By Dr Pippa Gibson RNutr
This Christmas are you looking to be more plant savvy? Considering more vegan foods? If you’re looking to include more plant-based foods, or even embark on a fully plant-based Christmas then here are some of my top tips to help you stay healthy throughout the festive season.
With the current trend of increasing plant-based foods and diets in the UK, alongside the growing numbers taking the Veganuary pledge year on year, many of us may be considering a plant-based Christmas this year. In 2021 an estimated 1 in 5 Brits incorporated plant-based foods into the Christmas dinner. The top reason for people choosing to include plant-based elements in their Christmas dinner were around trying to reduce their meat and dairy consumption. Other reasons included the environmental benefits, concerns around climate change and concerns around food shortages, while this year it looks like the rising cost of food will have an impact on what people will choose for their tables. Finally, one of the more obvious reasons for choosing plant-based dishes was related to their health, but could ultra-processed vegetarian and vegan foods be the perfect healthy substitute?
Vegetarian diets are often characterised with health benefits due to their higher nutritional quality from a basis of plant derived foods. In recent years there have been drastic developments in the food industry, leading to the rise in plant-based meat alternatives. Some of these foods may be classified as ultra-processed foods whereby additives such as texturisers, emulsifiers, dyes and flavourings are added in in order to mimic meat and dairy products through the use of plant foods and their proteins. Although the plethora of plant-based meat alternatives for vegetarians and vegan alike may help with dietary planning, especially at busy times of the year such as Christmas, there is little known about the contribution of these ultra-processed foods to overall health.
In a recent study published in 2021, researchers investigated dietary patterns in a large French population of 21,212, including 500 vegetarians and 254 vegans. The results of dietary intakes via dietary recall method indicated that 37% of vegetarian and 39.5% of vegan diets were comprised of ultra-processed foods (UPF). In comparison meat eaters and pescatarians consumed 33 and 32.5% respectively. However, a separate systematic review assessing UPF consumption by country ranked the UK, along with the USA, as the highest consumers at over 50%. In contrast, Italy was ranked as one of the lowest at 10%. We know that as the percentage of UPFs in the diets increases there is an rise in free sugars, total fats, saturated fats and sodium with a decrease in protein, potassium and fibre. Additionally, new longitudinal studies, where groups of people are studies over years, are starting to show benefits of consuming fewer UPFs for all-cause mortality and cardiovascular health. While more research is needed in this area, we should still try to minimise our use of highly processed foods in the diet and instead focus on minimally processed foods.
But what counts as a minimally-processed food?
Classification of food processing called NOVA divides the foods we buy into four different groups; unprocessed and minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed and ultra-processed.
It is estimated that 30% of a typical UK diet is made up of unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Unprocessed foods include things such as:
- Unprocessed meat
Whereas minimally processed foods may have been processed in such ways including:
- Dried products
- Extracted e.g. 100% fruit juice
- Fermented e.g. no added sugar yoghurt
Processed culinary ingredients are those which have been extracted, or transformed, but are generally derived for a single food group such as oils, vinegars and salt, and are not meant to be eaten on their own.
In the UK we also consume around 9% of processed foods, which is the third NOVA food classification group. These are foods which have often been made with a mix of ingredients to improve flavours or prolong the food’s shelf life. This may include foods such as cheese, bread, cured meats or flavoured nuts.
Finally, we have UPFs. Foods commonly consumed within this group include bread, ready meals, breakfast cereals and reconstituted meat products. The easiest way to tell if a food is processed or ultra-processed is whether the foods contain ingredients you wouldn’t normally use at home when cooking e.g. preservatives and emulsifiers in bread in addition to flour, water, salt and yeast. Although plant-based dairy alternatives such as fortified soya milk and oat milk are included in this food group due to the use of preservatives and emulsifiers to improve mouth feel and shelf life, they are a healthy, useful addition to the diet and can help people work towards protecting their health as well as the planet. Opt for unsweetened varieties where possible. You can purchase organic versions which are simply the single ingredient with water, but you will be missing out on some essential micronutrients as these are included in the fortification e.g. calcium, iodine and vitamin D and so are not as nutritionally adequate. For more information on the health of plant proteins, take a look at MyNutriWeb’s recent symposium.
Going back to The Vegan Society’s 2021 survey, the top three factors for choosing food and drink items related to a product’s taste, followed by price and affordability, and finally 27% said the carbon footprint of the product. With this in mind, I’ve teamed up with MyNutriWeb’s very own dietitian Cordelia Woodward and we have selected some of our favourite plant-based, delicious, nutritious, cost-effective recipes to share with you this Christmas, opting for whole foods.
For those who may be trying a fully or partially plant-based Christmas meal for the first time, here are some of my useful Christmas shopping list swaps with minimally processed foods.
- Lentils, beans and pulses
- Tofu and tempeh
- Nuts and seeds
- Fortified unsweetened plant-based milk alternatives
- Plant-based unsweetened alternatives to yoghurt
- Chia or flax egg (soak 1 tbsp seeds with 3 tbsp water till thick)
- Apple Sauce
- Mashed ripe banana
- Soya milk/yoghurt
Food Swaps/ Top Tips for a Homemade Vegan Christmas
While traditional fizz and its counterparts counts as a processed food, we always like to give a non-alcoholic option. Take a large slice of orange peel and save till the end before cutting the orange in half and squeezing the juice into your favourite cocktail glass. Add some crushed raspberries, a sprig of rosemary and a handful of frozen cranberries. Top with some natural sparkling water (or use your soda stream for a more environmentally friendly approach), take the reserved orange zest and twist it over the glass to release its natural essential oils, brush the rim and serve.
Crispy Roast Potatoes
Instead of using goose, duck or turkey fat to roast your potatoes, opt for my personal favourite of rapeseed oil. It’s the perfect neutral taste and can stand the high heat of the oven needed to get the outside of the potatoes nice and crispy whilst also being low in saturated fats and higher in polyunsaturated fats. My top tip for the perfect roast potato? Start with floury potatoes (my favourite is King Edwards followed by Maris Pipers), peel and place in a large pan of boiling water, and then reduce the heat so it’s just simmering. Cook for around 15 minutes till the edges start to turn white when you pull them out of the water. Then allow them to cool on a cooling rack spaced out so all the excess water evaporates off. Add them to a preheated large baking tray (if cooking parsnips see below) with a generous glug of rapeseed oil, evenly coat and roast at 180°C fan (200°C convection) for 1hr 20, basting and turning a few times. You can add some extra flavour in the last 20-30 minutes in the way of crushed garlic cloves in skins or any herbs such as rosemary, sage or thyme.
Note I don’t actually season my potatoes with salt. Most chefs use salt to help draw the water out of the potato in the water, but I find that starting with the right type of potato, whilst also allowing them to fully steam dry on a wire cooling rack, can achieve the same crispy outside without the addition of salt.
A good British parsnip will be deliciously sweet if there has been a good frost as this triggers the plant to push all its sugars down into the root. So, while I’m desperately hoping for a good hard frost to naturally sweeten my parsnips, I always treat them the same. Once my potatoes have had around 25-30 minutes I add my parsnips into the same tray. This allow me to cook 2 menu items in 1 tray where oven space is often tight. Nestle the parsnips in the centre of the pan while the potatoes take the edges. As parsnips have more natural sugars they are more likely to burn. This formation helps prevent this and give the potatoes prime crispy pan location.
Love them or hate them they are a Christmas dinner staple! While I must admit I do actually love an al dente boiled sprout, I can appreciate that not everybody does. I simply trim the bottom, remove the outer leaves and make a small “x” in the bottom of the stem (3-5mm deep depending on the side of the sprout, occasionally just 1 cut if there are smaller sprouts with larger). I bring a large pan of water to the boil and cook them for 4-5 minutes, strain and serve them as they are. For those who aren’t so inclined to eat sprouts, why not try slicing them in half, blanching them in boiling water, draining, and then roasting with some oil, garlic and rosemary for 30 minutes. You’ll end up with some crispy garlicy herbed sprouts.
Apricot and nut stuffing balls
To make delicious apricot and nut stuffing balls, fry one chopped onion, 1 chopped pepper (any colour) and 1 small sliced leek in 1 tbsp vegetable oil until soft (about 5-10 minutes). Add 1 crushed clove of garlic and 1 tsp dried sage (or 1 tbsp chopped fresh sage) and cook for a further minute. Separately, using a food processor pulse into crumbs: 125g mixed nuts and 1 slice of wholemeal bread. Add this to the fried onion/pepper/leek mix alongside 1 tsp yeast extract (e.g. marmite) dissolved in 1 tbsp water and 1 tbsp ground flaxseed mixed in with 3 tbsp water. Once everything is combined, shape into stuffing balls and cook for 20-25 minutes until lightly golden brown. If you like, you can also turn this recipe into a main course as a nut roast, pressing the whole mixture down into a small baking dish and cooking until golden brown.
Thyme infused carrots
Depending on if you have space in the oven or not you can make these delicious carrots flavoured with thyme. Take whole carrots and scrub them clean, taking just the top off. To roast the carrots add them to a deep tray, add just enough water to cover the bottom 1/2cm of carrots, several sprigs of thyme and a generous glug of olive oil. Cover with foil and roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes, turning them halfway through to cook evenly. If you don’t have the oven space, follow the same method in a saucepan with a cartouche and check the water doesn’t completely evaporate off, cooking on a low simmer.
Fry 1 chopped onion, 1 carrot and 1 leek in 1 tbsp vegetable oil until soft and starting to go brown (about 10 minutes). Add a 1/4 tsp brown sugar and cook for a further minute. Stir in 2 tbsp plain flour and allow this to coat the vegetables. Now add 2 tsp yeast extract (e.g. marmite), 1 tbsp tomato puree and 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar. Slowly pour in 1L reduced salt vegetable stock , stirring often to avoid lumps. Turn the heat down and simmer for 25-30 minutes until you have a thick sauce and add a splash of reduced salt soy sauce. Sieve the mixture and it’s then ready to go and freeze any leftovers.
This one might be controversial, but it’s an absolute must for a Gibson Christmas dinner. Gently heat your choice of plant-based milk alternative (choose an unsweetened variety, my preference is oat milk as it’s a bit creamier) with 2-3 bay leaves and an onion cut in half studded with 6-8 dried cloves in a pan with a lid. When it just starts to boil, turn the heat off and allow to steep. Once cool, strain over dried white breadcrumbs, adding a knob of vegan butter for a little indulgence. Allow to set before grating nutmeg over the top and serve.
Chocolate Fruit and Nut Clusters
This is the perfect little sweet treat at the end of the meal. Take any nuts you have in your house (option to use walnuts for their naturally higher omega-3 content), spread them on a tray and pop them in the oven after you have finished cooking. Roast for 10-15 minutes on a low heat (150°C fan), giving a stir once or twice. Once they are gently toasted allow them to cook. Melt some dark chocolate with a teaspoon of extra virgin olive oil till 35°C and remove from the heat. Stir in the nuts and some dried fruits of choice (aim for plenty of fibre diversity and bonus point for including prebiotics too!) till completely coated. Line a tray with baking parchment and place mounds of the chocolate mixture evenly spaced out. Allow to cool in the fridge for 30 minutes before enjoying with your favourite drink – for me this is simply a good cup of tea with some unsweetened soya milk. Make these in advance of the big day to ease the pressure, or even to gift to family and friends.
Stuffed Medjool Dates
An easy to make party snack using medjool dates and nuts. You can use whatever nuts you like but here’s some of our favourite combinations. For pistachio dates, cut a slice through a pitted medjool date and add 3-4 pistachio nuts. Dip the medjool date in melted dark chocolate covering half of the date (the half with the nuts on show) and then sprinkle with ground pistachio nuts. For peanut dates, stuff the dates with about 1/4 tsp peanut butter and then dip the medjool date into melted dark chocolate sealing it. Top with crushed peanuts. This recipe is very adaptable so use whatever nuts, nut butters and chocolate you like.
And finally, the star of my plant-based Christmas Dinner; My Festive Lentil, Mushroom and Chestnut Wellington
- 120g green lentils
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 red onion, finely diced
- 200g mushrooms, finely diced
- 10 sage leaves, sliced
- 50g almonds, roughly chopped
- 90g cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
- 50g dried cranberries
- 60ml port
- 50g rice flour
- 50g cut oats
- 400g vegan puff pastry
- 2-3 tbsp plant-based alternative to milk of choice
- Wash the lentils in cold water. Add the bay leaves and bring the lentils to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes till the lentils are soft.
- Meanwhile cook the oil and onion together over a low heat till soft and translucent.
- Add the mushrooms to the onions and cook the mushrooms till the juices start to thicken slightly. Add the sage and cook for a further minute till fragrant.
- Once the lentils are cooked, drain, remove the bay leaves and lightly mash. Add the mushroom mixture to the lentils followed by the almonds, chestnuts, cranberries, port, flour and cut oats. Mix to combine and season to taste.
- Allow the mixture to cool completely.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C fan/ 200°C convection.
- Line a baking sheet with baking parchment.
- Roll the pastry into a 35cm by 25cm rectangle. Cut lengthways down to make a 10cm by 35cm smaller rectangle. Remove 2cm from this piece to create a rectangle approximately 10cm by 33cm.
- Place the now cooled mixture on this smaller rectangle of pastry, leaving a 1cm gap all around the edge, into a large log shape from short end to short end.
- Using some of the plant milk, paint over the pastry seam. Lift the remaining larger rectangle of pastry over the mixture and press the pastry to seal with a fork.
- Trim any excess pastry and use it to decorate the top of the pie.
- Cut a small hole in the top of the wellington to allow the steam to escape and glaze the whole pie with a milk wash.
- Bake the wellington for 25-30 minutes till golden brown all over.
Are you having a plant-based Christmas this year?.
Related MyNutriWeb Content
Top tips for Vegan Eating (2022). Blog post by Dr Pippa Gibson covering which nutrients to look out for when following a vegan diet
Plant Proteins (2022). Symposium covering the truth around plant proteins
How to be Vegan Savvy: A Practical Guide (2021) A webinar with Azmnia Govindji RD discussing the key nutritional considerations when counselling clients who wish to adopt a vegan diet
Is a Sustainable Diet More Expensive? (2020) – 60 mins webinar with Dr Christian J Reynolds
If we stop eating meat, what happens to farmers? (2020). Interview with RNut Rhiannon Lambert for her Food for thought podcast on reducing meat intake
Sustainable Healthy Eating – What Does this Really Look Like? (2019) – 60 mins webinar with Dr Fabrice Declerck and RD Elphee Medici
Sustainable Diets – BDA One Blue Dot Webinar (2019) – 60 mins webinar with Tom Embury, Clare Pettinger and Lynne Garton