by Gemma Sands
The plant-based diet is growing in popularity as people recognize the myriad benefits for their own health, the environment, and animal welfare. If you are reading this, you are most likely thinking about starting your own journey with a plant-based diet, or have started your own journey.
As with most new trips, we’re usually eager and excited, but also a little apprehensive and unsure of where we’re going. Our goal here is to put your mind at ease, remind you of the many benefits, answer some questions you likely have, and provide super-simple instructions to make your plant-based journey as easy, enjoyable, and delicious as possible shape.
There are many definitions and variations of plant-based diets that are beyond the scope of what we are going to cover here. For now, we will deal with a purely plant-based diet without any animal products.
In case you’re still wondering whether a plant-based diet is worth researching, we’ll briefly examine its benefits for you and the world around you.
A plant-based diet is beneficial for your health and the world around you. The health benefits come from eating a variety of whole foods, with their inherent benefits, while avoiding the less beneficial components of animal products like saturated fat, cholesterol, hormones, and other naturally occurring ingredients in meat.
The simple answer is YES! The British Dietetic Association found that a balanced vegan diet can be enjoyed by children and adults alike during pregnancy and breastfeeding if food intake is well planned 5. It is important to plan well and eat as many plant-based foods as possible. In the next section, we’ll look at the different components of food – proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, and the important vitamins and minerals – and then look at simple ways to plan simple, tasty, and nutritious meals.
The main question people have or are asked by others when choosing to eat a plant-based diet. Proteins are the building blocks of our physical body and the main components of our skin, muscles, hair, bones, nails and cartilage.
Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are nine essential amino acids that must be ingested with our food. The difference between animal and vegetable protein is that animal protein is said to be complete – it contains all nine essential amino acids. Vegetable protein is generally incomplete, typically missing one or two essential amino acids. The easy way to overcome this is to eat as wide a variety of plant-based foods as possible to get all of the essential amino acids in the diet.
Some high-quality vegetable protein sources are: legumes (e.g. beans, peas, lentils), nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts, cashews), seeds (flax, hemp, chia), soy foods and quinoa.
We all need fats in our diet for optimal health. There are different types of fats and all essential fats can be easily obtained through a plant-based diet
Monounsaturated fats support heart health and lower LDL cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats are easy to find in a plant-based diet in foods like avocados, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils.
The polyunsaturated fatty acids include both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fats are considered essential for our diet because we cannot synthesize them. Benefits of a balanced diet with the various polyunsaturated fatty acids are the reduction of inflammation, the support of heart health, the reduction of symptoms of depression and can be found in abundance in a plant-based diet in nuts, seeds and wheat germ as well as microalgae. Certain omega-3 fatty acids are primarily found in fish such as salmon and tuna, so some people may need a microalgae supplement 7th.
Saturated fat is not essential in the diet and is mainly found in animal products, but can be found in some plant foods such as coconut oil, avocados, and some nuts and seeds. Eating a diet high in saturated fat is linked to a higher risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
The third major nutrient is carbohydrates, which are found in all 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 that help stabilize blood sugar. They also contain fiber, which is beneficial for our gut health and cholesterol levels. Ideal sources are whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat and oats, beans and legumes, and vegetables, including starchy vegetables.
With a diet rich in various plant-based foods, the average person can consume almost all the nutrients they need in sufficient quantities without any special needs. If you have any special needs, please consult a nutritionist to ensure you are getting adequate nutrition. Details on all of the different micronutrients are beyond the scope of this article, but let’s look at a few nutrients to keep in mind while following a fully plant-based diet.
Vitamin B12 and vitamin D are essential vitamins for our health and well-being, but they are not found in plant-based foods. They can be found in fortified foods like breakfast cereals, fat spreads, and alternative dairy products. It is worth looking for a good quality dietary supplement to make sure you are getting adequate amounts of vitamins B12 and D.
IOdin is important in preventing thyroid problems. Iodine is found in the highest amounts in seafood, dairy products and eggs. Vegetable sources or similarf Iodine include sea vegetables and iodized salt. Here, too, supplementation with a high-quality supplement can be worthwhile.
In addition, iron and zinc from animal sources are more easily absorbed by the body than from plant-based foods 6th. To ensure adequate intake, consider consuming plenty of zinc and iron-rich foods, including legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, cashews, seeds, and whole grains.
Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are found in the highest amounts in oily fish. So consider supplementing with a vegan-friendly option made from microalgae 6th.
Dairy products are also a major contributor to the calcium intake of most people, especially children. So be sure to include plenty of plant-based sources like fortified plant milks and leafy green vegetables.
The key to a nutritious plant-based diet is diversity. Try to explore and eat as many different herbal products as you can, especially leafy green vegetables.
We are all individuals and you need to figure out what works best for you. As a general guideline when planning your meals, you can think of your plate as being divided into four parts:
- Protein (e.g. legumes, soy, seeds)
- full grain
Add a small amount of healthy fats and plenty of water to each meal during the day.
Experiment with different foods from each group at each meal. That way, you know you are getting a wide variety of nutrients, covering all the major food groups, and you can enjoy your plant-based trip with confidence! The above is for your information only and you should consult a nutritionist if you have any specific needs to ensure you are receiving adequate nutrition.
- Tonstad, S., Butler, T., Yan, R. & Fraser, G.E. (2009). Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes treatment 32 (5), 791-796.
- Fraser, G.E. (2009). Vegetarian Diet: What Do We Know About Its Effects On Common Chronic Diseases? At 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 for 38,000 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 Environment Nutr 10 (4), 467-482.
- The British Dietetic Association affirms that a well-planned vegan diet can support healthy living for people of all ages. https://www.bda.uk.com/news/view?id=179
- The British Food Foundation. Plant-based diets.
- Hever J. Herbal Diets: A Guide for Physicians. Perm J 2016 Summer, 20 (3): 15-082.
- The vegan society. Vegan meal plan https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/lifestyle/shopping/vegan-meal-plan