Plant-based Nutrition

Veganuary is coming to an end, but plant-based meals are something that can easily be introduced into your life and have many benefits. A plant-based diet contains foods that come from plants, with little to no animal products. The main bulk of a plant-based diet comes from fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Vegetarians follow a plant-based diet that includes dairy products and/or eggs, and vegans do not eat any animal products at all [1].

Why Should I Eat More Plant-based?

There are a number of reasons why people choose to follow a plant-based diet. This may include health benefits, environmental concerns, animal welfare concern, or personal choice. Some of the reported health benefits of a plant-based diet are a reduced risk of heart disease, strokes, and type 2 diabetes. They have also been shown to have positive effects on risk factors for disease, such as reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, and promoting weight loss. Additionally, meat and dairy products are associated with more greenhouse gas emissions than plant foods, therefore a plant-based diet may have some benefits for the environment [2].

How to Eat Plant-based

Plant-based diets tend to have a bad reputation when it comes to possible nutrient deficiencies. However, a healthy, balanced plant-based diet can be suitable for most people at all stages of life.

Protein is one of the most mentioned concerns when it comes to a diet lacking animal protein. Although, there are many sources of plant-based proteins that you can consume to meet your protein requirements. These can include lentils, beans, seeds, nuts, tofu, tempeh, and chickpeas. There are also meat substitutes available, which contain good levels of protein, but these can be high in salt, and fat so should be consumed in moderation. Some examples of meat substitutes are seitan, soya sausages and ‘Quorn’ products. 

Another consideration surrounding plant protein is around the consumption of complementary proteins. Plant proteins are sometimes called incomplete proteins, as they have varying levels of different amino acids (the building blocks that make up proteins) in them. This means that it is important to eat a variety of plant proteins as where one protein may lack an amino acid, another type of protein may make up for this, creating complete proteins. Some examples of complementary protein combinations are grains (e.g., rice, corn, and wheat) and legumes (e.g., beans, peas, and lentils); nuts and legumes; and grains and dairy products, if you consume dairy. These proteins don’t have to be eaten at the same time, but it is important to eat a variety of plant proteins throughout the day.

Some other nutrients of concern are calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. Calcium is required to maintain the health of teeth and bones. Most people get calcium from dairy foods, like milk, cheese, and yoghurt, which would be suitable for vegetarians who choose to consume dairy products. For vegans, or vegetarians who only eat eggs, some good sources of calcium are green leafy vegetables, like broccoli or kale, dried fruits, fortified dairy alternative drinks, and tofu. 

In terms of vitamin D, this is a common deficiency for everyone, especially during the winter months. Vitamin D is used to help regulate calcium and phosphate levels in the body. It also contributes to the health of bones, teeth, and muscles. Exposure to sunlight is the main source of vitamin D, but it is important to cover up and protect your skin whilst out in the sun. Fortified spreads, breakfast cereals and dairy alternative drinks are also good sources of vitamin D. If you are at risk of vitamin D deficiency, for example if you don’t get much exposure to sunlight or if you are a person of colour, a vitamin D supplement may be recommended, especially during the winter months.

Vitamin B12 is needed to maintain a healthy nervous system and blood. However, most people get B12 from animal sources and most plant-based sources come from fortified products. You may find that a vitamin B12 supplement is the best option for you, but if not products such as fortified breakfast cereals, fortified soya drinks, and yeast extract are available.

Iron is another possible deficiency as iron from plant-based sources is not as well absorbed by the body. Some good sources of iron for people following a plant-based diet are, pulses (baked beans and chickpeas), dark leafy, green vegetables, wholemeal bread, and nuts. Additionally, research has shown that eating foods containing vitamin C at the same time as iron can increase iron absorption by the body. Some examples of foods containing vitamin C would be citrus fruits, tomatoes, and peppers.

Finally, omega-3 fatty acids, usually found in oily fish, are a consideration that may need to be made in plant-based diets. Omega-3 is important as it helps to maintain a healthy heart and can reduce the risk of heart disease. Some plant-based sources of omega-3 are flaxseed oil, soya-based foods, like tofu, walnuts, and rapeseed oil [3].

Making Sustainable Change

Although a fully plant-based diet may not be for you, there are a number of ways that you can make sustainable changes to promote good health by eating more plant-based, here’s a few:

  • Try eating meat free for one day, or meal, of the week.
  • Switch snacks high in saturated fat, such as cheese, pies, and biscuits, for plant-based snacks, like fruit and nuts.
  • Eat plenty of vegetables with your meals.
  • Think of meat more as a garnish to your meals rather than the main focus, and add plant proteins, like chickpeas, tofu, or lentils [4].
  • Remember that processed plant-foods can be just as unhealthy as their animal derived counterparts.

Top Tips for Eating Plant-based

  1. Eat a variety of complementary plant proteins
  2. Eat vitamin C at the same time as iron to promote absorption
  3. Fill up your plate with lots of vegetables to ensure you are meeting all your nutrient requirements
  4. Try eating meat free for one day, or meal, of the week
  5. Cut down on the amount of meat on your plate, and add plant proteins instead

References:

[1] https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/vegetarian-vegan-plant-based-diet.html

[2] https://www.nutrition.org.uk/putting-it-into-practice/plant-based-diets/plant-based-diets/

[3]  https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/the-vegan-diet/

[4] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-a-plant-based-diet-and-why-should-you-try-it-2018092614760

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