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Plant based swaps for meat

A number of food movements have drawn attention over the past few years, but plant based eating continues to rise and shake our thinking about food, nutrition and planetary health. As more people transition from traditional meat oriented meals to plant based, the question of what and how to swap meats for plants whilst still including essential nutrients in the diet and of course flavour and sustenance arises. And, whilst there are a growing number of plant based ‘meats’ available on supermarket shelves which can support the initial phase of transition, our best option with meat for plant swaps is, as always, with whole food ingredients.


When making the switch from meat to plants a few key nutrients need to be considered, namely iron, vitamin B12, Vitamin D3, DHA and protein. Each of these nutrients is found abundantly in animal tissues and in a form generally more bioavailable to the body. However, you can still keep on top of your dietary intake of these nutrients with a few simple hacks…

IRON is required for a range of metabolic processes, including oxygen transport, DNA synthesis, electron transport and particularly important in certain stages of development such as early childhood, during menstruation and pregnancy. Haem iron is found in animal tissues, whilst non-haem iron is present in plant foods. Both can be absorbed and utilised by the body, however haem iron generally has a higher rate of absorption. This means in order to meet the recommended daily intake of iron whilst consuming plant based foods we need to consume them on a more frequent basis. Iron rich plant foods include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs.

Try iron rich plant based swap for meat meals including:

  • Tofu meatless balls with tomato pasta sauce and zucchini noodles
  • Lentil burgers with the lot on whole grain rolls
  • Cauliflower schnitzel with hemp crumb and nutty seed salad

VITAMIN B12 is important for the function of nerve and blood cells, for synthesis of DNA and to reduce risk of megaloblastic anaemia and is present in animal tissues, fortified foods and synthetic forms via supplementation. Monitoring B12 levels when consuming a 100% plant based diet is essential and can be done via blood pathology. You can incorporate some B12 into plant based meals with B12 fortified foods such as nutritional yeast, breakfast cereals and vegan spreads.

Grab some nutritional yeast and include it in meals and snacks such as:

  • Home made risotto with herbs, beans and root vegetables to deliver that cheesy flavour without the cheese
  • Sprinkled on avocado on a seeded toast
  • Seed snaps with hummus

VITAMIN D3 functions in the body to support the absorption of calcium and the work of the parathyroid gland, and as it is more commonly known to keep bones and teeth strong and healthy. Whilst the greatest source of Vitamin D is through sunlight, these days with more people working indoors for longer periods, children with increased screen time versus outdoor time and the frequent application of sunscreens, Vitamin D deficiency has become more prevalent. There are some animal foods (cod liver oil, swordfish, salmon) which contain vitamin D, however your best option to get a hit of Vitamin D3 whilst transitioning to more plant based meals is through time outdoors in the off peak sunlight. Aim for 20 minutes each day in the morning and late afternoon hours.

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is an Omega 3 essential fat playing a number of roles in the body including providing cell membrane structure and viscosity, reducing inflammation, and for proper foetal development and healthy ageing. Common in animal foods such as fatty fish, sardines and anchovies, when making the switch to plant based meals and considering DHA intake, fear not because it’s also rich in algae and seaweed too.

Aim to integrate seaweed such as nori and dulse throughout the week in your meals including:

  • Old favourite sushi – preferably with a brown rice and additional edamame on the side
  • Nourish bowls with a seaweed and sesame seasoning
  • Dulse flakes incorporated into slow cooker bean and root vegetable based meals

Finally PROTEIN. Our bodies require require protein for growth, development, repair, communication and signalling and whilst meat is a complete protein source containing all 9 essential amino acids, all plant foods contain some of these essential amino acids required to then build a complete protein too. When it comes to protein and making the switch from meat to plants the focus should be to eat diversely throughout the day with the aim to integrate plant foods rich in protein such as lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds including the tiny powerhouses, hemp, flax and chia seeds.

Go for gold on plant based protein rich meals such as:

  • Thai spice bean curry with brown rice
  • Seared spicy tempeh with baked eggplant, veggies and caramelised onion on toasted sourdough
  • Cajun chickpeas with avocado and leftover baked sweet potato for breakfast


Supportive nutrients:

Haem iron present in most animal tissues has been shown to be readily absorbed by the body, thereby more efficiently meeting iron requirements than non-haem iron present in plant based foods. However, you can effectively increase absorption of non-haem iron in plant foods by combining with its synergistic nutrient – Vitamin C. Not too much planning is required for this either – add tomatoes to a salad or a burger, spice things up with fresh chilli, include delicious herbs like parsley in the meal or very simply add a big squeeze of lemon.

When it comes to absorbing plant proteins best it all starts in the mouth and with chewing your food well. Be present, mindful and slow with eating your food. Chew thoroughly before swallowing. The chewing process activates key salivary enzymes which support the breakdown and absorption of proteins as they move through the digestive tract and into the small intestine where they are fully absorbed but the first stage of protein digestion starts in the mouth.

Inhibitive nutrients:

If you are turning to more plant based meat alternatives and conscious of your iron intake, be aware of how you consume other foods and nutrients with iron rich plant sources. In particular calcium rich foods and caffeine. Both calcium and caffeine when consumed with iron rich sources (supplementary or through food) can inhibit the absorption of iron. Easy solutions are to avoid the coffee or tea with an iron rich breakfast or lunch and if still consuming dairy e.g. cheese, milk, yoghurt enjoy it as part of a snack rather than accompanying your iron rich dinner.

Food Combining:

There are a couple of schools of thought when it comes to the physical combinations of foods and ingredients in a plant based meal in order to tick key nutrient – macro and micro – boxes. One promotes combining whole grains and legumes or legumes and seeds in a meal. Legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains contain essential amino acids but not all amino acids in a single food ingredient, therefore in order to create a complete protein for the meal you need to eat both or a combination within the same meal. In doing so, there is reduced risk of protein deficit in the diet and the body’s need for protein for growth, development, repair, the production of hormones and enzymes (amongst many other biochemical roles in the body) are met.

The alternate philosophy is to eat a diverse range of plant based ingredients across the course of the day and week (aiming for about 30 different plant based ingredients each day), thereby working on the accumulation of essential amino acids over the course of the day rather than focusing on the combinations of foods in single meals.

At the end of the day, the choice of one approach over another is over to the individual and what they feel they can realistically achieve (as with all practical approaches to diet), however one point to draw attention to here is to consider the satiety that comes with ingredients such as whole grains and legumes in a meal. Whilst a big salad sandwich on wholegrain bread with plenty of vegetables and some healthy fats is delicious, the addition of plant proteins such as seared tempeh or tofu, lentil patties or chickpea burger for instance, will undoubtedly deliver more sustenance to the meal. With this inclusion you’re less likely be hungry in the hours following and reaching for sub-optimal food option to fill the void.

+ Written and published by Jacqueline Alwill (Accredited Nutritionist) for Well Being magazine, February 2020.

Jacqueline Alwill

Jacqueline is an Accredited Nutritional Medicine Practitioner specialising in family and early childhood nutrition and gut health. She writes for several media publications, hosts a regular nutrition segment on Channel 7 and in 2016 published her first book, "Seasons to Share" (Murdoch Books). Jacqueline is passionate about working with corporations and brands to support and educate their community and audience and is currently a media spokesperson and ambassador for Remedy Drinks, Eimele Australia, Woolworths, Kitchenaid and Nutrition Director at Bondi Bubs Wholefoods. She is mum to Jet and outside her working hours you'll find her with her family in the surf, on the beach, or out and about in nature.

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