You may have heard the term “plant-based diet,” but are confused about what it means. Is it the same thing as being a vegetarian or vegan? Does it contain enough protein? This article aims to demystify some of the common misconceptions and concerns and offers explanations to why I believe it’s important to follow a more plant-based lifestyle for optimal health and wellness.
What is a Plant Based Diet?
Firstly, I’m not a fan of labels. There is so much (contradictory) information out there telling us how and what we should eat, which can be confusing, misleading, and can even cause us to have hang-ups around food, where eating is no longer an enjoyable or pleasurable experience.
The term “plant-based diet” is a bit vague – it could mean predominantly plants or solely plants – and there is a difference. While there is no set definition, I prefer to view the term “plant-based diet” as a way of eating that puts plants first, by focusing on consuming plant-derived whole foods that are unrefined and minimally processed. This basically means pure, unadulterated foods that are in their original form, as close to nature as possible. Overall, “plant-based” is more of a broad and flexible way of thinking about nutrition and food quality rather than a rigid diet. With a plant-based diet, the focus is on simple, nutritious whole foods.
Whole grains, leafy greens, root vegetables and other non-starchy vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes are the dietary staples of a plant based diet. These are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre, and phyto-chemicals that provide an abundance of nutrients for the body. With few exceptions, they metabolise alkaline, so they also de-acidify the body and increase cellular metabolism.
What are the main benefits of eating plant sources?
Recent research has shown that within a couple of hours of eating a meal, soluble fibre feeds and increases the probiotic (good) bacteria living inside the gut microbiome. Increasing the probiotic microbes that live inside the gut incrementally strengthens the immune system. In the same way, leafy greens contain sulfoquinovose – a sugar that feeds probiotic bacteria. It is believed that our paleolithic ancestors consumed somewhere between 100 and 200 grams of fibre a day. Nowadays, most of us are consuming as little as 15 grams a day. Focusing on putting more plants on your plate at every meal is the best way to increase your fibre intake and feed your gut with healthy microbes, which in turn will strengthen your immune system.
What about protein?
Where to get your protein is often the major concern when considering a predominantly plant-based way of life. The reality is most of us eat far more protein than our bodies can process on a cellular level. Excess protein, predominantly from meat, in the body creates over-acidity, which means that too many organic and inorganic acids present in the body and the cells and tissues become increasingly loaded with acid, which disrupts the body’s regulatory systems.
A healthy body is naturally alkaline, where the pH balance of the blood and other fluids is slightly alkaline rather than acidic. In order to keep this in balance, an adult human requires a daily intake of about 40-50g of protein, ideally from plant sources that contain a very high amount of essential amino acids. The body can be shifted back into an alkaline state by reducing protein consumption and eating plenty of fresh vegetables.
The best plant-derived proteins are found in legumes, beans, nuts, seeds and pea protein. I prefer legumes that are easier to digest, such as chickpeas and lentils. I always recommend soaking legumes beforehand to remove the phytic acid – an anti-nutrient that binds to minerals. This supports proper digestion and a higher nutrient density of your foods. Nuts and seeds, particularly pumpkin and sunflower seeds are also good sources of protein, along with pea protein, which can be added to smoothies in powder form.
How to Transition
Often what happens when trying to transition to a plant-based way of eating is that the focus is too much on not eating meat, rather than increasing our plant intake. Rather than thinking about not eating something, it’s better to think about adding something to your plate. Increasing the amount of healthy fat is an easy place to start and helps you feel more satisfied. For example, preparing a tray of roasted vegetables and including a whole food sauce containing healthy fats, such as tahini, avocado, hemp seeds, or a simple herb infused oil can elevate the meal to the next nutrient-rich level and help you feel more satisfied. Healthy fats contain omega 3 fatty acids, which are important for optimal health and well-being in many ways, by enhancing metabolism, transmission of neural signals, and oxygenation of tissues, among other benefits. Good sources of omega 3s include green leafy vegetables, flax seed oil, seed oils, olive oil, and grape seed oil.
The Four Focus
The four focus: fibre, fats, protein, and greens is an easy structure to follow when thinking about how to build an optimally nutritious meal. It’s not about what you can’t have, or what should be avoided. It’s about how you can elevate a meal to be as nutrient dense as possible. Making sure you include these four components means you are providing your body with all it needs to function optimally and to keep you feeling at your best. It also helps you to think about the food you are eating in a more functional way. It’s really just self-awareness and being more intentional about your food choices. For more information on how to build an optimally balanced meal, you can download my Game Changers guide, an introductory free resource on how to prepare and create optimally balanced meals the (mostly) plant based way, including a downloadable cheat sheet, seasonality table and prep guide.
Biggest nutritional challenges
Following a predominantly plant-based way of eating does require a degree of commitment to nutritional excellence and searching for the highest quality food sources to ensure the body is getting all it needs. Vegans will likely need to consider a whole food organic multivitamin, vitamin B complex, vitamin D3 with vitamin K2, and an algae-based omega 3 (usually as an oil).
For individuals with a disease process or chronic symptomology, functional testing for nutritional deficiencies is a good place to start as it can provide a more targeted approach to support the body. Finding a registered nutritional therapist or a functional medicine practitioner is recommended.