How to do a Plant-Based Diet well

Wendnesday, 18 May 16

By Jaime Rose Chambers

The benefits of moving towards a more plant-based diet for our health is unquestionable; from reducing weight, blood sugar levels, cholesterol, blood pressure and the risk of some cancers to slowing the aging process, improved cognition as well as it being much better for our environment, it’s a no-brainer. You don’t have to be vegan to have these health benefits though and the level to which you include more plant foods in your diet is dependent on many factors such as medical history, budget, availability, practicality and palette. Navigating around a dietary change, particularly if it’s quite a dramatic change can pose some problems too so here are my top tips for doing a plant-based diet well.

Protein - Animal proteins such as meat, fish, chicken, dairy as well as soy proteins are highly bioavailable (easily broken down and digested) and give us a complete range of amino acids to make proteins that can be used in our body. Plant sources of protein like pulses, lentils, legumes, nuts and seeds do not and are often low in or missing an essential amino acid. But by combining particular plant proteins at each meal or snack that complement each other you can ensure you’re getting a complete range of amino acids. Complementary plant proteins include:

  • Grains + legumes (pita bread + hummus) 
  • Grains + nuts and seeds (wholegrain toast + nut spread) 
  • Nuts and seeds + legumes (salad with chickpeas + a sprinkle of almonds) 
  • Corn + legumes (Mexican chilli beans + corn salsa)

Calcium – calcium builds bone strength and prevents osteoporosis. The richest sources are diary foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese and these don’t need to be avoided on a plant-based diet but some choose to switch to plant-based substitutes like almond milk and coconut yoghurt. These are not nutritionally adequate substitutes as they don’t contain calcium so make sure you use calcium fortified milk substitutes (it will say that on the label) and tofu is a decent source so either use a combination of dairy and plant sources but if you can’t meet your 3 servings per day (1000mg of calcium), a supplement may be necessary.

Iron – Plant-based foods like red kidney and black beans, leafy green vegetables and some dried fruits do contain a little iron but it is in small amounts and has a far lower bioavailability than the richest source, meat. It’s always best to have iron levels tested by your doctor and maintaining normal levels is individual and may be as simple as having a red meat meal once per week, some people have higher requirements though and may require a supplement, particularly athletes and pregnant and lactating women.

Vitamin B12 – is essential for blood formation and cell division and a deficiency can lead to serious problems and irreversible nerve damage. Vitamin B12 is virtually impossible to find in plant-based foods and up to 83% of vegans are deficient. Fish and shellfish, eggs and dairy are good sources but for vegans, a supplement will be essential.

Fibre – adding a bulk of fibrous foods like legumes, cauliflower and wholegrains to the diet very quickly can really upset some tummies and cause bloating and gas. Slowly add these foods to your diet and build them up as your body gets used to digesting them.

Omega-3 fatty acids – Predominantly found in oily fish like salmon, sardines and tuna, omega 3 fatty acids are essential in our diet as our body can’t make them and form part of our cell membrane, help create hormones and regulate blood clotting and inflammation. It is not recommended to avoid oily fish in the diet but other plant sources include nuts, especially walnuts, flaxseed or linseed and their oil and leafy vegetables.

Zinc – important for the immune system and wound healing, zinc is a water-soluble vitamin so must be replenished daily so deficiencies can occur quickly. Meat and chicken are the best sources of zinc but oysters, fish and dairy are also excellent sources for vegetarians. For vegans, beans, nuts, seeds and wholegrains are good sources but also contain phytates that bind to zinc and prevent their absorption so soaking and sprouting these plant foods can help reduce phytate levels.

A day on a plate

Breakfast: porridge made with traditional oats + regular or calcium fortified milk + berries + sprinkle of nuts & seeds

AND a cup of tea or coffee and regular or fortified milk

Morning snack: wholegrain crackers + nut spread

Lunch: Wholegrain bread sandwich + a slice of cheese or hummus + lots of salad

Afternoon snack: a piece of fruit + small handful of nut & seed mix

Dinner: Black bean and red kidney bean chilli (optional lean good quality beef, lamb chicken or turkey mince) + a mound of steamed vegetables served with brown rice + a dollop of guacamole

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© Copyright Jaime Rose Nutrition 2012