What’s the Best Way to Do a Plant-Based Diet?
While plant-based eating is theoretically as basic as it gets, we have a lot of questions about how to do it right, which is why we hosted a Q&A panel on plant nutrition at our last In goop Health, in partnership with Bolthouse Farms® Plant Protein Milk. Mena Suvari, who transitioned to a plant-based diet almost a year ago and calls herself a “baby vegan,” moderated the conversation with nutritionists Kelly LeVeque and Keri Glassman—there were a lot of questions from the audience for the duo.
For everyone who wasn’t at In goop Health, there’s a digital pass to the summit if you want to watch the whole thing. And more importantly, we’ll be sharing the recipe we served after the plant nutrition chat (obviously need a snack after talking about food for forty minutes), which was a blueberry chia bowl that our food team made with the Bolthouse Farms® Plant Protein Milk.
Below, we asked Kelly LeVeque to expand on how she coaches clients to do a plant-based diet the right way. LeVeque, a beloved LA-based nutritionist, is the author of Body Love: Live in Balance, Weigh What You Want, and Free Yourself from Food Drama Forever. Her second book, which comes out in January, will also cover how to make complete, nutritious meals without meat.
A Q&A with Kelly LeVeque
My definition of plant-based eating is when the majority of the food that you eat is plant-based. I have clients who are paleo and keto, and I have clients who are raw vegans. And for the most part, no matter what lifestyle my clients live, I’m trying to elevate the decisions they make and the foods they put on their plate. And that includes upping their nonstarchy vegetables and fiber, along with increasing the amount of leafy greens.
In the last year or two, research has come out showing that within a couple of hours of eating a meal, soluble fiber feeds your probiotic bacteria and can increase the number of microbes living inside your gut microbiome. So you’re increasing the number of probiotics that live inside of you. And that is incrementally strengthening your immune system. Those are the probiotic bugs that will ferment the food that you eat to create short-chain fatty acids that influence your epigenetics.
Also, sulfoquinovose—a sugar in leafy greens—was identified as something that feeds probiotic bacteria. That’s why I’m always encouraging clients, “Let’s use leafy greens. Let’s eat fiber.”
It’s believed that our paleolithic ancestors ate somewhere between 100 and 200 grams of fiber a day. Most Americans get maybe fifteen grams a day. How is that possible? Well, if you sit down to a meal and you have a big cup of broccoli, that’s only four grams of fiber. If you put two cups of spinach on your plate, that’s only one gram of fiber. So right there, in a seemingly vegetable-heavy meal, you’re really getting only five grams of fiber.
For me, it’s not about having a meatless Monday meal. That’s not plant-based. Plant-based is focusing on putting plants on your plate at every meal because of the changes that happen within 120 minutes of that meal as you digest it.
A lot of times, they’re just focusing on not eating meat. They’re not focusing on upping their vegetables. So we change the mind-set and the mentality. Any time you’re telling someone not to eat something, it’s a different mentality than asking them to add something to their plate.
What sometimes happens when someone is trying to go plant-based is they’ll get to a restaurant and a lot of the meat-free options will be starch- and carbohydrate-heavy—processed foods, flatbreads, pastas—which can elevate blood sugar and increase inflammation. Instead, depending on the client, I might suggest splitting a whole fish with a friend and getting a bunch of veggie sides. Or opting for hard-boiled eggs on their salad at Sweetgreen instead of chicken.
I also increase the amount of fat on my clients’ plates. For instance, it’s pretty easy for people to do a plant-based dinner at home. I like when people do a sheet pan of roasted vegetables and put a whole-food fat sauce on that, like tahini sauce, or avocado with hemp seeds, or maybe pesto. Fat does a good job of releasing a hormone called cholecystokinin, also known as CCK, which is a satiety hormone. I focus on my clients not being hungry and adding in good fats make them feel a little more full before going to bed, rather than just having a leafy green salad for dinner.
I find that a lot of vegetarians become very hungry. They have a hard time eating breakfast and waiting until lunch. And newer research suggests it’s better for you to eat fewer times throughout the day. When you’re talking about a plant-based diet where you’re actually pulling out meat, people are not going to feel as full.
Fats can help with this by elongating the blood sugar curve, as can foods that have fiber. So, for example, I might have someone add a hemp heart, which also has protein. Or I might have them add a pesto, for a whole-food nut type of fat. Or an avocado. Something that really helps them to feel satiated so that they aren’t working through that food as quickly. Because if you burn through food and digest it very quickly, then you are running out of fuel. I don’t want people to be bloated and digesting their food for four hours, but I still want them to feel fueled for hours after their meal.
Legumes and Beans
I like legumes that are a little easier to digest, like lentils. Or I like them to be soaked beforehand. There’s a company called truRoots that does all the soaking and sprouting of their dry beans before you buy them, which makes them easier to digest. It lowers phytic acid—which is an antinutrient that binds to minerals—so that you’re getting more nutrients from your meal. If you’re really focused on being plant-based and getting most of your protein from beans, you can make a bulk of lentils in a slow cooker on the stove and have it for the whole week.
Nuts and Seeds
I use a lot of seeds. Watermelon seeds and pumpkin seeds are pretty high in protein. A lot of people don’t know about watermelon seeds but I like the taste of them better than pumpkin seeds. Go Raw makes them dry-roasted. They also do a sprouted, simple-seed blend of pumpkin and sunflower seeds that are soaked and sprouted for you. Again, easier to digest, and easy for you. This isn’t a big deal if you’re not 100 percent plant-based, but for my clients who are, I really want to make sure that their digestion is easy and that the nutrient-density of their foods is higher.
Pea protein is a good source of plant-based protein. Whenever I have a vegan or vegetarian who loves to do my protein shake, I recommend a pea protein.
I’m not a huge fan of soy. Unfortunately, it’s been estimated that over 90 percent of soy is GMO and covered in glyphosate, which is Roundup, which is known to be toxic to the body. And when you look at isoflavonoids like the phytoestrogens in soy, there are certain people that phytoestrogens are good for because they bind to estrogen receptors, and they don’t allow cells to be fed by estrogen pathways. But for certain people, phytoestrogens can cause the growth of, or proliferation of tumor cells. I spent eight years working in breast cancer research, looking at studies that showed breast cell proliferation from soy intake, so I can’t recommend soy.
That said, when my clients say, “I’m going to sushi, and I’m going to have tamari. And they’re going to put edamame in front of me and tuna. Do I need to worry?” The answer is no. I just don’t think you should go to Costco and buy the edamame as a snack and keep it in your fridge or freezer. It’s never all or nothing.
I think the idea that we would maybe be using pea protein more in the future is interesting—like pea protein burgers instead of soy.
The fab four is: protein, fat, fiber, and greens. It’s a light structure. It’s not about what you can’t have. It’s not about what you should avoid. It’s not about a do-not-eat list. It’s like, how do I elevate this meal by making sure I’m eating the fab four because those four components regulate hormones in my body.
The beauty of the fab four is that people start thinking: What’s really in the food that I’m eating? How much protein is there? How much fat is there? How much fiber is there? How do I feel when I eat beans? How do I feel when I eat grains? It’s really just self-reflection. So much of how you feel in life comes back to how healthy your gut microbiome is.
Most of the vegans and vegetarians I work with still enjoy my fab four smoothies for breakfast. I put them on a limited-ingredient pea protein, and that will be their protein powder. And then we’ll pick a whole-food fat like avocado, almond butter, olive oil, coconut oil. I have clients who use MCT oil. It’s really picking the fat that you want to put in your shake. And then a fiber source—so chia or flax, or acacia fiber if you don’t want to do seeds. And then leafy greens, like a big handful of spinach. You could add a little bit of berries to that, or you could add a squeeze of lemon to flavor it. Whenever we add fruit, I limit it to a fourth of a cup. I just want the flavor and a little bit of antioxidants without a huge blood sugar spike and crash. So it’s just a formula to help people create a blood-sugar-balancing smoothie or meal-replacement shake.
If they didn’t want a smoothie for breakfast, we might do a lentil, kale, and sweet potato hash. Or a warm chia seed and flaxseed pudding. I call it my faux meal, and it’s pretty popular. If you were to make chia seed pudding overnight, you’d have to wait for it to become gelatinous. But if you warm it on the stove like oatmeal or cream of wheat, it becomes this warm, oatmeal-y type meal. I really make sure that people are getting the protein and fiber that they need to feel full in the morning. And then from there, we move into lunch.
I love salad for lunch. I think it’s the perfect time to have a raw meal. So a lot of leafy greens, nonstarchy vegetables—maybe that’s cucumbers, carrots, radicchio, and cabbage. We might use a vinaigrette or a dressing and add watermelon seeds or pepitas and half of an avocado. If they don’t want to do seeds, we might add a fourth to a half cup of garbanzo or black beans for extra fiber and protein.
I like dinner to be warm—people enjoy a warm dinner. I’m not anti-grain. Depending on the client and their weight-loss goals, or whether they have an autoimmune disease or are coming to me with any type of health issue, I may or may not pull grains. We might do a warm bowl of coconut cauliflower rice, sautéed kale, and crispy harissa or curry chickpeas with veggies. Or maybe that sheet pan dinner with a bunch of your favorite roasted vegetables and a whole-food fat dressing.
Most of my plant-based clients need a snack between lunch and dinner. If they’re a smoothie person, sometimes they’ll double their smoothie in the morning and take half of it in a Hydro Flask, which keeps it cold for eight hours. And then they’ll have that as a snack between lunch and dinner. Sometimes they’ll make a chia seed pudding or an avocado chocolate mousse or bring a handful of nuts or do an avocado with veggies. If they’re not vegan, just vegetarian, we might take advantage of having some hard-boiled eggs in the afternoon.
Fiber is pretty hard to get enough of, but that’s why it’s a component in the fab four shake. If I find that someone’s having a hard time getting fiber, I get them to add a couple tablespoons of acacia fiber, chia, or flax. This doesn’t make their smoothie super thick, but you’ve added five grams of fiber. If someone is eating vegan or vegetarian, and they do it healthfully, they’re probably getting more fiber than most people because they are thinking about vegetables.
For plant-based clients specifically, I want them to hit a minimum amount of protein. I think the days where people are told they need 200 grams of protein are long gone. You don’t need that much protein, but you do need a minimum amount. With my vegetarians and vegans, I aim for 50 grams of protein a day. A protein powder in a shake can get them 20 grams and adding a couple tablespoons of chia can add six more. If they use an almond butter that’s another six. So they can get a lot of protein early on in the day.
An average vegetarian meal is only ten to 15 grams of protein. And if someone opts for a plain noodle pasta, or quinoa with some veggies on top and a teriyaki-type of a sauce without the protein, it can be lower than that. So if I can get them a base of 20 to 30 grams of protein in a shake, that’s doubling what their normal meals would be, and then they don’t have to worry as much throughout the day.
From there, we might work on upping their protein if they’re having a blood sugar issue, or they’re feeling like they’re starving all day long. That’s just not a good state to be in when you’re trying to function at work, be a mom, run a family, run a business, whatever it is. I’m all about keeping my clients functioning optimally. So it really depends on the person. There are some people that are just fine with limited protein, but others feel stressed without it.
In LA, Crossroads and Plant Food + Wine are the big ones. I’m obsessed with Matthew Kenney’s Plant Food because the food really highlights the vegetables. He does a lasagna that’s amazing with thin marinated zucchini and his homemade cashew cheese. There is not a lot of bread, grain, or processed foods on his menu.
Also, just because you’re plant-based or vegan doesn’t mean that you need to go to plant-based or vegan restaurants. I love Farmshop, and I think that’s a great place to go if you’re plant-based. You can do any of the big salads, any of the roasted veggies on the side, the avocado hummus. There’s a lot of fun that can be had when the restaurant just focuses on vegetables.
Kelly LeVeque is a celebrity health coach, holistic nutritionist, and bestselling author based in Los Angeles. Be Well by Kelly grew out of LeVeque’s lifelong passion for health, the science of nutrition, and overall wellness. Guided by a practical and always optimistic approach, LeVeque helps clients improve their health, achieve their goals, and develop sustainable habits to live a healthy and balanced life. You can learn more about LeVeque’s balanced approach in her book Body Love: Live in Balance, Weigh What You Want, and Free Yourself from Food Drama Forever.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.