Healthy Food Alternatives for Transitioning Your Diet

By Sue Bigelow

Finding the best food and ingredient alternatives or substitutions can be challenging, especially in the beginning of any dietary change. If you are looking to transform to a more plant-based diet and give up those inflammatory processed foods then keep reading. Maybe you’d like to try to go vegetarian and eventually adopt a dairy-free diet as well. Some heart healthy diets ask for no added oils. So how do you cook in a skillet without oil? Do you need to go gluten-free but you love pasta—no problem! With a little help, transitioning into a new world of cooking and eating can be made a lot simpler. The following meat alternatives and substitutions are just a beginning into the transformation culinary art of going against the grain of the standard American diet (SAD).

Meat Substitutions and Alternatives

There is plenty of protein in numerous plant-based foods. When making the switch to a plant-based diet, it may be necessary to use meat substitutes to help with the transition. Once your plant-based eating is a normal regime, you will find you need fewer substitutions that mimic your old foods and simply enjoy the new world of culinary creations. Here are a few meat alternatives to help you out.

Legumes: Beans, peas and lentils are all part of the legume family. These are an all-natural, high-fiber protein source that can easily be used as the main course or in place of meat in recipes. Most legumes are also a rich source of B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium and potassium. They can help fight cancer and heart disease, lower cholesterol, help manage diabetes and help with weight loss.

Mushrooms: With a unique and savory flavor when cooked, mushrooms can easily replace any meat layer in a dish. Portobello mushrooms can be used whole and grilled as burgers at the BBQ, stuffed and baked or roasted and stacked with other vegetables as in Portobello Napoleon. Mushrooms can be cooked whole, chopped fine or sliced for a multitude of culinary creations.

Vegetarian Burgers: There are a variety of vegetarian burgers available on the market now and many recipes to make your own. They can be made with a variety of grains, beans and soy to provide a meat-like taste and texture that can substitute for ground meat. Even restaurants not offer such fare, such as a farro-mushroom burger I found at Two Brothers Tavern in Middlebury, Vermont.

Tofu: A curd made from soybeans, tofu is very mild in taste and easily assumes the flavor of any recipe. Silken tofu works well in sauces and desserts. The soft goes well in soups. Firm varieties are better in stir-fries and other recipes requiring tofu to hold its shape. For a denser texture, freeze tofu, thaw and squeeze out excess water before using it in your recipe. Sprouted tofu is made with sprouted soybeans, which are higher in protein, calcium and iron. When beans or seeds are sprouted, they’re more nutritious and easier to digest than the regular beans or seeds, but this also lend to a bit more calories and fat.*

Note: If you are going to eat soy, it’s advisable to look for brands that do not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Tempeh: Made from fermented soybeans, tempeh has a distinct flavor and firm texture with an earthy flavor that can be used in place of ground meat and works well in curries, chilies and stir-fries. Tempeh’s fermentation process and its retention of the whole bean give it a higher content of protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins than tofu.

Seitan: Made from wheat gluten, soy sauce or tamari, ginger, garlic and seaweed, seitan is high in protein, low in fat and a good source of iron; it’s often called the vegetarian’s white meat. Seitan can be shaped into roasts or used in recipes where strips or chunks are needed such as stews, stir-fries or fajitas. This meat-like food, however, should be used with caution because it can be high in sodium and, thus, affect blood pressure. This alternative is obviously not suited for the gluten-free diet.

Textured Soy Protein (TSP): TSP is made of defatted soybeans, cooked under pressure and then dried. It is incredibly wealthy in complete protein and contains no fat, so it is an excellent alternative to meat. This versatile vegetarian meat substitute can be used in virtually any recipe calling for ground beef or turkey. It works great for tacos, meatloaf, chili, sloppy joes and more. Be cautious of flavored varieties that may contain monosodium glutamate (MSG), chemicals and artificial dyes.

Quinoa: A grain crop that is grown for its edible seeds, quinoa is pronounced KEEN-wah. Although a tiny seed, this little guy is full of protein, 8 grams per cup. It is the only non-meat option that supplies the nine essential amino acids our bodies can’t make on their own, including lysine, which is essential for tissue growth and repair. Quinoa is non-GMO, gluten-free and usually grown organically.

Seeds: Hemp seeds contain 10 grams of protein in 3 tablespoons can be added to oatmeal, smoothies, pesto or baked goods. Sunflower seed kernels contain plenty of protein—7.3 grams per quarter cup—followed by sesame seeds having 6.38 grams and poppy seeds at 5.4 grams of the same measurement. Chia seeds are also an easy way to add protein and fiber to almost any recipe. They have 4.7 grams of protein per ounce, about two tablespoons. Chia seeds can be sprinkled over salads, stirred into oatmeal, blended into smoothies, or they can be the main event. When chia seeds are soaked in liquid they expand into a gelatinous texture forming a rich and creamy pudding.

Dairy Alternatives

You can leave the cow in the pasture happily grazing on the green grass Mother Nature supplies and still have your milk and drink it too! With the growing awareness of dairy allergies, lactose intolerance and greater understanding of species-specific milk products (such as goat cheese), more people are turning to the alternatives that are on the market. Because of the increased demand, there are many mainstream dairy-free milks easily at hand.

Milk: Nut milks in equal portions such as almond, cashew and hazelnut can substitute in most recipes. Nut milk that is free of carrageenan is your best choice. This little extra ingredient used in many products can cause problems, as all forms of carrageenan are capable of causing inflammation. Other non-dairy milks such as oat, rice or soy will work as well. However, if your soymilk is not organic, it probably is a GMO product.

Creams: Any nut milk, soy milk, coconut milk, mashed potatoes, pureed garbanzo beans, pureed cauliflower, pureed tofu, soy sour cream, soy whipping cream or soy creamer can create a creamy alternative to dairy products.

Parmesan Cheese: Nutritional Yeast, garlic powder, and/or chopped walnuts or almonds make great nutritional toppers. Nutritional yeast is deactivated yeast that has a strong flavor that is described as nutty or cheesy. It contains trace amounts of several vitamins and minerals. Nutritional yeast can also be a significant source of some B-complex vitamins to include vitamin B12.

Cheese: Soy, rice and nut-based cheese alternatives work great as a healthier alternative. However, make sure you read the labels because many cheese alternatives contain casein, which is a protein found in dairy that is linked to cancer. Try our Creamy Cashew Lemon Sauce, Nutty Cheese Sauce (recipe below) or just sprinkle on the nutritional yeast.

Butter: When needing a spread, dairy-free non-hydrogenated margarines like Earth Balance or Melt work great. Coconut oil, avocado puree, prune puree or applesauce can be used for baking. For roasting and frying use olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil or nut oils.

Ricotta Cheese: Firm tofu, drained and crumbled is easy to use in place of ricotta.

Egg Substitutes: If you are leaving the eggs in the coop, here are a few substitutions you may use, depending on what type of cooking or baking you are doing.

One egg equals:

Use 1 ½ teaspoons Ener-G egg replacer plus 2 tablespoons of water to equal one egg.  This is a non-GMO powder and contains no eggs or animal protein.

Bob’s Red Mill egg replacer

1 tsp baking powder

2-3 tbsp flour

2-3 tbsp bread crumbs

¼ cup cooked oats

2-3 tbsp tomato paste

2 tbsp potato starch, cornstarch or arrowroot

¼ cup mashed white or sweet potatoes

1 tbsp ground flax seed meal + 3 tbsp water + 1 tbsp oil +1 tsp baking powder + 1 tsp

Replace Potato or Cornstarch:

½ cup rice or soy yogurt

¼ cup applesauce or pureed fruit

½ cup mashed banana

¼ cup silken tofu blended

1 tbsp chia seeds with 1 cup of water left to sit for 15 minutes

Fat Alternatives:

For sautéing


Vegetable broth

Liquid from a can of beans or vegetables that was opened

White wine

For Baking:


Low-fat liquids such as water or plant milk

1 tbsp chia seeds with 9 tablespoons water, let sit for 15 minutes. This is good for 1/2 the fat in a baking recipe.

1: 1 ratio mashed banana to fat


Nutty Cheese Sauce Recipe

3/4 cup raw cashews

1/3 cup nutritional yeast flakes

1 tsp sea or pink salt

1 cup unsweetened cashew or

almond milk

1 clove chopped garlic

2 tbsp tahini

1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tsp cider vinegar

1/2 tsp mustard

In a high-speed blender, combine the cashews, nutritional yeast and salt. Grind to a powder. Add nut milk, garlic, tahini, lemon juice, vinegar and mustard. Blend until smooth and creamy. This can be now heated in a saucepan or poured over hot pasta or vegetables and mixed into heat. Add more milk if a thinner sauce is desired. Sauce will thicken when it cools.


Sue Bigelow is vice president of Health Coach Connect and a Licensed Respiratory Care Practitioner with a passion for organic gardening. She believes good health starts in the kitchen. Sue earned her Bachelor’s of Animal Science from the University of Massachusetts and worked for many years in the veterinary and pet industries with a focus on animal nutrition, where she noticed that animals’ skin and ear infections often could be cured with dietary changes. Throughout her journey, Sue continued to educate herself regarding health, wellness and nutrition, spirituality and lifestyle improvements, realizing all issues have a root cause. Going through her own personal and career transformation, Sue earned a degree in Respiratory Therapy and later received her Masters of Science in Administration from Saint Michael’s College. After witnessing too many patients dying of preventable chronic disease, she was motivated to pursue a certificate as an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach. Her passion embraces animals, horseback riding, kayaking, cookin, and walks in the wilderness. Visit Health Coach Connect at


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