The decisions you make as to what you eat from the end of your fork can impact on your health so much.
I know you know this - this is why you are here.
Are you eating plant based foods?
As you read through this, you will be able to take some time to consider which plant foods you have within your diet and you may consider increasing the volume of these foods within your diet.
Things to know
The right plant-based foods can be excellent sources of protein and other nutrients, often with fewer calories than animal products.
Some plant products, such as soy beans and quinoa are complete proteins, which means that they contain all nine essential amino acids that humans need. Others are missing some of these amino acids, so eating a varied diet is important.
Do plant-based diets have any of the health benefits?
Studies that have explored the relationship between plant-based dietary patterns with an emphasis on plant foods, such as vegetarian, vegan or Mediterranean-style diets, have shown them to be linked with reduced risk of heart disease, strokes and type 2 diabetes when compared to less healthy dietary patterns. Scientific research also indicates that healthy plant-based diets can have beneficial effects on risk of disease by, for example, lowering blood pressure, reducing blood cholesterol and promoting a healthy body weight.
Plant-based diets tend to be higher in many foods that are important in our diets, such as fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and pulses. As a result, these diets tend to provide higher amounts of dietary fibre, whilst being lower in saturated fat and free sugars, than other dietary patterns. This may underlie many of the health benefits observed. But we also know that people who adopt such diets are often more health conscious and adopt other healthier lifestyle factors. For instance, they are likely to be more physically active, less likely to smoke, consume less alcohol and are more likely to have a higher income and education. This may also help to explain some of the observed health benefits.
Are all plant-based diets healthy?
Food-based dietary guidelines recommend that plant foods (for example fruit and vegetables and wholegrains such as oats, wholemeal bread, brown rice, wholewheat pasta) should make up a large part of what we eat. We should also include sources of healthy fats in our diets – such as nuts, seeds, oily fish, unsaturated oils and spreads made from them, as well as including good choices of protein – for example, beans, peas and lentils.
Nutritional adequacy in any dietary pattern is important, and can be provided by a plant-based diet. Plant foods provide important nutrients including fibre, vitamins and minerals, protein and unsaturated fats. However, it is important to note that animal food sources make an important contribution to some nutrients in the UK diet. For example, vitamin B12 and vitamin D are naturally absent from most plant foods, although they may be present in fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, fat spreads and alternative dairy products; long chain omega-3 fatty acids are found in highest amounts in oily fish (vegetarian supplements made from algae are available) and iodine is found in highest amounts in seafood, dairy foods and eggs. Dairy foods are also important contributors to most people’s calcium intake, particularly in children. Furthermore, iron and zinc are more easily absorbed from animal than plant foods. For example, phytates found in plant foods, such as wholegrains and beans, reduce zinc absorption.
Importantly, we should bear in mind that exclusion of animal products per se does not necessarily equate to a healthy diet. Poor choices, with a large inclusion of foods high in saturated fat, salt and free sugars (for example savoury snacks, deep fried foods, cakes, biscuits, confectionary and sweet spreads) can be made within any dietary pattern. In addition, very restrictive plant-based diets can lack balance and variety.
A healthy, balanced plant-based diet would typically include wholegrains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes and unsaturated oils, whereas less healthy plant-based diets may include more sugars – sweetened beverages, refined grains, fried potato crisps or chips and sweets. In addition, despite their health halos some plant foods may not be healthy if consumed in high amounts such as coconut oil (high in saturated fats) and agave or maple syrups (high in free sugars).
Plant foods containing fibre are the best fuel for your gut bacteria. That is why a plant-based diet that includes a variety of whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruit is beneficial for your gut health—and, as a result, for your overall health and wellness—since it increases the diversity of your gut microbiota. In other words, the more diverse the gut microbiota, the more resilient it will be.
Information retrieved from the British Nutrition Foundation.
A plant based diet includes all fruits, such as:
- citrus fruits
A healthful plant based diet contains plenty of vegetables. Including a variety of colorful vegetables provides a wide range of vitamins and minerals.
Root vegetables are a good source of carbohydrates and vitamins. They include:
- sweet potato
- butternut squash
Legumes are an excellent source of fiber and plant based protein. People can include a wide variety in their diet, including:
- kidney beans
- black beans
Seeds are a great snack or an easy way to add extra nutrients into a salad or on top of a soup.
Sesame seeds contain calcium and sunflower seeds are a good source of vitamin E. Other seeds include:
Nuts are a good source of plant based protein and vitamins, such as selenium and vitamin E.
It is vital to consume polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Plant based sources include:
- chia seeds
- hemp seeds
- olive oil
- canola oil
Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber and help maintain stable blood sugar. They also contain essential minerals, such as magnesium, copper, and selenium.
Examples of whole grains include:
- brown rice
- wholegrain bread
Plant based milk
If people want to reduce their dairy intake, there is a wide range of plant based milk available in grocery stores and online. These include:
Just make sure to choose unsweetened plant milk options.
Foods to avoid
Just reducing or eliminating animal products does not automatically mean a plant based diet is healthy. It is also vital to reduce or avoid unhealthful foods, such as:
- processed foods
- sugary foods, such as cakes, biscuits, and pastries
- refined white carbohydrates
- processed vegan and vegetarian alternatives that may contain a lot of salt or sugar
- excess salt
- fatty, greasy, or deep fried foods
8 ways to get started with a plant-based diet
Here are some tips to help you get started on a plant-based diet.
- Eat lots of vegetables. Fill half your plate with vegetables at lunch and dinner. Make sure you include plenty of colors in choosing your vegetables. Enjoy vegetables as a snack with hummus, salsa, or guacamole.
- Change the way you think about meat. Have smaller amounts. Use it as a garnish instead of a centerpiece.
- Choose good fats. Fats in olive oil, olives, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and avocados are particularly healthy choices.
- Cook a vegetarian meal at least one night a week. Build these meals around beans, whole grains, and vegetables.
- Include whole grains for breakfast. Start with oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat, or barley. Then add some nuts or seeds along with fresh fruit.
- Go for greens. Try a variety of green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, and other greens each day. Steam, grill, braise, or stir-fry to preserve their flavor and nutrients.
- Build a meal around a salad. Fill a bowl with salad greens such as romaine, spinach, Bibb, or red leafy greens. Add an assortment of other vegetables along with fresh herbs, beans, peas, or tofu.
- Eat fruit for dessert. A ripe, juicy peach, a refreshing slice of watermelon, or a crisp apple will satisfy your craving for a sweet bite after a meal.
Inspiration for plant-based eating throughout the day
Over time, eating a plant-based diet will become second nature. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Rolled oats with walnuts, banana, and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
- Breakfast wrap: Fill a whole-wheat tortilla with scrambled egg, black beans, peppers, onions, Monterey jack cheese, and a splash of hot sauce or salsa.
- Whole-wheat English muffin topped with fresh tomato and avocado slices, and blueberries.
- Greek salad: Chopped mixed greens with fresh tomato, Kalamata olives, fresh parsley, crumbled feta cheese, extra virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Whole-wheat pita on the side, fresh melon for dessert.
- Tomato basil soup, whole-grain crackers with tabbouleh, and an apple.
- Vegetarian pizza topped with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, broccoli, onions, peppers, and mushroom. Fresh strawberries for dessert.
- Grilled vegetable kebabs with grilled tofu, and a quinoa and spinach salad.
- Whole-wheat pasta with cannellini beans and peas, and a romaine salad with cherry tomatoes, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
- Vegetarian chili with a spinach-orzo salad.