Recent media coverage and documentaries on the benefits of a plant-based diet may have sparked your interest in lowering your animal product consumption or going completely vegan all together. Although vegan diets can support health, through lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, diabetes and increasing longevity, when not implemented correctly you may end up feeling far from optimal health.
What is a plant based or vegan diet?
Individuals following a plantbased or vegan diet abstain from the consumption and often the use of animal products. A plant-based diet comprises of vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, seeds and nuts and foods such as meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, eggs and animal-derived ingredients including honey are avoided. The main reasons for plant-based diets stem from people’s culture, animal cruelty, environmental sustainability and possible health benefits.For the purpose of this article, the terms plant based and vegan will be used interchangeably.
What are the risks of a vegan diet?
Cutting out whole food groups can place individuals at risk of macronutrient, micronutrient and mineral deficiency. This is even more applicable to populations such as athletes, pregnant or breastfeeding woman, growing teenagers and elderly, where their recommended daily intake differ to the general population (1). Plant based athletes are discussed in more detail during episode 251 of The Real Food Real podcast, which can be accessed here. Thus, it is important for these individuals to work with a health practitioner to ensure they are well educated about meeting essential nutrient levels.
How can I make sure I’m getting all the required nutrients on a plant-based diet?
Vitamin B12 is extremely difficult to derive from plant-based whole food sources, with the exception of fortified B12 cereals or plant-based milk. Therefore, it is fundamental that vegans take a B12 supplement.
The concern around iron is due to the reduced bioavailability of iron from plant based sources, however a well-planned plant based diet can contain adequate iron. Instead of relying on fake meats, this can be achieved by consuming foods such beans and lentils, tofu, tempeh, broccoli and green leafy vegetables. Iron absorption can be enhanced by consuming these foods alongside vitamin C such as via pairing tempeh with broccoli, capsicum and/or cauliflower. Many individuals following a vegan diet may also need supplement with an iron supplement, as determined by ferritin and iron blood testing.
Animal proteins contain all the essential amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine) that our bodies cannot make on their own, making them ‘complete proteins’. Pairing grains and legumes or nuts and legume proteins allow us to obtain the required amount of essential amino acids, as most plant-based proteins cannotprovide is with all the essential amino acidsalone (with the exception of tempeh, tofu, amaranth, quinoa, hemp and chia seeds). In many cases, vegans inadvertently become ‘starcharians’, filling their plate with rice, quinoa, legumes, lentils, and other similar plant-based foods. However, focusing on an abundance of non-starchy vegetables per meal, plus supplementing with a pea protein powder, will add variety and minimise over consumption of starch.
Calcium levels can be achieved via the inclusion of tofu, bok choy, spinach, broccoli, chia seeds, figs, almonds and tahini. Other nutrients to be mindful of include vitamin D, vitamin K2, zinc and omega 3. For more details on making sure you’re getting all the essential nutrients on a vegan diet, head over to our article “How to be the healthiest vegan”.
Top tips for transition to a plant-based diet
- Understand your reason for becoming vegan. Don’t let your inspiration to swap a beef patty for a veggie burger stem from Netflix documentaries or because you’ve heard ‘cutting out whole food groups’ can help shift those last few kilos’.
- Educate yourself on which nutrients you may not get through a plant-based diet and find supplements to help meet the required levels. As mentioned earlier, many vitamins and minerals can only be found in animal products.
- Have a blood test prior to transitioning to vegan to ensure your levels are optimal and continue to monitor your nutrients levels by retesting every six months.
- Gradually reduce your intake of animal products rather than going cold turkey. You may start with a vegetarian diet then gradually remove other animal products such as milk, cheese and eggs.
- Fill your plate predominantly with plants rather than starchy legumes and grains. Smaller amounts of legumes of grains are of course fine, but they shouldn’t form the bulk of your plate.
- Avoid highly processed ‘vegan’ food found in the supermarkets which are often extremely high in sodium and made with ingredients such as processed soy, gluten and vegetable oils.
- Focus on the array of foods you can have, rather than being caught up on everything you can’t have. Swap some of your favourite animal-based foods for a healthy vegan alternative i.e. replace butter with avocado, cheese with cashew butter, chicken with tofu or jackfruit and a beef burger with a black bean pattie or falafel.
- Many restaurants these days are very accommodating of dietary needs but check the menu online ahead of time, to ensure you have a few options you can choose from.
Inspiration for plant-based eating throughout the day
Not sure what your day on a plate is going to look like? Here’s some easy inspiration to get you started:
- Breakfast: Smoothie made with almond milk, banana, berries, almond butter, cacao, chia seeds and a pea protein powder.
- Lunch: Quinoa, black bean and roast veggies with avocado and olive oil.
- Dinner: Vegetable and tempeh curry. Why not give our Vegetable Coconut Curry a go?
- Snacks: Handful of nuts, coconut yoghurt and berries, veggie sticks with hummus, protein ball.
If you are thinking about moving to a plant-based diet, please seek personalised support with a nutritionist or health practitioner. You can book a complimentary 15-minute consultation here.
(1) National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, New Zealand Ministry of Health (2006). Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand. Canberra.