Plant based diets are all the rage right now. But what are they and are they all they are cracked up to be? Today we’re going to talk about healthy eating on a plant-based diet. This article covers:
- What is healthy eating?
- What is a plant-based diet?
- Health benefits of a plant-based diet
- Disadvantages of a plant-based diet Meeting nutritional needs on a plant-based diet
- What to include on a plant-based diet
What is healthy eating
This is a tricky question, and the answer will change depending on who you ask. But let’s take a step back and have a look at the communities of people who live the longest and healthiest lives.
There are 5 communities in the world where people are known to live particularly long and healthy lives. We call these “The Blue Zones” and they include:
- Ikaria, Greece
- Okinawa, Japan
- Sardinia, Italy
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
- A seventh day Adventist community in Loma Linda, California
The thing is that none of these communities eat the same diet. Confused? Yep. Well, the answer is that there is no one diet that is perfect for everyone. We are all different and healthy eating looks different on different people. So, if these people all eat different foods, what do they have in common?
- Variety, variety and more variety – We have 5 food groups for a good reason. Each food group provides different nutrients. Our bodies are complex, and they need a variety of different nutrients to function at their best. When you restrict foods, it just limits your body’s access to certain nutrients.
- Plant foods – including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. All of these blue zones eat diets that are high in plant foods. In 2014 a meta-analysis that reviewed 304 other meta-analyses published over 63 years comparing dietarypatterns and chronic disease risk found that plant foods and fish were protective against chronic diseases, dairy foods were neutral, while red meat was linked to higher risks. Ref: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nure.12153
- Food relationship – We don’t just eat for nutrition. Food is social and pleasurable. It provokes memories and is a part of religious ceremonies. All of these are important to mental health. If your diet is making your mental health suffer, it is not making you healthier.
What is a plant-based diet
There is actually no definition of what a plant-based diet is, and different people will interpret this question differently. While one person completely avoids all animal products (vegan) and another will lean towards vegetarian and another will be more flexitarian. Despite this, the focus of a plant-based diet, is on plants. Plant based diets involve most foods coming from plant sources including whole grains, legumes, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Health benefits of a plant-based diet
Plant based diets have multiple benefits. There is excellent scientific evidence that diets focused on plant foods prevent, manage and even reserve may chronic conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. In addition, many people who transition to eating more plants report increased energy, decreased inflammation and improved overall health.
Plant based diets are generally high in fibre. Fibre is the part of food that is not digested. Instead, it continues through the digestive tract and is digested by the healthy bacteria that make up your gut microbiome. Prebiotic fibre in particular has been linked to multiple health benefits:
- Prebiotics improve regularity and digestive function by keeping the gut contracting and relaxing rhythmically and improving stool form
- Prebiotics feed & nourish your gut microbiota keeping them healthy and preventing the growth of less beneficial pathogens from setting up home in your gut
- Prebiotics are fermented in the large intestine which increases short chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA are shown to:
- Support gut barrier function and integrity
- Support and nourish the cells that line the gut wall
- Support immune function and decrease systemic inflammation
- Support beneficial cholesterol levels and maintain cardiovascular health
- Support glucose metabolism and reduce risk of type 2 diabetes
- Support satiety and reduced fat storage
In addition to fibre, plants are a rich source of phytonutrients that are unique to plant-based foods. Among phytonutrients, several compounds, including flavonoids, polyphenols, stilbenes, carotenoids and anthocyanins, are known to be important for a number of health promoting effects. Studies show that although they are not essential nutrients, phytonutrients have important properties such as antioxidant activity, antimicrobial effects, modulation of detoxification enzymes, stimulation of the immune system, decrease of platelet aggregation and modulation of hormone metabolism, and anticancer property.
Disadvantages to a plant-based diet
Plant based diets can still be high in ultra-processed foods. Diet trends come and go, just like fashion and right now, plants are in fashion. This means that manufactures and marketers are on board and in the aim of increasing returns, will advertise foods as being plant based to create what is called a “health halo”. However, just because it is plant based, does not mean it is health promoting. There are ultra-processed foods that are made from plants and when you look closely, they aren’t all that different from other ultra-processed foods containing ingredients like protein isolates, emulsifiers, binders and other additives, and in addition, are made using industrial processing methods. While eating a food just for pleasure
is a perfectly acceptable reason to eat something, let call a spade a spade and not just assume that it’s a healthy choice solely because it’s labelled as plant based.
Plant foods are a great source of fibre. This is actually a benefit, and most of the reason that plant-based diets carry health benefit. But switching to a plant-based diet can drastically increase your fibre intake and can mean a bit of adjustment for your gut. As a result, you may initially experience increase bowel movements and fluctuations in gas and boating. In most cases this will settle as your gut becomes used to it and your gut microbiome will flourish.
If you completely avoid animal products (i.e. follow a vegan diet), you may need to monitor your B12 which is found primarily in animal foods
Can a plant-based diet meet nutritional needs
The answer to this is a resounding YES! It is absolutely possible to meet nutritional needs at all stages of life on a plant-based diet. But you do need think about it. Just cutting out meat and dairy doesn’t cut it.
- Protein: Think about your meals and snacks and make them balanced by including plant-based forms of protein like nuts, seeds, legumes and tofu.
- Iron: Plant based sources of iron are not as well absorbed as animal sources of iron. There are a few things you can do to increase iron absorption on a plant-based diet. Vitamin C helps to absorb iron form plant foods, to add tomatoes, capsicum or a squeeze of lemon juice to your plant proteins. Coffee and tea can inhibit the absorption of iron, so keep these to between meals.
- Calcium: Dairy is an excellent source of calcium. If you are vegan, make sure to include calcium fortified plant milks and tofu set in calcium carbonate. Leafy greens are often touted as a great source of calcium, but the calcium is not as well absorbed. To get the same amount of calcium as in 1 glass of milk you’d need to eat 4 cups of kale or 7 cups of broccoli.
- Zinc: is present in lots of whole grains and legumes. Soaking and sprouting them can increase absorption.
- B12: is not generally found in plant foods. If you are vegan you may need to include foods fortified with B12 (some plant milks, breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast) or speak to your doctor about a supplement.
- Omega 3: Seeds including chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, hempseeds, hempseed oil and walnuts are great sources of Omega 3
What if I don’t want to be vegan, but just want to include more plants?
This is a great option! Some tips to get you started include:
- Eat more veggies at lunch and dinner by filling half your plate.
- Snack on carrots, hummus, fruit, nuts and seeds.
- Include smaller serves of meat and treat it as a side dish rather than the star of the meal.
- Choose healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado.
- Include a few vegetarian meals each week.
What to include on a plant-based diet
Eat plenty of:
- Vegetables (spinach, kale, silver beet, sweet potatoes, asparagus, carrots, zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, onion, garlic, mushrooms, capsicum)
- Fruits (apples, pears, stone fruit, melons, citrus and berries) · Whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, wholegrain bread, oats and whole-wheat pasta) · Nuts & seeds (walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, peanuts, cashews, flaxseed, chia seeds, and hemp seeds)
- Legumes (kidney beans, broad beans, edamame, chickpeas and lentils)
What to Limit (or avoid, depending on your choice)
- Dairy (milk, yoghurt and cheese)
- Meat and poultry (chicken, beef, lamb and pork)
- Processed animal meats, such as sausages and hot dogs
Can I use Kfibre on a plant-based diet?
Yes. Kfibre is 100% virgin sugarcane fibre with the sucrose removed using a chemical free process. Not only is Kfibre vegan and plant based, but the chemical free process allows it to retain the integrity of the phytonutrients, including antioxidants and polyphenols, found naturally in the plant. Kfibre is a natural prebiotic fibre that nourishes your gut in the same way fertiliser nourishes your garden.
By Joanna Baker (APD | RN)