Food

What You Need To Know If You're Considering A Plant-Based Diet

There has been an ever-increasing trend towards the plant-based diet in the last 12+ months, with people increasingly interested in the benefits to their health and the planet.

While plant-based eating is by no means new, it's certainly “on-trend” at the moment, fast becoming one of the most popular diet trends to-date.

Plant-based diets primarily rely on plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and wholegrains for nutrition. But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to be vegan to eat plant-based. Some interpretations of a plant-based diet include animal products, and sometimes even small amounts of meat.

Types of plant-based diets

Vegan
No animal products are consumed i.e. no meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, or honey.

Lacto-ovo vegetarian
Dairy products and eggs are consumed but no meat, poultry or seafood.

Pescatarian
Seafood is consumed but meat, poultry, and dairy products are not.

Flexitarian
Occasional meat, seafood, poultry is consumed but predominantly plants.

Why go plant-based?

Besides reducing your carbon footprint, there are numerous nutritional benefits that come with adopting a plant-based diet. Many studies have found individuals who adopt a plant-based diet may have a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes. Plant-based diets provide more fibre (which is great for gut and bowel health) and are high in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fats (which is great for our heart and overall health).  

If you’ve ever considered going plant-based but aren't really sure how to do it, these five tips can help make the transition a little easier.

Top 5 Tips For Adopting A Plant-Based Diet

Think big, start small

Like any goal, whether it be running a marathon or adopting a plant-based diet, you can’t run the entire race straight away. You need to train, repeat, adapt, and then you'll nail it.

In terms of adopting a plant-based diet, you may have big aspirations to go vegan but you’re currently a heavy meat consumer and love cheese. So, turning away from these foods all at once may be a bit of a challenge. 

What you can do is make small progressive changes. For example, start incorporating Meatless Monday into your weekly menu to experiment and get creative in the kitchen without using meat, seafood, or poultry.

Start experimenting with your favourite dishes and things you know and love; making simple swaps or additions to your meals, such as including legumes in your casseroles or curries, can help get you used to using legumes in your dishes.

Don’t forget about protein and iron

It’s important not to forget to include a protein source at each meal if you're removing all animal products from your diet. Animal products contain a high amount of protein that's also a concentrated source of iron.

Protein helps keep your immune system healthy, maintains muscles, and helps with satiety. Iron makes sure enough oxygen is delivered to your entire body, so you don’t feel fatigued.

Together, an inadequate intake of these nutrients is likely to make you feel worse-off for adopting a plant-based diet. To ensure you’re getting enough protein and iron in your diet, include the following plant-based alternatives:

Soy-based
Tempeh- provides 23g protein per 100g
Tofu- provides 12g protein per 100g
Soy milk- 3.3g protein per 100ml

Legumes
Chickpeas- 6.3g protein per 100g
Lentils- 6.8g protein per 100g
Kidney beans- 6.6g protein per 100g

Wholegrains
Rolled oats- 11g protein per 100g
Buckwheat- 11.7g protein per 100g
Quinoa- 14.2g protein per 100g

Eat simply, but with variety

When you first adopt a plant-based diet it can be easy to spend excessive amounts of money on ingredients to create exotic recipes.

The bottom line is, if your diet is too complicated or too boring, you will be less likely to stick to it long term.

Instead, ensure you incorporate a variety of colours in your diet through fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and legumes. In doing so, you're more likely to enjoy using different foods and stay interested. Additionally, it will help you get enough antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, and deficiency in any particular nutrient will be less likely.

If you do find things are getting a little repetitive or boring, try one these delicious vegan recipes

Minimise your intake of processed foods

Some people think because they’re plant-based they can still overindulge in processed foods like veggie burgers, chocolate, chips, or Oreos (yes, they’re vegan).

Plant-based foods can still be high in fat, added sugar or salt, which can worsen your health irrespective of your plant-based approach.

Enjoy a diet that is high-quality and mostly made up of fresh, homemade meals with processed foods eaten only a couple of times a week.

Micronutrients

The biggest challenge yet is the risk of nutritional deficiency. Without a planned approach to your nutrition it is one of the most common challenges a plant-based dieter faces. Here are some of the micronutrients that may be at risk:

Iron

  • There are two types of iron, haem and non-haem iron. Not all iron consumed is absorbed, in fact at best it is only 25% absorbed.
  • Haem iron, found in animal products, is the most easily absorbed, taken up by the body at a rate of ~15-25%.
  • Non-haem iron is found in plant products and is not as easily absorbed, taken up by the body at a rate of 2-8%, so there is more of chance of deficiency.

Vitamin B12

  • Vitamin B12 is highly concentrated in animal products and plays an important role in our nervous system and creating new blood cells or DNA.
  • Deficiency can appear similar to iron deficiency anaemia.
  • Rich sources of B12 for a plant-based diet include fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals, soy beverages, and vegemite.

Calcium

  • Calcium is commonly at risk as most dairy alternatives are not sufficiently fortified with bio-available calcium.
  • Look for milks and yoghurts that have been fortified with calcium. Read the ingredients list and nutrition information panel where you should find calcium carbonate.
  • Look for Calcium >100mg per 100ml/100g in your dairy alternatives.

Zinc

  • Zinc is another important mineral for our immune system, cell growth (hair, skin, and nails), and wound healing.
  • Zinc is concentrated in animal products, such as meat, eggs, cheese, and yoghurt.
  • It's easy to achieve your intake of zinc on a plant-based diet if you include beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and wholegrain cereals that have been fortified.

In summary, a plant-based diet can be a healthful diet to adopt if you want to increase your intake of vegetables, fruits, and wholegrains or you would like to reduce your carbon footprint. It can, however, be a burden to your lifestyle, so consider your reasons carefully before you make the switch.

Whichever plant-based diet you decide to adopt, ensure it is structured and balanced so you are getting a variety of foods that will help minimise the risk of deficiencies.

For specific, individualised advice on this subject seek guidance from a Dietitian.

Peta Adams, APD

Article by Peta Adams, APD

Peta is an experienced no nonsense dietitian who enjoys cutting through the media spin to deliver realistic and achievable nutrition strategies for each of her clients. She has expertise to assist a wide range of clients with chronic and acute illness, particularly those with Diabetes, Disordered eating as well as generous experience with managing client's Food Allergies and Intolerances. She is also trained in the SOS approach to feeding fussy children with sensory difficulties and has postgraduate qualifications in Paediatric/Adolescent nutrition.

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