What is a plant based diet?
In the UK veganism has increased by 260% over the last 10 years, which many attribute to concerns surrounding animal welfare, environmental reasons or the perceived health benefits. Researchers from the University of Oxford have hailed a vegan diet as the “single biggest way” to reduce your impact on the planet and that is before you consider the suggested ethical arguments against industrially farmed animals which are reported to have an appalling quality of life, and pumped full of powerful antibiotics that may pose a risk to human health.
So what exactly is it and why?
The Vegan Society describe their ethical beliefs to be in line with a world without cruelty to, and exploitation of, animals by making the choice not to use animals as food, clothing, or for any other purpose. Every individual approach is different, however, most will opt to avoid meat, fish, shellfish, dairy, eggs, insects and honey. Some individuals choose to avoid products that have been tested on animals, or wear clothes made from animals.
In the UK veganism has increased by 260% over the last 10 years
A typical plant based diet contains legumes, fruit, pulses, grains, nuts, vegetables and meat alternatives. When choosing to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet it’s worth being aware of the potential ways in which you could make your diet deficient in certain nutrients. Key players to keep an eye on are:
• Omega 3
• Vitamin D
An example of a typical vegan plate is demonstrated below from Brenda Davis RD via The vegan Society:
The vegan plate demonstrates the foods required to achieve a healthy balanced diet. However, it is worth noting that fortified food and supplements are often needed, in order to meet micronutrient requirements.
Good sources of protein include beans, tofu, seitan, chickpeas, lentils, nuts, seeds, tempeh, mycoproetin (Quorn), bread and grains. Imitation meat alternatives, which are made using pea protein, soya and wheat protein also contribute to our protein intake (although it is worth noting the fat and salt content in these offerings as they aren’t always the healthy option).
The overall concern with meeting protein requirements is obtaining all 9 essential amino acids from vegan foods. All 9 can be found in soya beans, quinoa, amaranth, hempseed and buckwheat. It was once thought protein combining was essential for meeting requirements, however The British Dietetic association suggest protein foods eaten throughout the day will still contribute to meeting total requirements.
Iron is essential for a well-functioning immune system so low levels can make you more prone to fatigue, illness and infection.
Iron can be found in:
• Fortified breakfast cereals
• Green leafy vegetables
• Sesame seeds
• Dried fruit,
• Yeast extract
• Sources of vitamin C should be consumed alongside sources of iron in order to boost absorption.
Omega 3 are essential fatty acids required by the eyes, brain and heart. Our bodies cannot make these polyunsaturated fatty acids so intake from dietary source or supplementation is essential. A plant-based form of Omega 3 Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) can be found in walnuts, walnut oil, hemp seeds, rapeseed oil, hazelnuts, pecans, linseed oil, chia seeds, soybean oil, linseed oil, soybeans, soybean oil and green leafy vegetables. However, it isn’t converted as efficiently as the main forms of omega 3 Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which is found in oily fish. The best form of ALA is from algae. This can be bought in supplement form and very much vegan friendly. ALA is the precursor to EPA and DHA so can be a good way of obtaining omega 3 in a vegan diet.
Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal foods. It is essential for making red blood cells and maintaining a healthy nervous system. Sources include:
• Nutritional yeast,
• Fortified plant-based milks and cereals.
• The British Dietetic Association recommends eating B12 fortified foods twice per day or supplementation with 10 micrograms daily.
Iodine is a mineral needed to make thyroid hormones, required for growth and regulating metabolism. Plant-based sources can be found in cereal and grains, although, content may vary between brands. Iodine is also found in leafy green vegetables and fruit, nuts, and small amounts of iodised salt. Seaweed is a rich source of iodine, however, expectant mothers should not exceed one portion per week, as high iodine levels can be dangerous. If considering a supplement aim for 150micrograms of potassium iodide or potassium iodate (avoid seaweed iodine supplements as the amount of iodine can vary considerably from the value on the label).
Vitamin D is known as the sunshine hormone. Most of our vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight. It helps us to maintain our bone health and to absorb calcium from the food we eat. It was originally thought that those who work indoors or have a darker skin tone should supplement their diet, however it is now recommended that everyone over the age of one year should supplement their diet especially in autumn and winter due to the high prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in all population groups.
• Vitamin D fortified foods
• Sun exposure
• Vitamin D supplementation – 10 micrograms
Selenium is an antioxidant, which the body cannot make on its own. Therefore, it is essential to obtain through dietary sources. Meat and Fish are great sources of selenium, however if you follow a plant -based diet, Brazil nuts are a great choice as they are grown in selenium rich soil. Eating 3-4 Brazil nuts can meet your daily requirements.
Calcium is important for all ages for strong bones and teeth. Calcium requirements increase if:
• You have coeliac disease
• Have osteoporosis
• Are breastfeeding
• Are past the menopause
• Inflammatory bowel disease
Plant based sources include:
• Calcium fortified products such as breakfast cereals, plant based milk, yoghurts and custard
• White bread (White flour is fortified with calcium in the UK)
• Green leafy vegetables (e.g. Kale, Spring greens, broccoli)
• Dried fruit
• Sesame seeds
If you cannot meet your daily requirements it may be worth considering a supplement of 700mg per day for those over 19 years (remember requirements can alter if you have a health condition or post menopause as listed above).
Health is one of the key reasons a person might opt for veganism nowadays and with stacks of evidence out there you can see why. A number of studies have linked vegetarian and vegan diets with longer-life and lower risk of disease; lower BMI, total and LDL cholesterol (the unfriendly kind) and blood glucose levels. In addition, a study on carbohydrate quality in The Lancet (2019) revealed that a diet high in fibre (25-29g per day) led to a 15-30% decrease in risk from all-cause mortality (death from all causes), so of course this is great for those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet as it is likely to be high in fibre.
Another thing we know is that a diet containing dairy products is likely to be a lot higher in calories, and therefore by omitting dairy vegans are likely to consume a lot less calories in their daily intake which could help to control weight overall and possibly lead to weight loss; which lends itself to the primary lifestyle strategy for the management of Type 2 diabetes. Diabetes UK 2018 clinical guidelines outline how vegetarian and vegan diets can be protective against the onset of Type 2 diabetes. Cancer research suggests that keeping a healthy weight could prevent 22,800 cases of cancer every year in the UK and The World Cancer Research Fund recommends a diet high in plant-based foods could contribute to lower risks of cancer.
Meat and dairy are the main contributors to diet-related emissions worldwide, so it is estimated that switching to a plant based diet on a global scale would reduce:
• Greenhouse gas emissions by 49%
• Acidifcation by 50% (i.e the biodiversity of water and soil can be affected due to a reduction in the pH, which can be attributed to pollution)
• Eutrophication by 49% (i.e when water becomes overly enriched with nutrients it boosts the grow of plants and algae, thus, the oxygen levels are depleted)
• Land use by 76%
The British Dietetic Association Blue Dot initiative promotes a more sustainable way of eating that is not only beneficial to health but also the environment. They suggest limiting red meat in our diet to no more than 70g per day (or 350-500g cooked weight per week) plus avoidance of processed meat which should not compromise our or status of key nutrients, even halving white meat alone would attribute to 9,277 delayed or averted deaths per year so you don’t need to be 100% plant based to promote environmental and health benefits.
If you have been a life-long meat eater, it is hard to know where to start.
• Replacing products in your diet with alternatives step by step- such as trialing plant based alternatives to milk, mayonnaise and yoghurts
• Do cook your suspicious friends delicious vegan recipes even if it is the only one you know. Getting your friends and family on board may supply you with the support you need to succeed
• Dispel myths- protein deficiency being one of them.
• If you are on a limited budget steer clear of the processed vegan foods, in theory eating plant based can be done on a very low budget
• Try including 1 or 2 vegan friendly meal options to your weekly meal planner
• Veganuary is sometimes a good place to start- there is usually lots of support and recipe ideas at this time of year
• Meat-free Monday
• The Vegan Society Plate up initiative can be helpful for meal planning: https://www.vegansociety.com/get-involved/campaigns/plate-planet/plate-meal-planner