There’s been so much interest lately in plant-based foods and diets, especially among the Latino community! While there may be some health-related motivation (I mean … plants are healthy, right?), there are many other reasons Latinos may be interested in going plant-based. Maybe they want to eat in a way that has less environmental impact. There’s also been a lot of discussion around social justice, decolonialism, and food which is causing a lot of people to want to eat less meat.
While eating plant-based is not a requirement to be healthy, it’s a great way to expand your intake of vegetables and important nutrients like fiber. It also doesn’t have to contradict our Latino heritage. It’s a misconception that Latin food has to be so meat-heavy. In fact, Latin food is naturally rich in a lot of great plant-based options like beans, nuts, and seeds.
What does it mean to follow a plant-based diet?
The term plant-based is not as clear as “vegan” or “vegetarian.” Both vegan and vegetarian tend to mean restricting or cutting out certain animal products, while plant-based is more focused on what you’re including rather than what you’re not eating. All of the nutrition information in this post is relevant to anyone who is consuming fewer animal products than average, whether that’s plant-based, vegetarian, or strictly vegan. But for the sake of clarity, let’s talk about what these different terms mean.
Vegan, Vegetarian, or Plant-Based?
Vegetarian tends to mean a diet that does not include animal flesh, but typically would allow dairy products and eggs (although it is common for eggs to also be restricted).
Vegan tends to mean a diet that eliminates all animal products including dairy, eggs, honey, gelatin, etc. Many people use vegan to mean an entire lifestyle and not just one’s diet, so someone who is vegan may also be careful not to purchase clothing, household products, or any other item made from animal products (leather and beeswax candles are two common examples).
Plant-based, on the other hand, does not imply a strict avoidance of any one food group. Plant-based diets focus on plants as the center of the diet, and may include animal products very occasionally. This means that someone following a plant-based diet is likely eating mostly vegan meals, but may have 1-2 servings of an animal product a week, for example. The total number of servings of animal products a week varies from person to person.
Benefits of a plant-based diet
A plant-based diet usually comes along with a lot of fruits and vegetables, plus plant-based proteins which tend to be high in fiber (like beans or garbanzos). So it’s usually easy for people on a plant-based diet to meet their daily fiber requirement (or even exceed it). A high fiber diet is beneficial for digestive and gut health, and may also be protective against chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes.
Many of the most common fat sources in a plant-based diet—nuts, seeds, avocado, plant oils—tend to be the healthy unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats can be anti-inflammatory, beneficial for cholesterol levels, and are also important for keeping you full between meals and absorbing your vitamins properly.
Plenty of vitamins and minerals
A diet that is high in plant foods is going to be rich in many vitamins and minerals, particularly Potassium, Vitamin C, and Vitamin E.
In addition to vitamins and minerals, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is also going to be a great source of other beneficial compounds and antioxidants found in plants, such as flavonoids and carotenoids, all of which are anti-inflammatory and supportive of a healthy immune system.
Less restrictive, all-or-nothing mindset
This applies to the “plant-based” term, in particular. Rather than emphasizing that one’s diet should completely restrict animal products, it asks people to emphasize and focus on plants. This can make it easier to stick with it, and lead to less stress.
What nutrients may be missing (or lower) on a plant-based diet
Because a plant-based diet is less restrictive than a vegan or vegetarian diet, and there may be animal products from time to time, nutrient deficiencies are less of a concern for plant-based eaters than they are for vegans or vegetarians. But there are still some nutrients that plant-based eaters will have to watch out for and try to boost in their diet either through food choices or a supplement.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, 22 of which we need to eat every day to stay healthy (these are called “essential amino acids”). Animal products all naturally contain all 22 amino acids making them “complete” proteins, while most plant products are missing at least one or two amino acids, so they are “incomplete” proteins. The good news is that while most plant products don’t have all the amino acids, there aren’t any amino acids that cannot be found in plant products at all. So what plant-based eaters need to know to make sure they’re getting all their amino acids is that they shouldn’t rely on any one source of protein. Just because beans are a good protein source doesn’t mean they can be your only protein source. Mix it up with some quinoa, some nuts, and make sure to include grains in your diet (more on that later).
Iron is most commonly associated with red meat, but there are plenty of plant-based sources of iron, including beans, garbanzos, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. However, plant-based eaters still need to be careful because plant-based iron and animal-based iron get absorbed differently by the body. This means they need to consume more iron in total to make up for that difference, and you may need to prepare your food differently to help you absorb the iron better.
Quick tip: Add some vitamin C to your iron to boost absorption. My favorite way is to serve a tomato salsa with beans and rice.
How much of a concern B12 should be for you comes down to how often you are eating any animal-based foods. Vitamin B12 is almost exclusively found in animal products, so if you are completely restricting animal products a B12 supplement is a good idea (consult with your doctor or RD to discuss your unique needs and recommendations). For plant-based o vegetarian eaters, it’s more case-by-case. You would do well to emphasize non-meat sources of B12 such as milk or eggs, certain foods with vitamin B12 added to them, or to take a supplement. Again, every situation is different so talk to your doctor or RD about if you need a supplement and how much.
We’ve all heard that calcium is good for your bones and that dairy is a great source of calcium. If your diet contains milk products like milk, cheese, or yogurt (or even plant-milks so long as they have been fortified with calcium), you may not have any problems meeting your calcium goals. Other plant-based foods you can eat to boost your calcium intake are broccoli and cabbage (curtido anyone?). You may have read that dried beans are also high in calcium, but I don’t recommend them as a calcium source because we don’t absorb the calcium very well from beans because the phytates in beans reduce our ability to absorb the calcium as well.
Plant-based diets and Latin food.
Latin food is a great fit for plant-based diets because there are so many plant-based proteins and grains that are already part of traditional Latin cuisines. While meat is common in Latin food, so are many vegetarian and plant-based options that can easily become the major parts of your diet.
Many varieties of beans are native to the Americas, including black beans and pinto beans. Mexican and hispanic food contain many different bean dishes, setting you up nicely to enjoy Latin foods on a plant-based diet. While we may be used to thinking of beans as a side dish, try moving them to main dish status if you’re going plant-based. This can mean filling tamales or tacos with beans, or serving up soups and stews made with beans.
Bonus: when you use beans as a protein source you get a lot of fiber and iron with your protein!
Garbanzos and lentils:
Garbanzos and lentils are pretty similar to beans from a nutrition standpoint, but deserve their own point because they have slightly different roles in Latin food. While we may be used to seeing beans used in a wide variety of dishes, garbanzos and lentils are most often served in soups and stews. Many use pork as a flavoring, but you can easily make these soups vegetarian. For a really good, simple recipe for veggie garbanzo soup, check out this blog post.
While making sure we get all the essential amino acids we need by combining complementary proteins may sound difficult or confusing, it’s built right into our Latin food traditions. Beans and grains are a complementary combo, meaning that beans have the amino acids that grains lack, and grains have the amino acids that beans lack. So the super traditional combo of rice and beans is not only delicious but it has a nutrition purpose, too. Don’t forget that corn is a grain, so corn tortiillas + beans is also a complete protein. Again, our traditional way of eating just naturally fits with a plant-based lifestyle.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are another main source of protein in plant-based diets. Latin food uses plenty of nuts and seeds, especially in snacks, desserts, and sauces, that can help you get a protein boost. Many types of mole have almonds, peanuts, and/or sesame seeds. Treats made from pepitas or with almond are also common.
A plant-based diet is naturally higher in carbohydrates, but that’s not a bad thing. All carbs provide fuel, but by focusing on fiber-rich complex carbohydrates sources, you can make sure your blood sugar is better managed and you feel full. Complex carbohydrates also tend to be great sources of other vitamins and minerals. Corn (and masa), quinoa, brown rice, potatoes, plantains, and a huge variety of root vegetables (malanga, boniato, ñame to name just a few) are all great sources of fiber-rich carbohydrates in Latin diets.
How to get started with a plant-based diet
Start slow. Suddenly increasing your fiber intake could cause an upset stomach, painful bloating, or problems in the bathroom. To get the benefits from fiber without feeling bad, increase a little bit at a time. Try swapping out 1 meal a day for a plant-based meal to get started.
Find plant based foods you already like and build meals around those. Making a new recipe only to realize you’re not a fan can be discouraging. When that’s paired with starting a new meal plan it could throw you off track. Start building your confidence by identifying the plant based foods you already know and like. In Latin foods, that might look like rice and beans, arroz con gandules, tacos de papa, or molletes.
Try one new plant-based recipe per week. This will keep things interesting enough to prevent you from burning out on the foods you already know and like, but is not so fast that you’re going to get overwhelmed or discouraged.
What should my overall diet look like?
While the exact mix of nutrients and foods that is healthiest varies from person to person, a really good starting point for a balanced diet is to use something called The Plate Method.
The Plate method asks you to visually divide your plate into sections, and to place on your plate:
1/4 plate protein
1/4 plate carbohydrates
1/2 plate fruits and vegetables
This means, for your average person, a healthy plate would look something like this:
But for plant-based, vegan, or vegetarian diets, that guide above needs a bit of adjusting. For instance, many of the plant-based proteins are also carbohydrates, so plant-based eaters may need to adjust carbohydrates on other parts of the plate.
A balanced plant-based plate may look a little more like this:
Latin food and plate method:
There are a lot of plate method resources out there, but most of them don’t consider Latin and Hispanic diets. So if you want to eat Cuban food, for example, you are left on your own to figure out where a plantain fits in the balanced plate because most plate method guides won’t mention plantains.
I’ve created a resource for Latinos to build their own balanced meal using the Latin ingredients they’re familiar with.
Balanced Latin Meals Guide
Popular plant-based meals from Latin America
Have you heard or been told that it’s really difficult to eat a plant-based diet while enjoying Latin food? Well the truth is that there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options from all across Latin America.
Most Latin American countries have some version of rice and beans, which is a great jumping off point.
Also consider dishes like:
Tacos, tamales, tortas, empanadas, etc. with vegetarian fillings like:
Beans (whole or refried)
Recipes to get started
Need some ideas for recipes to get you started with plant-based meals? Check out my favorite plant-based Latin dishes from around the web here:
When to get more help
Hopefully this introduction gave you some ideas on how to get started with a plant-based diet, and how you can keep eating the Latin food you know and love while doing so. Adapting to a new way of eating takes time, but it’s a great way to expand your cooking skills and try out new foods.
If you want to make large changes to your diet, and you have concerns about how to do so or want to make sure you’re getting all the protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals you need, that’s a great time to get personalized help. Contact a registered dietitian to discuss your health history, your individual nutrient recommendations, or just help you think through how to fit these changes into your unique life. Find out more about working with me to develop a healthy lifestyle that feels authentically you by clicking here.
Or get a downloadable guide to find out where each Latin ingredient fits on a balanced plate by visiting the shop.