by Gemma Sands Plant-based eating is gaining ever more popularity as people come to realise the myriad of benefits for their own health, the environment and animal welfare. If you are reading this, you are most likely considering starting, or have started your own plant-based diet journey. Like most new journeys, we are usually eager and excited, but also a little apprehensive and unsure of where we are going. Our aim here is to put your mind at ease, reminding you of the many benefits, answering some questions you most likely have, as well as providing some super simple guidance to make your plant-based journey as simple, enjoyable and delicious as possible. There are many definitions and variations on plant-based diets, which are beyond the scope of what we will cover here. For now, we will address eating a purely plant-based diet with no animal products whatsoever. In case you are still wondering whether it is worthwhile exploring a plant-based diet, we’ll briefly explore the benefits, both for you and the world around you.
So what are the benefits of moving to a plant-based diet?Following a plant-based diet has a positive impact on your health, as well as the world around you. The health advantages are due to eating a variety of whole foods, with their inherent benefits, while simultaneously avoiding the less beneficial constituents found in animal products, such as saturated fat, cholesterol, hormones, and other compounds naturally found in meat.
Can I eat a well-balanced, nutrient-dense, plant-based diet?The simple answer is YES! The British Dietetic Association has stated that a balanced vegan diet can be enjoyed by children and adults, including during pregnancy and breastfeeding, if the nutritional intake is well-planned 5. The key is to plan well and to eat as wide a variety of plant foods as possible. We’ll explore the various dietary components - proteins, carbohydrates and fats, as well as the important vitamins and minerals, in the next section, and then we’ll look at simple ways to plan simple, delicious, nutrient-dense meals.
The protein questionThe main question people have or get asked by others when they decide to follow a plant-based diet. Proteins are the building blocks of our physical bodies and are the main components of our skin, muscles, hair, bones, nails and cartilage. Proteins are made of amino acids. There are nine essential amino acids that must be obtained from our diets. The difference between animal and plant protein is that animal protein is known as complete - it contains all nine essential amino acids. Plant protein is generally incomplete, typically lacking one or two essential amino acids. The simple way to overcome this is to eat as wide a variety as possible of plant foods to obtain all essential amino acids in the diet. Some high-quality plant-based protein sources include: Legumes (e.g.beans. peas, lentils), nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts, cashews), seeds (flax, hemp, chia), soy foods and quinoa.
What about fats?We all require fats in our diets for optimal health. There are various types of fats and All essential fats can be easily obtained from a plant-based diet Monounsaturated fats help support heart health and lower LDL cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats are easily found in a plant-based diet in foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds and vegetable oil. The polyunsaturated fats include both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fats are considered essential to our diets as we cannot synthesise them. Benefits of a diet well balanced for the various polyunsaturated fats include reducing inflammation, supporting heart health, reducing symptoms of depression and can be found abundantly in a plant-based diet in nuts, seeds and wheat germ as well as microalgae. Certain omega-3 fatty acids are found mostly in fish such as salmon and tuna, so supplementation with a microalgae supplement may be required by some people 7. Saturated fatty acids are not essential in the diet and are found primarily in animal products, but are available in some plant foods including coconut oil, avocados and some nuts and seeds. Diets high in saturated fats are associated with a higher risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
CarbohydratesThe third main nutrient is carbohydrates, and these are found across food sources in a plant-based diet. The main function of carbohydrates is to provide us with energy. The focus should be on complex carbohydrates which help to stabilise blood sugar. They also contain fibre which supports the health of our gut and cholesterol levels. Ideal sources include whole grains such as brown rice, whole wheat and oats, beans and legumes, and vegetables, including starchy vegetables.
So can I get all the nutrition I need from plants?With a diet rich in a variety of different plant foods, the average person without specific requirements can obtain adequate amounts of almost all required nutrients. If you have specific needs, then please consult a nutritionist to ensure you are getting adequate nutrition. Details of all of the various micronutrients are beyond the scope of this article, but let’s look at a couple of nutrients you need to be aware of when you are following a fully plant-based diet. Vitamin B12 and vitamin D are essential vitamins for our health and wellbeing but are not found in plant foods. They may be present in fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, fat spreads and alternative dairy products. It is worthwhile looking for a high-quality supplement to ensure you are getting adequate amounts of Vitamin B12 and D. Iodine is important to consider to avoid thyroid issues. Iodine is found in the highest amounts in seafood, dairy foods and eggs. Plant-based sources of iodine include sea vegetables and iodised salt. Again supplementation with a high-quality supplement may be worthwhile. Additionally, iron and zinc are more easily absorbed by the body from animal sources than plant foods 6. To ensure adequate absorption, consider eating plenty of zinc and iron-rich foods including legumes, dark leafy green vegetables, cashews, seeds and whole grains. Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are found in the highest amounts in oily fish so consider supplementation with a vegan-friendly option made from microalgae 6. Dairy foods are also important contributors to most people’s calcium intake, particularly in children, so be sure to include plenty of plant-based sources including fortified plant milk and leafy green vegetables.
How do I make this all easy?The key to a nutrient-dense plant-based diet is variety. Try to explore and eat as many different plant-based products as possible, especially leafy green vegetables. We are all individuals, and you need to explore what works best for you. As a general guide, when you are planning your meals, you could think of your plate divided into four:
- Protein (e.g. Legumes, soy, seeds)
- Whole grains
- Tonstad, S., Butler, T., Yan, R., & Fraser, G. E. (2009). Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 32(5), 791–796.
- Fraser, G. E. (2009). Vegetarian diets: What do we know of their effects on common chronic diseases? Am J Clin Nutr 89(5), 1607S–1612S.
- Spencer, E. A., Appleby, P. N., Davey, G. K., & Key, T. J. (2003). Diet and body mass index in 38000 EPIC-Oxford meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 27(6), 728–734.
- Flynn, M. M., & Schiff, A. R. (2015). Economical Healthy Diets (2012): Including lean animal protein costs more than using extra virgin olive oil. J Hunger Environ Nutr 10(4), 467–482.
- British Dietetic Association confirms well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages. https://www.bda.uk.com/news/view?id=179
- The British Nutrition Foundation. PLant BAsed Diets.. https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/helpingyoueatwell/plant-based-diets.html?start=1
- Hever J. Plant based diets: A physician’s guide. Perm J 2016 SUmmer, 20(3): 15-082.
- The Vegan Society. Vegan Meal Plan https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/lifestyle/shopping/vegan-meal-plan