Originally written and posted by Nichola Ludlam-Raine.
In this article, Nicola shares her expertise and writes all about the nutritional considerations to think about when following a plant-based (aka a vegetarian/vegan) diet.
Plant-based diets* are growing in popularity and depending on the type of plant-based diet that people choose, the following foods may or may not be eaten; eggs, milk and cheese, foods from an animal such as honey, fish, poultry and meat.)
Individuals may choose to follow a plant-based diet for a number of reasons including animal welfare, personal health reasons and environmental concerns. Regarding health, there are a number of different eating patterns associated with good health and longevity; some include meat, and others do not:
- Mediterranean Diets – limit red meat, but include poultry and fish
- Traditional high carbohydrate Asian-style Diets – include meat in small amounts, as well as fish
- Vegetarian Diets – meat-free, although pescetarians do eat fish
- Vegan Diets – no meat, egg or dairy
*The word ‘diet’ in this article refers to everything that we eat, rather than a weight loss regime.
A well planned plant-based diet can be both nutritious and healthy, and meat-free diets have indeed been associated with lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity and various cancers. It’s worth noting though that most of the research is only observational and many vegetarians may be more health conscious; thus being more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke.
A new style of diet has however recently emerged; instead of following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, many people are now choosing to follow a ‘flexitarian plan’. Eating in accordance with a ‘flexitarian plan’ involves eating mainly plant-based foods but still includes meat and/or fish occasionally.
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My advice though is to not feel pressured into ‘labelling’ yourself, or to follow a specific plan just because it’s ‘trendy’; eat in accordance with your beliefs and preferences, irrespective of other peoples’ opinions.
If you’re thinking about following a plant-based diet though, there are six main nutrients to be aware of:
- 1) Protein: Plant-based sources of protein include beans, lentils, chickpeas, soy, nuts and seeds as well as wheat, rice and maize. Milk, yoghurt and cheese also provide protein, in addition to meat-alternatives such as mycoprotein e.g. Quorn. Plant-based sources of protein are generally incomplete (they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein), meaning it’s essential to eat a variety of them every day. Soya, quinoa and hemp are the only plant-based complete sources of protein i.e. they contain all of the essential amino acids that our body needs.
- 2) Iron: Iron is responsible for making red blood cells and red meat is the most easily absorbed source of iron. In addition to meat and eggs, good plant-based sources of iron include pulses, dried fruit, dark-green vegetables such as watercress, broccoli and spring greens, wholemeal bread and fortified breakfast cereals. Try to include a source of vitamin C with your iron source to help you to absorb it better; for example citrus fruits or vegetables including peppers.
- 3) Calcium: Dairy foods are rich in calcium which is a mineral essential for healthy bones and teeth. Plant-based sources of calcium include calcium-fortified dairy-free kinds of milk, figs, almonds, green leafy vegetables including kale and pak choi, kidney beans, sesame seeds and tofu. Although spinach does contain iron, it isn’t easily absorbed.
- 4) Vitamin B12: Other than meat, milk, eggs and cheese, sources of vitamin B12 include fortified yeast extract such as Marmite and fortified breakfast cereals as well as soy products. A vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to low energy levels and nerve damage which is why you may want to consider taking a supplement containing at least 10mcg of vitamin B12 a day, or 2000mcg weekly (if you’re not eating at least 3mcg of vitamin B12 from fortified foods).
- 5) Selenium: In addition to meat and fish, nuts, in particular, Brazil nuts, are a good source of selenium. Just two to three Brazil nuts a day provides your body with the daily amount of selenium that it needs.
- 6) Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Omega 3 fatty acids are essential for our heart health and oily fish is one of the richest sources. Ideally, we should eat two portions of fish a week, one of which is oily. If you don’t eat fish, it’s advised to include flaxseed (linseed) oil, rapeseed oil and soy-based foods such as tofu, walnuts, pumpkin seeds as well as eggs enriched with omega 3 on a regular basis.
Salmon Salad: If you don’t eat fish make sure to have other sources of omega 3 fatty acids such as walnuts and pumpkin seeds.
GENERAL TIPS FOR A HEALTHY PLANT-BASED DIET IN INCLUDE:
- Basing your diet on a variety of plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, lentils, legumes, pulses, nuts and seeds; eat a rainbow to ensure you’re getting a wide variety of nutrients!
- Choosing higher fibre/wholegrain starchy foods rather than refined carbohydrates, such as oats, wholemeal bread, wholewheat pasta and brown rice.
- Including heart-healthy fats such as olive oil and rapeseed oil for cooking and for salad dressings.
- Reducing your intake of sugary drinks as well as foods which are high in calories and low in nutrients such as cakes, biscuits, sweets (have these only occasionally!).
- Making sure your multivitamin includes (in addition to vitamin B12 and calcium) iodine and vitamin D; everyone in the UK should consider taking a supplement containing at least 10mcg of vitamin D a day, especially in the autumn and winter months.
- Drinking at least 8 glasses of fluid a day, water is best!
In summary, eating a more plant-based diet is not only good for the environment but it can have a positive effect on your health too. There is however no need to cut out foods such as meat, poultry and dairy altogether, especially if you enjoy it!
Nichola is a UK Specialist Registered Dietitian and works as an NHS, freelance and private dietitian. She has a passion for promoting easy to understand nutrition and diet tips and her aim is to motivate and inspire YOU to lead a healthier and subsequently happier life, one step at a time through her nutrition and fitness related blog posts and healthy recipes.