and is made of yeast. Vegans can choose dietary supplements and products enriched with D2 or vegetable D3 sources.

Iodine
Iodine is needed for metabolism. Therefore it is recommended for vegetarians to choose table salt with iodine. Algae also contains iodine, but the content varies and can even sometimes reach harmful levels. Therefore refrain from eating algae where the content of iodine is unknown.

Iron
The iron in vegetarian food is more difficult for the body to absorb compared to iron in, for example, meat and fish. Therefore, it is important to choose foods that contain a lot of iron. Iron is needed primarily for the blood. For young girls and women, iron is extra important, because they need more iron than men.

In vegetarian food, iron is found in, for example, legumes, such as lentils and peas as well as in tofu and other soy products. Iron is also found in seeds, especially pumpkin seeds, and in nuts, dried fruits and green leafy vegetables. By eating some vitamin C along with the meal, the iron is absorbed better. Vitamin C is found in most vegetables, fruits and berries.

Whole grain foods also contain iron, but also phytic acid, which is a substance that makes it more difficult for the body to absorb iron. 

Calcium
The content of calcium in vegetarian food varies depending on the diet. Calcium is needed for the skeletal system, the teeth, the blood and the nervous system.

Those who eat dairy products usually have no problem getting enough calcium. Vegans, on the other hand, need to find an alternative to milk in the form of for example soy or rice drinks to get enough calcium.

Whole grain foods, legumes, nuts and seeds, as well as green leafy vegetables are other important calcium sources. In some green vegetables, for example spinach, there is a lot of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid makes it more difficult for the body to absorb calcium. Cauliflower, other dark green lettuce leaf and broccoli are examples of low oxalic acid content foods. Therefore, they are better calcium sources.

Selenium
Selenium is mainly found in meat and diary products. Therefore, those who eat vegetarian should find other sources of selenium. One of the best sources of plant-based selenium are brazil nuts. 

Zinc
Like iron, zinc in vegetable food is more difficult for the body to absorb. Zinc is important for example for wounds to heal.

Examples of zinc-rich foods are whole grain products, nuts, seeds, and legumes, such as beans, peas, lentils, tofu or other soy products. As with iron, the phytic acid obstructs absorption of zinc.

Plant based food tips

Beans beans beans

Legumes do not taste much in themselves, but are easily seasoned with for example garlic, herbs, ginger, ginger, curry, cumin or chilli. You can make everything from falafel, hummus, bean salad and bean steak to chickpeas cake and lentil stews. It is only the imagination that sets the boundaries for whats possible.

It may be convenient to buy ready-to-eat, canned beans and chickpeas, but these may contain unnecessary additives. Buying dried beans is significantly cheaper, but takes some planning ahead. Dry kidney beans, borlotti beans and chickpeas should be soaked overnight, and then slow cooked for several hours to become soft and creamy. Because it takes some time, it can be good to cook a lot at once and freeze. But beware of buying old beans as they may never get soft even after hours of cooking.

Keep in mind that while legumes contain lots of nutrition and other useful vitamins and minerals, they also contain lectins, which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pains. The good news is that lectins are destroyed during cooking, so it is important to soak and thoroughly cook them. Some people may be bothered by gases after eating legumes, but if you eat it regularly, the trouble usually goes over.

Pulses

Lentils do not need to be soaked, but it usually a good idea to soak them for 20-30 minutes before cooking. Red and yellow lentils are peeled and therefore only need to boil for about 20 minutes. Green and black lentils on the other hand, usually have shells and need to cook for longer.