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May 05, 2015

Real food 101: An introduction to a plant-based lifestyle

A plant-based food expert breaks down the basics of a simple, sustainable diet

Lifestyle Wellness
Samantha Carrie Johnson Handout Art/PhillyVoice

Samantha Carrie Johnson is a personal chef, lifestyle educator and hospitality consultant living in Philadelphia.

Are you thinking of becoming plant-based, flexitarian, vegan or vegetarian? Are you confused about what those terms mean and don’t know where to begin? Have you been a victim of extreme dieting for general health or weight loss? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, I’m here to help you.  

My own personal journey with plant-based foods for health began as a young child. My father juiced raw vegetables for me, made me eat my cereal with water and brush my teeth with baking soda. I hated it, but looking back, I was so fortunate to have gained those foundations of a plant-based and chemical-free life. 

At 14 years old, I was diagnosed with a tumor at the base of my brain. Fortunately, it was not malignant, however, I spent many years in pain. Every day I took an ultimately ineffective medication meant to treat my imbalanced hormone levels and shrink the tumor. My last resort was surgery. Thankfully, I have been healthy ever since. 

Because of my history, I have always been concerned about the quality of the food that I put into my body, as well as the quality of the products that I use externally. Remember, your skin is the largest organ of your body. 

Unlike our ancestors, today we are susceptible to harmful toxins, chemicals, pesticides and residual growth hormones injected into the animals that we eat. I am not willing to take chances with my health, and the best way that we all can maintain our wellness is through mindful lifestyle practices and staying connected to the advancement of food culture in our world. 

Be committed 

Fitting thoughtful eating habits into your busy modern lifestyle without proper at-home meal preparation spells doom when creating sustainable, mindful food habits.  

Just like you, in the beginning of my own plant-based lifestyle journey, I often found myself giving up because I wasn’t getting all the nutrition my body needed. I fell into the traps of extreme clean eating, which often left me feeling weak. As a result, I would binge on processed foods when I pushed myself too hard or missed a meal. 

It can be difficult to combat sudden cravings because of the lack of accessibility to unprocessed, unrefined snacks and healthy plant-based restaurant options.  
Despite my own initial setbacks, I stayed committed. I realized that my health came with organization, patience, willpower and kindness. Today, I am a personal chef and lifestyle consultant certified in plant-based nutrition and specializing in organic, vegan and raw foods. 

With every new client, I am reminded of the numerous challenges facing those beginning their journey toward a balanced, plant-based lifestyle. 

It can be difficult to combat sudden cravings because of the lack of accessibility to unprocessed, unrefined snacks and healthy plant-based restaurant options.  

In addition to limited plant-based food options, there is a lack of transparency in the scientific research critical to understanding just how beneficial a whole-food plant-based diet is for wellness. 

For decades, most food products and beverages available to consumers in the U.S. have been loaded with refined sugars, hormones, chemicals, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which some research suggests can lead to auto-immune disorders, obesity and increasing cancer rates. 

How can we find our way out of the cycle? 

The first step

The first step in undertaking a plant-based lifestyle is identifying the type of diet you are willing to commit to. A gradual progression may be best.

For example, I follow a plant-based, or flexitarian, diet that consists of mainly plant foods, with little animal protein. I allow no more than 5-10 percent of animal protein and by-products (beef, chicken, pork, seafood, dairy) in my overall diet, with an emphasis on organically farmed foods and from-scratch recipes excluding processed ingredients. 

This type of diet works best for me, and honestly, I’m not ready to go 100 percent vegan. I don’t know what I would do without my super occasional bowl of pho and a good cheese board. Overall, I maintain great nutrition and wellness by way of organic plant nutrients. When I do decide to eat animal protein, I make sure it’s organic.

To take it a step further, you may choose to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. A vegan diet consists of 100 percent plant food, non-animal by-products and beverages (not excluding processed foods or GMOs.) 

A vegetarian diet consists of plant foods and by-products with the allowance of dairy (milk and cheese) and eggs. Some eat minimal amounts of fowl and fish and consider themselves vegetarian but could also fall into the pescatarian (plants and seafood) and flexitarian group. 

Getting started

Plant-based cooking doesn’t have to be boring or consist only of salads, liquid meals and bland steamed vegetables. There are plenty of global cuisine influences, from Asian to Mediterranean, that feature an array of nutrient-dense plants cooked in aromatic herbs and loaded with medicinal properties that make dishes delectable. 

Integrating plant foods like mushrooms and beans as the focal point of a meal as opposed to chicken or beef is the best and easiest way to get started. Choose an ingredient and build your way out by choosing complementary vegetables and flavors. 

Campaigns like Meatless Mondays dedicate an entire day to meat-free eating. Making time for cooking is almost as important as deciding what to eat. Simple, at-home and made-from-scratch cooking will turn eating habits into a lifestyle. If your schedule doesn’t permit last-minute food decisions, make sure you meal plan for the week.  

Meal planning

Consistent meal planning and a successful transformation of eating habits into a lifestyle practice will enable you to understand your metabolism and frequency of cravings. The goal is to understand your body and make your eating habits sustainable within your daily routine. 

Meal planning is not difficult, however, it does require planning and organization. Meal prepping is best completed on a Sunday or the day just before the start of your work/school week. 

To get started, you'll need meal storage containers for seven days. These should be in a variety of sizes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. You may also want to buy beverage containers or mason jars for tea or water flavored with fresh fruit to prevent your intake of sugary drinks and soda. 

Next, spend some time planning the week’s menu. This is completely up to your own culinary discretion. If you don’t mind eating the same things every day for at least the first week, I find that replicating a simple menu centered around your chosen plant proteins and carbohydrates creates a sense of ease for newbies overwhelmed by it all.  

Remember, you are your own master; you will receive what you put into your own body. It’s OK to take the slow road to plant-based living. The great thing is that you took the first step toward the journey. Good luck. 

What to cook

Samant meal planning

To get started, here is a simple breakfast recipe that includes quinoa, an incredible source of plant protein that boasts 24 grams of protein per 1 cup. 

Recipe: Gluten-Free & Vegan Sweet Potato Quinoa Porridge 

1 cup dry quinoa, rinsed and drained
1 ½ cups almond milk, divided (nut allergy: use coconut milk)
½ cup sweet potato puree
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons ground flaxseed
2-3 tablespoons raw honey or maple syrup, more as desired
¼ cup chopped walnuts

1. In a pot, add 1 cup of water and 1 cup of almond milk. Bring to a boil and add the quinoa, sweet potato puree and cinnamon. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook for 10-12 minutes or until the liquid has evaporated.
2. Once the liquid has evaporated, take off the heat and stir in the ground flaxseed. To serve, place some of the porridge in a bowl and add about ¼ cup almond milk or desired amount. Top with the walnuts, honey or maple syrup and coconut.