A plant-based diet can be described as one where at least 2/3 of the diet is composed of foods that either are plants or are made entirely from plants – e.g. whole fruit and vegetables, pasta, seeds, pulses and nut butters. Interest in following plant-based diets has increased in recent years; veganism having grown by 350% in the UK since 2006. The Eatwell Guide (the UK’s healthy eating guideline) is also actually composed of 75% plant-based foods.
|The different faces of plant-based diets|
|Flexitarians||Occasionally eat meat, poultry or seafood|
|Pescetarians||Eat fish and/or seafish|
|Lacto-ovo-vegetarians||Eat dairy (lacto) and eggs (ovo), or just one of either and no meat, poultry or seafood|
|Vegans||Do not eat dairy products, eggs or any other products derived from animals (e.g. honey)|
If plant-based diets are well-planned and varied, they can most definitely support healthy living at all ages. Vegan and vegetarian diets have been associated with lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity. This being an association only though it’s difficult to know which aspect of these diets are responsible for the beneficial effects or whether vegans and vegetarians are people who lead a generally healthier lifestyle anyway (e.g. are more active or smoke less).
Vegan and vegetarian foods often have somewhat of a ‘health halo’ to them however; with many believing that these foods must somehow be healthier or ‘guilt-free’. However, it is worth pointing out that not all plant-based diets and foods are created equal. For example, take a look at the diet below.
Breakfast – Chocolate flavoured rice cereal with sweetened almond milk, 2 slices white toast with marmalade.
Lunch – Pasta salad with tomato and chilli sauce and ciabatta.
Dinner – Vegan ‘steak-style’ pie with oven chips.
Snacks & drinks – 500ml cranberry juice drink, 500ml coca cola, ½ packet of oreo cookies, salted tortilla chips and salsa, tomato ‘cup-a-soup’.
Yes, it’s completely vegan and arguably even more sustainable than the average western diet, but I’m fairly sure most people would agree that it’s not exactly balanced. Just because some foods, for example potatoes, are inherently natural, plant-foods doesn’t automatically mean crisps, hash browns and chips become everyday, healthy choices. How we cook and prepare our food is equally as important as what we choose to buy in the supermarket.
One common argument used against choosing a less animal-product based diet is concern over protein. Plant-protein sources can provide a great source of protein, and if you don’t believe me have a look at the label on a pack of tofu (12g/100g) or a jar of peanut butter (30g/100g). One image I like to conjure up for plant-haters is of true vegetarians in the wild; rhinos and elephants eat nothing but plants, assimilating all their kilos of muscle from plant protein alone. Obviously, our digestive processes are very distinct from these creatures, but it proves a point.
|Average protein requirements 19-64 year olds|
The above recommendations can easily be met by swapping meat and meat products with any of the huge selection of meat-free alternatives that are available such as soya and soya products like tofu or tempeh, Quorn™ and seitan (gluten-based). Other plant foods that are a good source of protein include peas, beans and lentils, nuts, seeds and grains such as cous cous, wholewheat pasta and quinoa. The options for dairy alternatives is as vast as it’s ever been with the range of plant-based milks ranging from oats to hazelnuts. However, especially if eating zero animal products, it is advised to choose those which are fortified with micronutrients such as calcium and iodine as other sources of these vital nutrients may be lacking.
The core focus of all diet choices, from omnivorous to vegan, should be the same when trying to invite more health (and sustainability) into your diet. This being to include a greater proportion of fruit vegetables, beans and pulses, nuts, seeds and wholegrain starchy carbohydrates. These diets also tend to be lower in fat (especially saturated), high in fibre and with a greater diversity of essential micronutrients.
So, opting for a handful of entirely plant-based meals a week (think porridge made with nut milk, dried fruit and seeds – what could be easier?!) or dedicating 2 or 3 meat-free days a week could be a manageable place to start.
“It’s less vegetarian and more vegetable-atarian” – Dr Michael Greger
For the keen readers and evidence-checkers amongst you:
One Green Planet – Plant based vegan nutrition guide http://www.onegreenplanet.org/natural-health/plant-based-vegan-nutrition-guide/
British Dietetic Association – Plant-based diet factsheet https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/plantbaseddiets.pdf
Martinez-Gonzalez et al. (2014). A provegetarian food pattern and reduction in total mortality in the Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea (PREDIMED) study. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.071431
Huang et al. (2016). Vegetarian Diets and Weight Reduction: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. doi: 10.1007/s11606-015-3390-7.
Dinu et al. (2017). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447.
Satija et al. (2017). Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2017.05.047.