Wanting to change to a plant-based diet can be scary and challenging. Be it for the environment, health reasons or animal ethics, vegan and vegetarian diets have their fair share of warnings and concerns from the public. That is why we interviewed Kristen Carli, a private practice Registered Dietitian who focuses in chronic diseases and vegan/vegetarian diets. With her knowledge and expertise working with clients who want to shift to plant-based eating, Kristen answered the most popular questions and some more personal questions from the Spoon community. 

Kristen Carli, owner of Camelback Nutrition and Wellness, started her private practice because of her love of nutrition and wanting to share it with others. She focuses on plant based diets because through her studies and experiences, she got to really see how the diet can help for overall health beyond just losing weight. She follows a "flexitarian" diet and tries to avoid labels like pescatarian or vegetarian for her patients, as she understands that not everyone fits into a specific description nor is it an all-or-nothing change. 

Diet and Health

Sofia Acevedo

The most important part of making a change in diet to vegan or vegetarian is understanding how this will affect our lifestyle and overall health. Even if your reason is not to be healthier, a diet change will always have an impact on performance and proper body functioning. Carli shares that lifestyles are more than just your diet and exercise; sleep and stress are important, too.

"Too much stress and low sleep will not get you to your weight loss goals," Carli shares.

Additionally, it's important to note that nutrition is more than just weight loss. Cali shared that, "Nutrition helps for chronic disease prevention, fueling your body and giving your body what you need to be able to function properly." That said, every time you start a new diet or a lifestyle change it is important to note how it will impact your overall health and understand that it all goes hand in hand.

Why Vegetarian?

Sofia Acevedo

As we all know, there are hundreds of reasons for people to change their diet to plant-based: the environmental consequences of animal farming, the ethical concerns in killing animals for foods, the health benefits of a plant-based diets etc. These are all valid reasons to try out a vegan or vegetarian diet. However, whatever the reason you decide to switch, the benefits of plant based diets are really worth the try. 

pepper, tomato, pasture, vegetable, lemon, Fresh, farmer's market
Caroline Ingalls

Just increasing your vegetable and fruit consumption helps you get more antioxidants and fiber. Studies show that vegetarian diets decrease the risk for chronic diseases and various types of cancer. Additionally, those suffering from high-blood pressure benefit from vegetarian diets more than anything. Overall, plant-based diets are characterized for lower intakes of saturated fat, cholesterol and animal protein as well as higher intakes of complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin C and E, carotenoids and other phytochemicals

Myths vs Real Concerns 

The number one reason why most people who want to try a vegetarian diet but never follow is that they are scared or intimidated by the change.

Carli said that, "The biggest barrier to a plant-based diet is not knowing enough or not having enough resources to follow it though."

Additionally, she shared that a big concern with newly transitioning vegetarians or vegan is the lack of protein options and a heavy reliance on high carbohydrate foods.

Thai, salad, coconutbowl, Healthy, Vegan, glutenfree, kale, Cashews, homemade
Nicole Burnett

Even though there are real concerns for the diet, most people feel intimidated by the crazy myths they find online. Carli shared that the most common myth is that it is impossible to eat enough protein. Which she states is obviously not true.

"It's not was easy as omnivores but it is not impossible; protein is achievable in a plant-based diet, you just need to plan and educate," Carli said.

Another common myth is that it is not appropriate for all lifestyles. But Carli shared that with proper planning and education, all necessary nutrients for growth can be achieved with a plant-based diet. 

herb, vegetable, cress, watercress
Grace Becker

Outside for the major concern of protein sources, there are some other real deficiencies that can come from an unplanned vegan or vegetarian diet. The common deficiences are:

Vitamin B12: This is only found in animal protein, so for those following strict vegan diets it will be very hard to get with just your food. However, complementing the diet with a B12 supplement will do the trick. 

Iron: Iron is mostly found in meats, but it can be found in other plant-based sources like tofu or lentils. Those both count as  good protein sources and as an iron source.

Calcium: Dairy is the main source of calcium, so a diet with no milk and dairy could lead to a calcium deficiency. However, calcium can be found in many plant foods, they're just not as famous as milk. Options like bok choy or dark leafy greens and cruciferous are good sources of calcium.

Processed Foods

Elyse Carley

With all the new alternative products like impossible meats or dairy-free cheese, the new question that arises is: how can it be healthier to eat these processed products over organic meat? Carli explains that first of all, she does approve and consume these plant-based alternatives, just not on a daily basis.

She shared that, "Not only are they much more expensive, but I do try to follow a whole-foods diet. However, they are great to eat from time to time to spice things up." 

Her answer to that question was very simple and straightforward, it really depends on your goals and priorities. If you want to support the environment then I say go for it; they have great protein and taste good. If you are motivated by health, maybe have those sparingly since most of them are not necessarily healthier than a regular piece of meat. There is not a one size fits all; it comes down to what works for you goals and your motivations.

Sofia Acevedo

Are impossible meats healthier for you than regular meats? probably not, since they both have similar nutrition contents and are high in calories. Will it align with your goals of taking care of the environment and not hurting animals? Yes, indeed. So take it food by food, nutrient by nutrient and remember there is not a one fits all rule book for becoming plant-based.

What About Soy?

There’s a lot of confusion around soy, but most research from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that soy has been linked to positive benefits for treating prostate cancer and regular consumption has great benefits. Carli also shares that it lowers cholesterol and is very health promoting. The only concern that is still debatable is for those with hypothyroidism if they are on medication. There's still research being done on that specific aspect, but it has no conclusions yet. However, for those with overall good health and no chronic condition, soy should not be a concern at all. 

dairy product, cheese, milk, candy, tofu
Laura Palladino

Top Picks From Carli

Favorite protein source: Every type of beans, "I eat beans once a day."

Favorite product: Otamot, a tomato sauce with no added sugars and extra veggies blended in the mix

Favorite plant-based milk: Soy milk

Some photos courtesy of Kristen Carli.