What you need to know about plant based diets
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The rising tide of plant-based diets in the 21st century has caused a spark of controversy within the health and fitness population, with claims of it being healthier than an average western diet.
Although, with that said, plant-based diets doesn’t just mean vegan. The British Dietetics Association defines a plant-based diet as being “based on foods derived from plants, including vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruits, with few or no animal products”, this means there are a few types:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians – eat dairy foods and eggs but not meat, poultry or seafood.
- Ovo-vegetarians – include eggs but avoid all other animal foods, including dairy.
- Lacto-vegetarians – eat dairy foods but exclude eggs, meat, poultry and seafood.
- Vegans – don’t eat any animal products at all, including honey, dairy and eggs.
(A quick Google search for ‘veganism’ shows an increase of more than 500% over the last five years, which confirms it as the most popular on the list.)
Whether you’re currently plant-based or thinking about transitioning into a plant-based diet, it’s important to understand that any diet can still be unhealthy based on the food choices and the quantity of food eaten. When removing any food group from your diet, you also increase opportunity for deficiencies of certain nutrients.
Here are the top considerations we use for plant-based clients:
- Calcium is well known for supporting bone and teeth health, but did you know it also regulates muscular contractions and assists in blood clotting normally. A typical adult requires around 700mg per day. Dairy foods are rich in calcium, however if these aren’t consumed in your daily diet then make sure you source calcium elsewhere, e.g. fortified plant-based dairy alternatives, dried fruit, nuts, leafy green vegetables, red kidney beans, sesame seeds, tahini and tofu.
- Healthy Fats or more specifically Omega 3 Fatty Acids (ALA, EPA & DHA) have been shown to be key for optimal health, not only improving blood lipid profile, but supporting the production of repairing hormones, reducing inflammation and a range of other benefits. With oily fish or fish oils providing an average person their required Omega Fatty Acids, plant-based dieters will have to find another source. Various nuts and seeds are rich in ALA (walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseeds), however for the more important EPA and DHA, there are far fewer sources to choose from: Algae Oil and Seaweed. We would recommend a consumption of at least 500mg daily of EPA+DHA.
- Selenium you may not have heard of before. This essential mineral plays a vital role in the functioning of your thyroid hormone metabolism, reproduction, and protection from oxidative stress. In abundance, selenium is found in seafoods and organ meats - therefore plant-based individuals will have reduced access to it. However, the richest source is actually Brazil nuts, and just two per day will provide you with your daily requirements.
- Vitamin B12 is a vitamin that you may have heard mentioned before. A deficiency of it can impact fatigue, red blood cell production (anaemia), production of DNA, health of nerve cells and potentially increase homocysteine levels (a common amino acid in your blood), leading to cardiovascular disease. Most people get vitamin B12 from shellfish, fish, red meat and dairy. If you are eliminating all animal products, the abundant sources of vitamin B12 you are left with are fortified foods and supplements. Suitable B12-fortified foods include some breakfast cereals, yeast extracts, soya yoghurts and non-dairy milks. To ensure you get enough vitamin B12, supplementation may be necessary. If you are worried about whether you are obtaining sufficient B12, a doctor can check your blood homocysteine levels.
- Protein is recognised for it’s importance in many processes of the body - most of all the repairing and development of new cells (especially muscle tissue). We also understand that this process is optimised when consuming all required essential amino acids, most of which are contained within animal products (meat, fish and dairy). The challenge therefore, comes in finding plant-based protein sources that provide all 9 essential amino acids. Here are a few options we recommend:
- Soy (Tofu, Tempeh & Edamame), Amaranth, Quinoa, Hemp Seed and Chia Seed.
Rather than allow our plant-based clients to consume such a small variety of foods for their daily protein fix, there is another way of maximising consumption of this important nutrient; by combining sources with differing amino acid profiles. It’s easier than it sounds too:
- Beans + Grains, Nuts & Seeds: such as black beans and rice, will provide you a complete amino acid profile. Most beans are high in levels of lysine but fairly low in methionine, whereas rice is the opposite - composed of higher levels of methionine.
- Grains + Legumes: for example, hummus (chickpeas) and wholegrain breads. Grains are limited by the amount of lysine and threonine they contain, luckily this can easily be complimented by legumes.
Whilst there are many more considerations (honourable mentions: Iron - and Vitamin C to aid absorption of it, Creatine and Zinc), these big rocks should certainly be on your mind when planning out a plant-based diet.
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