Trending right now: plant-based diets are a healthful way to eat. But it can be hard to know where to start and how to get your proper macro and micronutrients from a plant-based diet. It is important to get a range of macro (fat, protein, and carbohydrates) and micro (vitamin and minerals) nutrients for good health and in this article, we have got the top tips and tricks to make it easy for you.
- The essentials: What you need to know about a plant-based diet
Firstly, a plant-based or plant forward diet consists mostly or entirely of whole plant foods that are close to its original form as possible (minimally processed). Whereas a vegan diet excludes ALL animal products: including meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. It also excludes dairy products, such as milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.
If done correctly, plant-based diets are generally high in fiber and low in refined grains and sugars. Plants are an amazing source of nutrients and are jam-packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals like beta-carotene, chlorophyll, vitamins E and K. They also contain flavonoids like rutin and quercetin which boost your mood and reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and many other chronic diseases.
- How to get nutrients from your plant-based diet
The best way to get the most health benefits out of a plant-based diet is to cook from scratch where you can, to avoid shop bought, ultra-processed plant-based foods, which are often high in preservatives, added sugars and artificial ingredients. Over time, buying highly processed foods that are low in fibre and high in sugar and salt can cause health problems. So, it is best to buy fruit and vegetables as close to its original form as possible and then make your own balanced and delicious recipes, therefore you are in control of the food processing! For example, buying fresh cherry tomatoes (whole plant food) vs canned cherry tomatoes (more processed) to make a pasta sauce.
But don’t despair, this does not mean you need to give up having an occasional treat every now and then, it certainly does not ruin your healthy lifestyle and should not be consumed with guilt.
Macro food groups
In every meal you have, aim to have a variety of food groups. Here are some examples of what you can have:
Processed foods like white bread, white rice, and white pasta are stripped of nutrients so it is best to opt in for the whole grain variety. Other options include- quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth.
In the past, vegetarians and vegans have struggled to get enough protein in their diets. But times have changed. Today's consumers are becoming more aware of the issue and demanding more from their food products. We are advised to have 0.75g / kg body weight per day in adults.
But you do need to combine different protein sources, because unlike meat, many proteins don't have all the amino acids the body needs. These are needed for muscle synthesis in the body. Here are some foods with high protein: seeds, nuts, and nut butter, tofu, legumes like chickpeas, oats.
It is best to have vegetables that are in season. It is best practice to include at least 2 handfuls of vegetables on our plate. Eating a variety of plant-based foods also improves your gut health by boosting your microbiome diversity
The Eatwell Guide recommends that a good portion size of fat is a thumb sized portion This could be avocado oil, spreads, olive oil, some nuts or seeds.
- Tips to prevent nutrient deficiencies
Inadequate blood levels of certain nutrients can cause major health problems, so it's important that vegans are particularly aware of their nutrient intake and make sure they are taking adequate amounts of B12, D, EPA and DHA, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc and iodine. Lets go through each of these nutrients!
- B12 is a water-soluble vitamin — one of the most important nutrients you need to consume on a regular basis. It plays an essential role in blood formation and in the functioning of the brain. B12 is one of the most important nutrients for vegans and vegetarians to be concerned with
- In people who follow plant-based diets, B12 deficiency is very common, with studies suggesting up to 92% of vegans are deficient in this critical nutrient.
- One of the main ways you can avoid deficiency is to add nutritional yeast to your dishes. Our favourite way is to make a parmesan cashew crumb with it!
- Iron is an essential component of red blood cells and is needed to produce energy within the body. The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) state that iron is also a crucial component in many enzyme reactions, helping to maintain the health of immune cells.
- To get enough iron, eat a variety of foods with iron such as lentils and chickpeas as well as foods rich in vitamin C, such as broccoli, spinach, cabbage, and tomatoes to help the absorption of iron.
- Calcium is an essential mineral for our bodies. It helps to maintain healthy bones and teeth, assists in the transmission of nerve impulses, and controls the way our blood clots. It is essential for proper functioning of our bodies, as we cannot produce it on our own.
- Plant-based sources of calcium include leafy greens, calcium-set tofu, pulses and dried fruit like raisins.
- Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that helps the body to absorb calcium, which in turn, builds and maintains healthy bones and muscles.
- With vitamin D, make sure that in summer you get outside for 10 minutes each day and in the winter you take a vitamin D supplement. You can also get vitamin D in fortified dairy products, fortified cereals, and even mushrooms that have been specially grown under UV light.
Omega 3 fats
- Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids. They cannot be synthesized by the body, and therefore must be consumed in the diet.
- Found in chia seeds and walnuts which can be sprinkled onto salads and breakfasts
- Think about supplementing with the right doses of the long-chain omega-3s EPA and DHA.
- Zinc is an essential mineral found in the body. It is important for the functioning of the immune system, cell growth and division, wound healing, and the breakdown of carbohydrates
- Zinc is found in foods like lentils, beans, seeds, oats and tofu
- To enhance the absorption of iron and zinc, try fermenting or sprouting foods.
Eat the rainbow
In essence, a good way of ensuring you are getting different micronutrients is to mix up the diversity of vegetables and fruits you consume. A good indicator of this is looking at the range of colours you have on your plate. Try to eat every colour of the rainbow every week! If you’re not eating a wide range, it’s important to make sure you speak to your health professional and supplement.
To begin eating a varied and nutritious food format, start by making a menu plan. I like to use an easy approach that includes breakfast, lunch, an afternoon snack, and dinner. This will help ensure that each of your meals meets your nutrient needs. You can then break this meal plan into any combinations that work for you. Then, each day, focus on eating 1–2 different whole foods that have a variety of nutrient content and making sure your plant-based milks are fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and B12.
One of the biggest problems with our current diets is all the processed sugars and fats in them. A plant-based diet is a great way to eat healthier, but it can be difficult to know where to start.