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  • Joanna Injore

Plant-based diets -the latest trend?

Following a plant-based diet appears to be growing in popularity especially with rise of #veganuary and #meatfreemondays. Numerous high street restaurants have adopted vegan or meat free menus and the supermarkets are full of new and interesting meat free meals to try. Even my children’s school has adopted meat free Mondays weekly!


So what is a plant-based diet?

“A plant-based diet is based on food derived from plants, including vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruits, with few or no animal products”

definition from BDA


There are many versions a plant-based diets from only restricting meat products but still consuming dairy and eggs, to following a full vegan diet where all animal products (including dairy, eggs and honey) are avoided. However more of us are choosing to be “flexitarians” following a plant-based diet most of the time but occasionally eating meat.

Why the growing trend?

There are a number of reasons why you may choose to follow a plant-based diet, such as concern for animal welfare or the environment or simply to improve your health. Vegetarian diets have in fact been around for centuries, being the diet of choice for some religious groups and some developing countries where meat products are too expensive to consume. However, in more recent times social media influence may have helped to encourage a plant-based lifestyle. The January “Veganuary” campaign reports that a huge 25,310 people from 190 counties registered to take part in their month long vegan pledge. These sorts of campaigns have really bought plant-based diets into the mainstream.


What are the benefits of following a plant-based diet?

Plant-based diets have been linked to lower risks of many conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. This may be because a well-planned balanced plant-based diet can be lower in saturated fat, higher in fibre, contain more vitamins and minerals (i.e. vitamin C, E potassium and magnesium) and phytochemicals (which are found in fruits and vegetables and have a protective effect on the body).

However, it is worth noting that a lot of this data comes from observational studies not intervention studies. This means we can only say that lower rates of these health conditions were observed in people following a plant-based diet. Other factors are likely to be influential, for example vegetarians are also more likely to lead healthy lifestyles, exercising more and less likely to smoke which also limits the risk of these conditions.



Tips on following a healthy plant-based diet

A plant-based diet which includes plenty of nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, wholegrain and beans should provide all the nutrients your body needs.

The Vegetarian society guide based on the Eatwell Guide illustrates most of your meals should be made from fruits, vegetarians and wholegrain/higher fibre carbohydrate foods. The next section is your protein foods which should be made up of beans, pulses, eggs (if you eat them), nuts and meat alternatives. You also need to include some dairy or dairy alternatives (just make sure they have been fortified with calcium).

It is worth remembering a plant-based diet can be unhealthy too, especially if it contains high amounts of saturated fat from processed or fried foods so try to limit these.


The Vegetarian Eatwell Guide

What are the essentials?


Protein-important for building and repairing muscle in the body

Make sure you are getting enough protein by aiming for 2-3 serving a day. Try to choose a mixture of different types of protein sources so you are getting a range of the essential amino acids (which are the building blocks of protein). Remember if you are eating meat substitutes like vegetarian burgers or sausages these foods still may be higher in fat and salt so keep these to a minimum.


Calcium – for your bone health

Dairy foods are high in calcium so if you are avoiding these foods make sure you are having fortified calcium alternatives instead.


Extra tip -organic dairy alternatives (e.g. soya, oats milk etc) will not be fortified with calcium. Also shake up you milk! As the added calcium will sink to the bottle of the bottle!



Omega 3 fatty acids- can protect the heart

Rich sources of omega 3 fatty acids are found in oily fish. Long chain omega -3 (docosahexaenoic acid- DHA) are good for us and plant-based sources are flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and soya beans. If you don’t eat these foods you may need to consider a supplement (look for ones made from algae derived DHA)


Iron- needed to make haemoglobin which transports oxygen around the body and to maintain a strong immune system

Plant-based sources of iron are dried fruit, leafy green vegetables, nuts, fortified breakfast cereal and wholegrain. To increase the iron absorption, make sure you a source of vitamin C with your food (e.g. fruit/vegetables)


Selenium- needed for a healthy immune system and has a role in reproduction

This is found in nuts, grains and seeds. Two Brazil nuts a day will meet your daily selenium needs.


Vitamin B12/folate- is a cofactor for enzymes needed to keep the nervous system healthy and to maintain your energy levels

Vitamin B12 is found in most animal products but if you don’t eat these foods the only source is vitamin B12 fortified foods and supplements. Check if your breakfast cereals, dairy free milk and yoghurts are fortified and aim to eat fortified foods at least twice a day.


What about supplements are they needed?

If you follow a vegan diet there are some specific nutrients that you may need to make sure your diet is providing such as calcium, vitamin D, iodine, iron, selenium, omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin B12. Consult a Dietitian to discuss whether you diet needs supplementation.


Summary

A balanced and well-planned plant-based diet can be healthy and provide you will all the nutrients you need, but keep it healthy with lower fat, sugar and salt choices!

If you would like to review your diet to check if you are getting the right balance book now




Key references

British Dietetic Association, 2016. Food fact sheet – vegetarian diets. [Online]. Available from: https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/vegetarianfoodfacts.pdf (Accessed 3 May 2019).


Winston J Craig, Health effects of vegan diets, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 89, Issue 5, May 2009, Pages 1627S–1633S, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736N (Accessed 3 May 2019)


The Vegetarian Society- https://www.vegsoc.org/


The Vegan Society- https://www.vegansociety.com/

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