The answer is a loud and resounding “NO!” When you leave behind the idea of a meat-centered meal, your food horizon expands exponentially into the literally thousands of food choices and tastes that the plant world has to offer.
There is a myth here in the Western world that a diet of vegetables is bland and unappetizing. People declare that eating plants means consuming mostly salad and tofu and never again having the opportunity to enjoy a good hearty meal. In reality a plant-based diet is much more varied, flavourful and interesting than an animal-based one. Plant-based diets are so diverse that you never have to eat a food you do not like.
Think about this for a moment. How much variety are you actually eating on your regular Western Diet? North Americans have four basic choices for the center of their meals – poultry, beef, pork and seafood – to which they add a couple of vegetables to fill out the plate. Because of time constraints, familiarity and habit people tend to focus on a handful of favourite meals and cook them over and over again. Author, Simram Sethi, in her book “Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love” points out that 95% of the worlds’ calories now come from only about thirty species. In the Western world, 75% of all of our food is derived from a mere twelve plant species and five animal species (1). When you think about it, a meat-based diet introduces a huge limiting factor into your food choices because of the limited meat options available. On the other hand, when you exclude meats and dairy products as foods you have over 20,000 species of edible plants to choose from.
It is true that starting a plant-based diet can be overwhelming. There are a startling number of foods and tastes to choose from, many of which you may have never heard of before. On top of this there are some new cooking methods to learn. However there is no big secret here. Just jump right in. Experiment with new foods and see what appeals to you. The internet is a wonderful source for eating plant-based with thousands of recipes and their methods explained in intricate detail, often with an accompanying video. When we started on the plant-based eating journey nine years ago we surprised ourselves by eating a different meal EVERY DAY for over a year. By the end of that experimental time we had amassed quite a hefty file of favourite dishes. And that wasn’t the end of our recipe collecting. Even after all this time we are continually adding new and delicious recipes to our recipe book. Of course, we do have our favourite dishes but there are so many of them that months may go by before we get around to repeating a meal. We find that a wonderful part of this way of eating is the planning and anticipation of our next meal, whether it be a whole new experience or a tried and true favourite.
Spices come into play in a big way in plant-based eating. Not only adding delicious taste variety, herbs and spices also provide extra antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to your food. Many people seem to have a fear of spices, saying they don’t like “spicy” food. Oftentimes what they really mean is that they don’t like “hot” food. Though often misunderstood, spices actually add a tremendous flavour variety to your dishes. Heat in food actually comes with the addition of a source of chili peppers and, if you do like heat in your food, it is easy to add that in too. Another dimension to eating plant-based can be enjoyed through world cuisines. Indian, Thai, Mexican, African, Chinese, Caribbean and even Italian foods offer distinct and delectable ways to consume plants.
Have you heard about umami? It is the name of the “fifth taste” discernable by humans. We have known for centuries that our tongues can distinguish four tastes – sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The fifth taste was discovered and named nearly a century ago by Kikunae Ikeda, a chemistry professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo, but it wasn’t until 2002 that studies discovered that our mouths actually contain taste receptors for this fifth taste. Its source is an amino acid called L-glutamate. (2). On its own, umami is not palatable, but when combined with other foods it shines (3). Umami makes foods complex, deeply flavorful and satisfying. Umami blends with the other four tastes but lingers longer in the mouth as a pleasant, savoury, mouth-watering taste. Umami makes salty foods taste saltier and sweet foods taste sweeter while conveniently reducing the intensity of bitter and sour foods. The quintessential example of umami is a food that has cooked slowly for a long time – a broth, soup or stew – and plants have umami in spades. Ikeda, the scientist who first studied this subject, had noticed umami in cheese and meat but found it was strongest in dashi, a rich stock enjoyed in Japan that is produced from kombu (kelp). Roasting, browning, grilling, sautéing, and caramelizing foods increases their umami.
The following plant-based foods are excellent sources of umami.
Mushrooms (especially shiitake and porcini mushrooms)
Tomatoes (especially sun-dried tomatoes)
Asparagus, onions, potatoes, carrots, corn, spinach, sweet potatoes, winter squash, celery, peas, sweet corn, cabbage, avocado (umami increases when these vegetables are cooked)
Soybeans and other beans
Nuts and seeds (umami increases if they are toasted)
Nutritional yeast, soy sauce, ketchup, Marmite
Herbs (especially cumin, paprika, rosemary, thyme)
Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and kim chi.
Interesting note 1: Human milk is rich in umami, containing the highest glutamate content of all mammalian milks (4)
Interesting note 2: Parmesan cheese is a food very high in umami. It turns out that the vegan parmesan-like cheese substitute that we call Parmenon (see Recipe in the blog called “Three Recipes To Get You Started”) is also high in umami. When you look at its ingredients, the main ones of which are cashews and nutritional yeast, this makes perfect sense.
Rest assured that the longer you eat plant-based the more your palate will change. You will delight in new food revelations and your delicious discoveries will more than make up for dishes that once were at the top of your list. Soon you may even find yourself laughing at the notion that eating plant-based could ever be boring.
1 Sethi, Simran. Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love. Harper Collins. Nov 10 2015
2 Lindemann, B., Ogiwara, Y., Ninomiya, Y. The Discovery of Umami . Chemical Senses. November, 2002; 27(9): 843–844.
3 Rolls, E. Functional neuroimaging of umami taste: what makes umami pleasant?. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. September, 2009. 90 (supplement): 804S–813S.
4 Agostini, C., Carratu, B., Riva, E., Sanzini, E. Free amino acid content in standard infant formulas: comparison with human milk. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. August, 2000; 19 (4): 434–438.