Learning how to replace animal-based foods with plant foods will make it easier to ultimately remove the former from your diet. Due to the growing popularity of plant-based diets, there’s an increasing amount of options available at your local supermarket. 

Meat Alternatives

From veggie burgers that closely mimic the taste and texture of real meat, to healthy, whole-food, plant-based alternatives such as jackfruit, tempeh and eggplant; there are more meat alternatives than ever. These foods are not novel nor exotic;. they're culinary staples in cultures throughout the world. 

With a plethora of meat alternatives to choose from, people tend to eat many products like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat. While said products are delicious, they're not health promoting foods; rather, they are full of sodium, sugar, oil and preservatives. Instead, consider getting the majority of your protein from whole, plant foods such as beans, lentils, tempeh, tofu, mushrooms, tubers, nuts and seeds.  ​

Here are some examples of meat substitutions that align with a whole-food, plant-based diet:

  • Tofu and tempeh: they’re like  a blank canvas - they take on the shape and  flavor as traditional meat dishes.

  • Beans and lentils: they are dense and chewy. They're a tasty base for veggie burgers and other childhood favorites, like meatballs, stews, chili, etc.

  • Chickpea and sweet potato: these ingredients are a great combination for a veggie burger, and also very versatile and satiating when used individually.  

  • Baked falafel: a popular Mediterranean dish, made of chickpeas and spices.

  • Portobello mushroom and eggplant: used in lieu of grilled meat, burgers or steaks.

Milk Substitutions

Gone are the days when your choice of plant-based milks were limited to almond, rice and soy milk. Today, the local grocery store is stocked with countless plant-based milk options sourced from nuts, legumes, coconuts and grains. With so many options, how do you choose? To start, consider the following:

  • As few ingredients as possible

  • Food products labeled, "unsweetened" or "0g added sugar"

  • Limited saturated fat

  • Less than 140gm of sodium per cup

  • Carrageenan-free. Some scientists believe that carrageenan can cause inflammation, digestive problems, such as bloating and irritable bowel disease (IBD), and even colon cancer

  • Fortification with calcium and vitamin D​ or nutrients you’re personally concerned about (like omega-3's or protein)
     

There’s no doubt that almond milk is the most popular alternative to dairy milk, and it's a good start if you're new to the world of plant-based milks. There are many unsweetened versions to choose from that are also low in calories, ranging from 35-90 calories per serving.
 

​If you're seeking a super creamy and thick milk, both oat and coconut milk fit the bill. They're generally higher in calories and taste strongly of the plant they're made of. Be aware that oat milk may not be gluten-free due to high levels of cross-contamination in factories. 

Nutritionally, neither soy nor pea milk can be beat. They're both high in protein and offer a range of minerals and vitamins. Soy milk has been around since the dawn of the plant-based movement. Hence, it comes with controversy and scrutiny. But, the research on soy milk has shown nothing but positive health effects, such as reducing the risk of breast cancer.

Pea milk, on the other hand is the new kid on the block. This one sounds strange, but it’s both flavorful and nutritious! ​

There are plenty more milk options, including hemp, macadamia, walnut, rice and quinoa, most of which reinforce a healthy lifestyle.

Butter

Many dairy-free butter products - for spreading, cooking and baking - are widely available at your local grocery store. Dairy-free butter may sound like a healthy alternative to dairy butter, but it's not. Dairy-free butter is made from blends of oils from plants, such as coconut, olive, palm or avocado. While vegetable oils are proven to be healthier than animal-based fats for heart health, vegetable oil does not promote health. These non-dairy butters also contain loads of saturated fat, salt and preservatives. The bottom line:use non-dairy butter sparingly. 

If you're craving something rich and creamy on your morning toast, consider the following foods instead: 

  • Nut butters

  • Hummus

  • Cashew cheese (oil-free) 

  • Avocado

  • Bean dip

 

Replacing Butter in Baked Goods

For those who do a lot of baking, consider the following plant-based alternatives:

Applesauce

Applesauce creates a soft, dense texture in baked goods, which is why it typically works best in cakes and muffins. Swap applesauce for butter in equal quantities. If a recipe calls for two cups of butter, replace it with 2 cups of applesauce. Consider reducing the amount of sugar in the recipe because applesauce adds some sweetness. 

Banana

If you enjoy bananas, you’re in luck! They work great in cookies and recipes with a crunch. To replace butter in a recipe, use half the amount of mashed banana that the recipe calls for. If the batter is too dry, add more mashed banana in small amounts until you have the right consistency. The best bananas for baking are those that are extremely ripe - the skin should be brown to black.

Avocado

Avocados work best in recipes that will mask its flavor, like brownies, chocolate cake and pudding.  It can also replace butter or vegetable shortening to make a healthier, dairy-free chocolate frosting. Substitute equal amounts avocado for butter in baking.

Cheese

Cheese is a hard habit to kick. What makes it so addictive is its protein, which acts similarly to mild opiates. When you take a bite of cheese, the protein, casomorphin, attaches to the same receptors in the brain as do narcotics. So, when you take a bite of cheese, you receive a tiny hit of dopamine, resulting in feelings of pleasure. Casomorphin is exclusively found in dairy products, so plant-based cheese does not share the same addictive properties. 

Plant-based cheese comes in a multitude of flavors, forms and textures. It's gooey, creamy and melts just like dairy cheese.  Be mindful that plant-based cheese can be heavily processed, containing sodium, saturated fat and preservatives. ​

If you’re looking for a cheese alternative that is more in alignment with the whole-food, plant-based lifestyle, opt for a nut-based cheese or make your own. Fancy ingredients and equipment aren't necessary; most plant-based cheese recipes only require cashews, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, and spices.

​We cannot touch on plant-based cheese without mentioning nutritional yeast, sometimes referred to as “nooch.” Nutritional yeast has a relatively strong flavor that almost mimics the pungent taste found in cheese. Nutritional yeast can be incorporated into meals in many ways, whether as a condiment or adding it to a stir-fry, pasta dish or salad.  A tablespoon of nutritional yeast is just 20 calories but offers a healthy dose of B vitamins, protein and minerals.

Yogurt

Non-dairy yogurt has taken over the yogurt aisle, the most popular being soy, almond, cashew and coconut. Non-dairy yogurt offers all the benefits of dairy yogurt, notably, the live active culture - or beneficial gut bacteria - that support healthy digestion. 

To minimize added sugar consumption, review the nutrition label. Plain, unsweetened yogurt contains 0 grams of added sugar - a great choice, especially  if you enjoy its distinct, tart taste. Semi-sweet yogurt contains 4-6 grams of added sugar. Yogurt with more than 10 grams of sugar is verging on a dessert. To sweeten yogurt naturally, add berries, pineapples, and all your favorite fruit or a teaspoon of maple syrup. 

Ice Cream

Plant-based ice cream has hit the shelves in a big way, with major ice cream companies like Haagen Dazs and Ben and Jerry’s diversifying their options. Ben and Jerry's alone carries 15 different plant-based flavors! Often made from cashews, coconut or soy, plant-based ice cream is on the rise! 

To be clear: plant-based ice cream is not a healthy food. In fact, it often contains as much sugar and fat as its dairy counterpart.

The good news is that you can make ice cream with a few simple ingredients that are so healthy, you can eat it for breakfast! Dubbed nice cream for not having a cruelty component, it’s as simple as blending super ripe, frozen bananas, which mimic the smooth and creamy consistency of soft serve ice cream.A serving of nice cream consists of 2 bananas and 2-4 tablespoons of unsweetened plant-based milk. Blend the bananas and the milk in a high-speed food processor for 1-2 minutes, stopping to mix often. Once smooth, like soft serve ice cream, you can have it right away or transfer it to a parchment-lined pan to freeze for 1-2 hours. Freezing it makes the nice cream more like hard ice cream.

​You can customize the nice cream by adding ingredients before or after the blending process.  ​Here are some favorite variations:​

  • Chocolate peanut butter (1 tbsp cocoa powder and 2 tbsps peanut butter)

  • Cherry Garcia (1/4 cup sweet frozen cherries and 1 tbsp cocoa nibs)

  • Strawberries and cream (strawberries and coconut milk)

  • Mint chocolate chip (1/4 tsp mint extract and 1 tablespoon dark chocolate chips)

Egg substitutes

 

​Stove Top / Scrambled Eggs​

Commercial egg replacements such as Follow Your Heart Vegan Egg and Just Egg imitate the taste, texture and consistency of eggs. While delicious, these products are processed and don't quite align with whole food, plant-based principles. ​A less processed alternative to commercial egg replacements is tofu. I know what you’re thinking: “tofu can’t possibly replace eggs!” The secret is in the seasoning: salt, nutritional yeast, garlic, onion, soy sauce and turmeric (for color). You can further customize it with the ingredients you prefer - I like to add pesto and mushrooms!

​In addition to being delicious, this plant-based version of scrambled eggs is also lower in saturated fat, cholesterol-free and loaded with protein! ​ 

Baking egg-free

When it comes to baking, there are some incredible replacements for eggs. Commercial egg replacements are typically made from tapioca starch, wheat gluten, and soy flour, and come in powdered form - they have heavy-duty binding power and bring results.They're not exactly whole food, plant-based. Fortunately, there are plenty of whole food alternatives. ​​

Bananas: What can’t we make with them?! Bananas are a sweet addition to dense baked treats, like muffins and cakes. Use one ripe mashed banana for every egg the recipe calls for.

Applesauce: Works nicely as an egg replacement in dense baked goods, such as muffins and quick breads. To substitute eggs for applesauce, add 3 tablespoons of puree for each egg.​

Flax meal (ground flax seed): Very nutritious and works very well when mixed with water, especially in bread, cookies, brownies and pancakes. To substitute eggs, combine 1 tablespoon of flax meal with 3 tablespoons of water until the mixture is thick; let it sit for 10 minutes in the refrigerator before use.

​​Aquafaba: the liquid left over from a can of chickpeas, is an amazing binder. It acts similarly to egg white, and that’s why it works well in mousse, pudding, mayo and meringue.​​

Healthy sauces and condiments

 

Sauces and condiments are the key to turning a bland dish into a tasty, satisfying meal. Here are a few of my favorites: 

  • Salsa (low salt, no added sugar)

  • Organic, unsweetened ketchup

  • Guacamole (homemade)

  • Low sodium mustard

  • Relish

  • Organic, low sugar BBQ sauce

  • Sriracha / hot sauce

  • Coconut liquid aminos

  • Tahini

  • Hummus (low sodium)

  • Alfred Sauce (cashew-based or cauliflower-based)

  • Ranch (cashew-based)

  • Pasta sauce (low sodium, low sugar)

     

Next: Plant-based on a Budget

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Iraina Rosenthal-Tawil, RD

Founder, Your Life on the Veg

Iraina is a registered dietitian based in New York City. She specializes in plant-based diets for the prevention and management of chronic disease. She offers virtual nutrition counseling via a HIPPA-secured online platform. 

Image by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis

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