The optimal plant-based diet: How to get started and stay healthy long-term
These days, I tend to not talk about nutrition often unless I’m asked about it or working with clients. However, with the recent boom in veganism and increasing popularity in plant-based diets, I’ve been getting a lot more questions, so now feels like a good time to share some love and wisdom on the topic. After all, if anyone is considering adopting an optimal diet, I’d like to help them succeed. An optimal diet is a big part of being healthy, and being healthy allows you to sense and explore the beauty of life more easily.
In this post, I will share some tips for getting started the right way, and staying vibrant and healthy long-term.
I’ve consumed plant foods almost exclusively for about 10 years now. Many different approaches and protocols have been tried over the years, but I’ve always gravitated back to what I consider to be "the optimal diet".
An optimal diet is a big part of being healthy, and being healthy allows you to sense and explore the beauty of life more easily.
Although I’ve found positive improvements in health and vitality overall while eating an optimal diet, I’m aware that’s not the case for everyone. Some people struggle or feel worse when they start eating more plant foods and throw in the towel before they get to reap any real benefits. This can happen sometimes, so I’d like to shed some light on how to do it right and look at some of the common issues people run into when getting started and staying on a plant-based diet.
First things first
Let me say this. The body you move through is the body of an ape. Its anatomy, physiology and digestive system are almost identical to that of your closest relatives, the chimpanzee and bonobo. If you can come to accept this, you may realise that it makes total sense that you will thrive on a diet very similar to theirs.
As it turns out, this appears to be true. When humans start eating like other great apes, they begin to reverse disease and become healthier on every level.
So what are our closest ape relatives eating? Mostly fresh fruits, shoots and roots. Technically speaking, they are frugivorous omnivores. And so are you.
The optimal diet, the human diet, is also a diet based around sweet, juicy fruits and tender, leafy greens. Personally, I feel keeping it fresh, raw, organic, vegan and wholefood as much as possible is ideal. But you can definitely be more flexible, adding some treats throughout your week if you so desire.
I feel absolutely amazing eating mountains of mangoes and bunches of bananas, and I encourage anyone and everyone to give it a try. It’s a diet that helps boost your health, energy and spiritual awareness. It is also extremely satisfying, keeps you lean—and tastes delicious!
1. Start with a cleanse or ease into it gently
If your body is used to eating a lot of processed foods and animal products, your entire system has adapted to that way of eating. Your gut bacteria, digestive acidity and bowel function have all adapted to run in a particular way that can handle these foods and "food-like" substances.
Any dramatic changes to diet can radically disturb this balance, resulting in digestive discomfort such as gas, reflux and indigestion. Why? Because your body is not yet well-prepared for so much fibrous plant matter. It’s potentially mixing with old waste in the digestive system and accelerating detoxification. This basically means you may feel crap at first while your body cleanses and adapts to an optimal diet.
A great way to avoid this is by doing some sort of cleanse or detox before jumping in the deep end. A juice fast or water fast can help tremendously on many levels. There are also many detox programs out there that you can use. For those wanting to take the slower but easier road, I’d suggest gradually replacing a meal here and there with whole plant foods until you are comfortable eating a big plate of fruit or other plant foods at each meal without any discomfort.
2. Eat ENOUGH
Without a doubt, the most common mistake I see people making when they transition to a plant-focused diet is that they tend to under-eat. Whole plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are much lower in calories than processed foods, gram-for-gram. That means you need to eat much more volume than you did before to get the same amount of energy.
The good news is that you will feel full and satisfied and get loads of nutrition, but it’s really important to listen to your body here. Never restrict your food intake of low-fat, whole plant foods. If you are craving sweets and fatty foods after meals, you are likely not eating enough calories. Try adding more to your future meals until you find a sweet spot. With some practice, you will work out how much is enough. You should feel satisfied, but not overly stuffed.
3. Don’t be scared of natural sugars and carbs
Many people are still terrified of carbohydrates. They believe that they’ll get fat by eating two bananas a day, or by having a few wedges of watermelon. We could go on and on about this, but I’ll simply assure you this is false.
The science is clear, and my experience has confirmed that you have to eat a lot, A LOT, A LOT of carbohydrates to become fat.
This is because your body is actually not very efficient at turning sugars into fats. It actually prefers to take existing fat circulating and store that instead. This process is much more efficient and the human body is very good at doing it. Have you heard the old saying, "the fat you eat is the fat you wear"? There is some truth to it—fat gain has more to do with excess total calories and excess fat intake than excess carbohydrates.
The bottom line is that if you want to be plant-based or vegan, and you want to stay lean and healthy, you need to completely drop this whole concept of "carbophobia". You need to embrace fruits and carbohydrate-based foods. Remember that every single cell in your body wants to run on sugar, given the choice.
Animal products, vegan desserts and nutty, fatty, oily foods will never leave you looking or feeling your best. Use intelligently.
4. Watch your fat intake
While carbohydrates continue to be demonised, most people overlook the amount of fat they are actually consuming and the effect it has on their health. Low-carb diets are all the rage, allowing people to continue eating their favourite fatty meats and sweets—simply throwing the bun out of the burger, so to speak.
The media circulating about low-carb diets is abundant and, as a result, many people fall victim to nonsense nutrition talk, believing that lots of fat is good, carbs are bad, you should avoid carbs, etc. In all my years of self-experimentation and working with clients, I’ve never seen this approach work well long-term. Even when people manage to stay relatively lean while restricting carbs, their health suffers in other ways. Most often, people fall off the wagon repeatedly, binge on carbs and then restrict them again. It’s an unsustainable and unhealthy cycle. Not to mention depending heavily on stimulants and caffeine just so they can function physically, mentally and emotionally.
Things get really bad though when people continuously consume high amounts of sugar and fat at the same time (aka the standard Western diet). It causes all sorts of problems with blood sugar, cardiovascular inflammation and unstable energy levels. You are literally creating the ideal environment for type 2 diabetes, adrenal fatigue, candida and heart disease to develop. This is partially due to excessive fat in the blood.
If you were to take a blood sample in the hours after consuming a high-fat meal, you would find a thick layer of fat floating on the top of your blood sample, hardening as it cools. Quite gross, isn’t it? That’s exactly what’s happening inside your body.
Ideally, dietary fat should remain fairly low from day to day, around 5–15% of your daily total calorie intake. You can achieve this very easily by removing all oil from your diet and reducing highly fatty foods like avocadoes, nuts, seeds, coconut, etc., having either one small handful every other day or a big fat feast/treat 1–2 times per week.
5. Fruit is your friend
Once your carbophobia has dissolved, it’s time to replace it with some healthy biophilia (connection with nature and life). Come to love and appreciate the wonderful miracle that is fruit. This food is truly remarkable and meets almost all of our bodies' needs perfectly.
Modern nutrition tends to focus on individual nutrients in food, overlooking the broad list of nutrients that plant foods contain and the way they work together synergistically. For example, when we think of oranges, the first thing that comes to mind is Vitamin C. But it contains much more than that—protein, essential fatty acids, phytochemicals, antioxidants and many other components that science has still yet to identify. And it’s all packaged together perfectly by nature. When you start eating more fruit, your health, vitality and connection with nature soar.
The variety of flavours and textures out there is truly remarkable. But we don’t get to see a lot of this variety in big supermarkets and common grocery stores—just the standard apples, oranges, and bananas affair. There is so, so much more out there. For example, did you know that there are over 1,000 varieties of bananas, hundreds of varieties of mangoes, and exotic fruits like chocolate pudding fruit, ice cream beans, red bananas, durian, jackfruit, star fruit and miracle fruit? The list goes on and on! Not only is there a lack of variety in common shops, but commercial produce is usually grown in poor conditions and picked too early, resulting in a lack of flavour and nutrients.
Try some exotic fruit you’ve never tried before and buy organic where you can. Visit Asian grocery stores for some inspiration, or even a tropical country.
When you start eating more fruit, your health, vitality and connection with nature soar.
6. Consider supplementation if needed
Certainly, there is nothing natural about taking supplements. That being said, there is also very little that is natural about the way we modern humans live and eat. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed common deficiencies that people tend to run into, regardless of what they are eating. If you have cleansed your body, healed any previous digestive issues or limitations, and you’re living a reasonably healthy lifestyle, you may be okay. But if you aren’t feeling right, it is worth testing for any deficiencies and/or supplementing the following things. Many purists end up running into problems in the long term as they don’t listen to their bodies and work to fix the underlying problems, resulting in deficiencies.
A very common deficiency in both meat-eaters and plant-based folk. We used to get it easily in nature by being exposed to the elements and consuming dirt and grubs here and there. These days, living in a very sterile world, many of us with poor health and lifestyle habits, we are at much greater risk of B12 deficiency. For this very reason, many food products are now fortified with this vitamin and even livestock are supplemented with it. Common signs of deficiency include fatigue and mental fog. A simple B12 supplement taken here and there can help you avoid running into problems.
Again, a very common deficiency in the population at large. Living and working indoors as well as wearing clothing all the time greatly limit our exposure to the sun. This means we miss out on the chance to top up our vitamin D levels on a regular basis. This vitamin is essential for healthy immune function and sex hormone production amongst other things. For those in cold climates, I recommend looking into using a vitamin D lamp, sunbed or Vitamin D3 supplementation if your levels are getting low. Alternatively, in the midst of winter, travel to a tropical sunny location for a few weeks for a top-up.
Here in Australia, and I would suspect in other countries too, soil is very commonly low in zinc and other minerals. On top of that, some people have genetic conditions that make it difficult to absorb and utilise this mineral optimally. If you notice you have a low sex drive, poor sense of smell or taste, or skin healing issues, you may be low. It can be tested and supplemented if needed.
Interestingly, many foods you are already consuming contain moderate amounts of omega-3. Still, some people like to add some extra omega-3-rich foods to their diet to ensure they are getting enough. Some of the best are flaxseed meal, walnuts, hemp seeds, leafy greens and whole plant foods. Feel free to add some to your optimal diet.
Some people struggle with iron absorption. Others have no problem. Personally, my iron levels have remained consistently high throughout my 10 years of eating this way. But if you have a history of low iron, you may find comfort in adding some iron-rich foods such as dates, leafy greens, spinach, watercress and parsley.
Dense foods and animal products
This is a sensitive subject, but something that needs to be addressed. Many people "go vegan" or plant-based, and then fall off the wagon and swing back to eating lots of meat and animal products again. Before judging these people, it’s worth considering the following.
While humans are naturally frugivores (primarily fruit eaters), it is also likely that in nature we would be consuming many bugs, insects, small eggs and animal products both intentionally and unintentionally. Foods such as figs, berries and leafy greens naturally contain a variety of small hosts that we would be consuming on a daily basis without even realising. Likewise, many other great apes will eat termites, eggs and even small animals a few times per year.
Perhaps these grubs and bugs play an important role in their nutrition, providing certain nutrients that they would struggle to find in plants? Perhaps they are nutrients that humans require also? This can explain why some people run into issues on a strict or unbalanced vegan diet.
A body that is clean, functioning well, living healthfully and eating an optimal diet can easily meet all of its needs and be deficiency-free. Some other people with less ideal health and diet/digestion/absorption issues may find that they need to include supplements, dense foods such as cooked foods and superfoods, or even very small amounts of easy-to-digest animal products in their diet once a week or so to feel their best, as they transition to an optimal diet.
How each person addresses this is up to them. It depends on their individual constitution, values, beliefs and understandings of health. Whatever you end up doing, it makes sense to try and address the cause of your problem. The optimal diet will greatly help you improve your health, but you may need to heal other underlying problems before you can remain deficiency-free. Investigate why you aren’t feeling your best. Don’t be afraid to test, experiment and reach out to someone for guidance or advice if you need it.
I hope this information is of some help. Please share and comment if you have any questions.
To guide you in adopting and maintaining an optimal diet that works for you, I offer plant-based/vegan nutrition coaching services in person and online, where I help you to be healthy, lean, strong and full of energy all year round.