The Plant-Based diet is all the hype these days, but is it as good as they say? With so much back and forth nutrition guidance out there, it’s hard to know what you should and should not be eating. Before we get into that, let’s first describe what a plant-based diet is.
A plant-based diet focuses on plants, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and minimises or eliminates animal products. A person eating a plant-based diet may eat this way 100 percent of the time, or decide to eat meat and/or dairy products from time to time. The important thing though is that it is a diet based primarily on plant products.
Pros of eating plant-based:
A well planned plant-based diet is cost-effective and provides many health benefits. Research has shown that eating a plant-based diet can help with weight management and help to regulate blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cholesterol levels. In addition to this, a plant-based diet may reduce the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases.
Cons of eating plant-based:
The biggest challenge of eating a plant-based diet is ensuring correct and sufficient nutrient consumption. Those eating a plant-based diet should pay special attention to their iron, calcium, protein, vitamin D, iodine and B12 levels.
The difference between plant-based, vegetarian and vegan diets:
Being vegan is a lifestyle choice. A person who follows a vegan diet is almost always doing it for environmental or animal welfare as well as health. A vegan diet eliminates animal products from the diet but also the use of leather and any other animal-based items. Someone following a vegetarian diet avoids all animal products apart from eggs and dairy and may or may not buy products containing animal materials.
Calcium: necessary to maintain and build strong bones and plays an important role in heart, muscle and nerve function. Good plant-based sources of calcium include almonds, broccoli, buckwheat, green leafy vegetables, molasses, soybeans and turnips.
Vitamin B12: sourced mostly from animal products (due to bacterial synthesis that occurs in the gut of these animals), it is advised to supplement with B12 when following a plant-based diet. Vitamin B12 is required to make DNA and to keep blood and nerve cells healthy.
Iron: needed for the making of red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. Iron levels play a role in overall energy levels, focus, gastrointestinal and immune function, and the regulation of body temperature. Good plant-based sources of iron (non-heme) include almonds, apricots, avocado, parsley, yeast, wheat germ, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, pine nuts, lentils, chickpeas, kale, tofu and beans. Vitamin C combined with the iron will help your body absorb it better.
Protein: protein is extremely important to maintain a healthy body. Protein is required in the production of hormones, enzymes, hair, nails, tissue building and repair, and is an important building block in bones, muscles, skin and blood. Plant-based sources of protein include beans, nuts, seeds, chickpeas, nutritional yeast, tempeh, edamame, lentils, potatoes and grains, as well as smaller amounts in fruits and vegetables. The average person should consume around 0.83 grams of protein per kg of body weight (eg. 60kg x 0.83= 49.8 grams of protein). Eating a sufficient amount of protein helps maintain fullness and will help to stabilise blood sugar levels, therefore, helping to maintain stable energy levels throughout the day.
Vitamin A: needed for a healthy immune system, cell growth, skin, eye and bone health. Plant-based sources (beta carotene) include red, orange and yellow fruits and vegetables and dark green leafy vegetables. The body must convert beta carotene into the active form vitamin A (retinol) to be utilised. Thick cell walls in certain vegetables (eg. carrots) can make beta carotene hard for the body to absorb, but consuming a these foods with a fat source can increase absorption. Eat an abundance of these foods to ensure you are getting enough of this important nutrient.
Iodine: necessary to make thyroid hormones. These hormones control many of the body’s important functions, including metabolism. Seafood and dairy products are a common source of iodine, but other sources include seaweed and some table salts.
Vitamin D: helps regulate calcium and phosphate levels in the body and needed for healthy bones, muscles and teeth. On top of this vitamin D is an immunomodulator and deficiency is associated with increased autoimmunity and susceptibility to infections. Vitamin D is synthesised by the action of sunlight on the skin, but can be found in sprouted seeds and mushrooms. It is advised to supplement with vitamin D throughout the winter months regardless of which diet you follow.
Omega 3: this essential fatty acid has many benefits, many more than listed here. Reports show that most people are low in omega 3 and could benefit from supplementation. Omega 3 is needed for the health of all of the body’s cells and can help improve symptoms of depression and anxiety, ADHD and autoimmunity. It also essential for eye and brain health, foetal development, heart health and can reduce inflammation and pain throughout the body, as well as improve sleep quality.
What To Eat On A Plant-Based Diet
Plan your meals out in advance to save time cooking and shopping. Adding seeds, lentils and beans to meals are a great way to ensure you are getting extra protein as well as other important nutrients. It can be helpful to also buy fortified foods when shopping for groceries.
Some example meals:
Breakfast - bircher muesli, chia pudding, porridge, smoothie, scrambled tofu and toast, beans on toast, avocado toast, mushrooms on toast. Bircher muesli and chia pudding can be prepped the night before to speed things up in the morning. Another option is to prep smoothie ingredients in bags and freeze them so they can be thrown straight in the blender with a milk of your choice.
Lunch - try making enough dinner the evening before so you have leftovers for lunch or batch cooking meals to last over a few days. Options include roasted vegetables and quinoa salad with green leafy vegetables (batch cook the vegetables and quinoa so this can be thrown together in seconds), soup/stews, wraps (falafel is a great choice and can be made in bulk), pasta salad.
Dinner- soups, stews, lentil potato and vegetable shepherd’s pie, vegetable stir-fry with edamame beans and tofu, bean burritos, curry, ramen, buddha bowl, butternut squash veggie pizza, salads.
Always include a good protein source (eg. beans, lentils or chickpeas) as well as good quality fats (eg. olive oil or avocado) with each meal to help stabilise blood sugar levels and increase satiety.
Store in bulk in the cupboard: lentils, chickpeas, oats, nut butter, beans, tinned tomatoes, coconut milk, hemp/sunflower/pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, herbs, spices, nuts, red/brown/wild rice, vegetable stock, nutritional yeast, soy sauce/tamari, tahini, miso, salt, pepper, olive oil, pasta, alternative milk, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, granola.
Buy fresh: vegetables, fruits, tempeh, dark leafy greens, fresh herbs, alternative milk, tofu, hummus, dairy-free yogurt, potatoes. Try to eat as many different kinds of fruits and vegetables as possible to help build strong and healthy bacteria levels in the gut.
Eating a plant-based diet has many proven benefits for ourselves and for the planet. If you are wanting to experiment to see if a plant-based diet may be of benefit to you, be mindful of the guidance listed above. An optimal plant-based diet requires careful planning and organisation, but batch cooking and meal prep can be very useful in order to save time and energy throughout the week. If you notice any negative side effects after switching to a plant-based diet, please seek professional guidance.