The benefits of moving towards an increasingly 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. Navigating around a dietary change, particularly if it’s quite a dramatic change, can pose some problems though. Here are my top tips for doing a plant-based diet well.
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) or corn + legumes (Mexican chilli beans + corn salsa).
Calcium builds bone strength and prevents osteoporosis. The richest sources are diary foods such as milk, yoghurt and cheese. 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). Tofu is a decent source as well, but if you can’t meet your required three servings per day (1000mg of calcium), a supplement may be necessary.
Plant-based foods such as 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, as 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.
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 per cent of vegans are deficient. Fish and shellfish, eggs and dairy are good sources, but for vegans a supplement will be essential.
Adding a bulk of fibrous foods like legumes, cauliflower and wholegrains to the diet can very quickly upset the gut 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 they 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.
Important for the immune system and wound healing, zinc is a water-soluble vitamin so must be replenished daily. Meat and chicken are the best sources of zinc but oysters, fish and dairy are also excellent sources for pescatarians. For vegans, beans, nuts, seeds and wholegrains are good sources but also contain phytates that bind to zinc and prevent their absorption. Soaking and sprouting these plant foods can help reduce this occurrence.
A day on a plate
Porridge made with traditional oats, regular or calcium fortified milk, berries, sprinkle of nuts & seeds
Eat Fit Food recommended breakfast
Gluten free chia & goji bircher muesli with coconut yoghurt and passionfruit
And a cup of tea or coffee and regular or fortified milk
Wholegrain crackers, nut spread
EFF morning snack
Lemon & ginger tahini protein balls
Wholegrain bread sandwich, a slice of cheese or hummus, lots of salad
Moroccan eggplant, kidney bean and green millet bowl
A piece of fruit and small handful of nut and seed mix
EFF afternoon snack
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
Vietnamese Tofu Pho
Jamie Rose Chambers is an accredited practicing dietician & nutritionist, head of nutrition & wellness at Eat Fit Food.