With the New year in full flow, I thought it would be a good moment to lay down some important (often overlooked) points to consider if you are thinking about eating more plants, or are already following a plant-based way of eating.
Switching entirely to plant-based foods requires intention and forethought in order to make sure you are nourishing yourself (and your family) adequately. The question I get asked the most is, “Can plant-based foods provide all the nutrition we need to thrive“? My answer is, yes, a well-planned plant-based diet can support healthy, balanced and sustainable living at every age and life stage.
However, a poorly planned plant-based diet may leave you at risk of certain nutrient deficiencies, which can have an impact on both the body and mind. A common misconception is that all plant-based foods are healthy. Not true! You can still consume too much sugar, salt and unhealthy fat on a plant-based diet.
The rise of plant-based eaters has more than quadrupled since 2014 (1), with an explosion of new foods and ready meals becoming available. As we learn more about the benefits of eating more plants – both to us as individuals and the wider world – it is clear that this momentum isn’t going to slow down in the future.
Plant-Based Basics: How To Create A Balanced Plate
A well balanced plant-based plate focuses on vegetables, whole grains, pseudo-grains (quinoa, amaranth etc), legumes, nuts and seeds. It should also include the four focus: protein, healthy fats, fibre and greens. For guidance on how to create an optimally balanced plate see the 3 Sources Game Changers guide, which includes a downloadable cheat sheet, seasonality table and prep guide.
Plant-Based Nutrition: What You Need To Know
Eating a plant-based diet can provide all the nutrients essential for long-term good health, however, there are a few you need to pay particular attention to such as: protein, calcium, vitamin D, iodine, omega-3, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and selenium.
Requirements for protein vary with age, gender and activity levels, but the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) for protein is 0.75g per kilogram of body weight per day in adults. This equates to approximately 56g/day for men and 45g/day for women between the age of 19-50 years in a person of healthy weight. However, data shows that most adults are actually eating much more than they require, which can lead to over-acidity in the body.
To achieve adequate protein on a plant-based diet requires a little forethought when putting together a meal. Below are some examples of protein-rich plant-based foods. Aim to include some at each meal:
Nuts and seeds contain up to 20g protein per 100g (typical serving size is 30-40g, or a small handful). Unsweetened nut butters are a great choice too.
Beans and lentils include about 20g protein per 100g (typical serving size around 3 tablespoons or 80g).
Soya based foods such as tofu or tempeh contain about 9g protein per 100g.
You may have heard the term ‘complete protein.’ This refers to amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different types, 9 of which the body cannot produce on its own. These are called essential amino acids and we need to source them from our diet. In order to be considered ‘complete,’ a protein must contain all 9 of these essential acids in roughly equal amounts.
Animal products, such as meat and eggs are complete proteins, but most plant-based foods are not. However, we don’t need to consume every essential amino acid in each meal; we just need to ensure we are taking in a sufficient amount of each amino acid a day. As long as you’re choosing a wide variety of different plant-based protein sources and not getting stuck in the habit of eating the same food daily, you should be getting all the amino acids you need.
Calcium serves several important functions in the body, including building strong bones and teeth, regulating muscle contractions (including your heartbeat) and making sure your blood clots normally. Adults (19-64 years) require 700mg of calcium a day and you should be able to get all the calcium you need from your diet. Calcium-rich plant-based foods include: whole sesame seeds (or tahini), leafy greens, tofu (no GM), chia seeds, almonds, sunflower seeds, broccoli, beetroot greens.
The body makes vitamin D from exposure to sunlight. However, in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun isn’t strong enough during winter, so many individuals can become deficient during these months. You can get vitamin D from some plant-based foods such as mushrooms (especially shiitake), but most people will need to take a vitamin D3 and K2 supplement during autumn and winter. It is important that you speak to your health professional before adding supplements to your diet. Testing your vitamin D levels requires a quick and simple blood test.
Iodine deficiency is the most common cause of thyroid disease and preventable mental health issues worldwide. The main source of plant-derived iodine is edible seaweed. Aim to consume sea vegetables, such as kelp, wakame, kombu, or nori once a week.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for optimal health, especially cellular function. Omega-3 fatty acids fall into two categories: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and docosahexaenoic/eicosapentaenoic acid (DHA/EPA.
The body cannot make ALA, so it’s important to get enough from your diet. ALA is found in a range of plant-based sources including: nuts and seeds (especially walnuts and pumpkin seeds) and cold pressed oils, (especially flax seed oil).
DHA and EPA omega-3 fats both play crucial roles in brain development and heart health. The body can make these fatty acids from ALA, so it’s important to include plenty of ALA-rich sources in your diet daily. Other rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids include chia and hemp seeds.
Vitamin B12 is extremely important for energy metabolism, and too little can result in fatigue, anaemia, and nerve damage. Animal products are the main source of vitamin B12, so if you are following a 100% plant-based (vegan) diet, the only reliable sources of vitamin B12 are fortified foods and nutritional yeast.
Vitamin B12 supplements are recommended if you are following a strict vegan diet. If you feel fatigued it may be a good idea to visit your health professional periodically to check your B12 levels. Aim to consume either fortified foods, such as fortified plant milks or cereals (but check for sugars and other unwanted fillers) at least twice a day, or take 10mcg vitamin B12 daily, in the form of a vitamin B complex supplement.
Iron supports numerous roles in the body. It helps maintain your immune system and assists in the formation of hemoglobin, which transports oxygen around the body. A lack of iron can lead to iron deficiency (anaemia) with symptoms including tiredness, lack of energy, shortness of breath, and pale skin. Plant-derived sources of iron include: lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia, flax, hemp, and pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, and quinoa.
Zinc helps with the production of new cells and enzymes, processing carbohydrates, proteins and fats in food, as well as wound healing. Phytates found in zinc-rich plant-derived foods such as whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds reduce zinc absorption, so it’s important to soak these overnight and rinse well before cooking to improve the bioavailability and absorption of zinc.
Selenium plays an important role in the health of your immune system. It helps lower oxidative stress in your body, which reduces inflammation and enhances immunity. Plant sources include wholegrain rice, chia and sesame seeds, shiitake mushrooms, broccoli, cabbage, and spinach. In fact, just two Brazil nuts daily will provide you with your complete daily requirement of selenium.
Providing your diet includes these nutrients in sufficient quantities, studies show that those who follow a plant-based way of eating live longer than meat-eaters, have a lower risk of high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, osteoporosis, and some cancers. In fact, it’s estimated that diet contributes to a third of all cancers and eating more vegetables is the second most important cancer prevention strategy after stopping smoking (2).
When to Supplement: How To Avoid Deficiencies
It’s important to remember that this article can only present you with the facts and there is no one right way to eat for everyone. We are all different and learning to become more intuitive about our body’s needs is essential. You may wish to explore your own individual nutritional needs by seeking advice from a registered health professional, or email email@example.com for more information.
(1) Source: The Food & You surveys, organised by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the National Centre for Social Science Research (Natcen) and Ipsos Mori survey, commissioned by The Vegan Society, 2018.
(2) The British Dietetic Association (BDA) The information sources used to develop this article are available at www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts BDA July 2017. Review date July 2020.