It’s no secret that plant-based eating is on the rise. According to 2018 data, 2.1 million (11.2%) Australian’s are eating a vegetarian diet. That’s at least 1 person deciding to go plant-based every five minutes!
Plant based eating means that the majority of your diet includes foods from plant sources, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. For some people, they may wish to continue eating small amounts of animal products such as vegetarianism where dairy and egg products are still eaten. Others may wish to completely abstain from all animal products such as in veganism where the diet avoids dairy, poultry, meat, fish, eggs and honey.
People decide to make the switch to go plant-based for a variety of reasons. The most common of those include reducing their impact on the environment, for ethical reasons and to improve their health.
Plant-based eating is linked to an array of health benefits including reduced cholesterol levels, improved blood pressure and reduced risk of cancers.
Despite the multitude of health benefits, plant-based eating is linked with an increased risk of nutritional deficiencies. This article looks at the main nutrients to be aware of for plant based families.
It is entirely possible to meet your protein needs every day without eating animal products. Protein is essential in providing the building blocks to many hormones and enzyme reactions in the body. When eaten, protein helps to keep you full and build muscle strength. It is rich in chickpeas, lentils, tofu, tempeh and smaller amounts found in quinoa, brown rice, nuts and seeds. Although protein deficiency is very rare in western countries, not eating enough protein can mean that you still feel hungry after meals or make it difficult to meet your needs of micronutrients iron and zinc that are rich in plant-based proteins. To meet your protein needs, aim to eat these foods frequently throughout the day such as adding baked beans to toast, including tofu in a stir fry or having chickpea curry for dinner.
Vitamin B12 is the one nutrient that is essential to supplement on a vegan diet. This water soluble vitamin is naturally found in meat-based foods. It is found in some plant-products such as nutritional yeast and some fortified products. Unfortunately, due to the limited number of food sources and these required to be eaten at least three times per day, it is often not possible to meet the body’s vitamin B12 needs through food. Deficiency of B12 is very serious. It can contribute to long-term nerve damage, anemia and developmental delays in children. If you are following a predominantly plant-based diet, speak with your doctor or dietitian about the correct supplementation regime for you.
Iron is an important mineral that helps to provide oxygen to body cells. Non-haem iron is the form found in plant-based foods. It is rich in chickpeas, lentils, tofu, spinach, cashews and liquorice. This form of iron is not as well absorbed as haem iron, found in animal products. This is due to the presence of phytates and oxalates in plant-based foods which reduce the absorption of iron. It is for this reason that those following vegan or vegetarian diets need to eat a higher amount of iron than those including meat in their diet. Plant-based eaters should include iron rich foods in each meal, add vitamin C such as kiwi fruit, lemon and lime to improve iron absorption and keep tea and coffee away from meals.
Calcium is essential for building healthy bones and teeth and is involved in nerve contractions in the heart and muscles. Commonly known to be rich in dairy products, calcium is also rich in plant foods. It is found in calcium-fortified plant milk, calcium-set tofu, bok choy, kale, almonds and tahini. Meeting calcium needs are especially important for children, who need this nutrient to help build their growing bones. Children who don’t eat adequate amounts of calcium can have significant issues with bone mineralisation and may be shorter in height. To meet your calcium needs, make sure to regularly include a fortified plant milk in foods such as cereal and smoothies.
Plant-based eating is healthful and is linked with a variety of health benefits. However, it is important that these diets are well-planned to meet the needs of growing children. Particular attention should be paid to nutrients including protein, calcium, vitamin b12 and iron. If you are unsure about how to meet your nutritional needs on a plant-based diet, speak with a dietitian that specialises in plant-based eating.