Maybe you’ve been hearing a lot about the benefits of plant-based diets, and are thinking of leaning that way yourself? Or maybe you’re already vegetarian or vegan, and wonder if your diet is balanced and adequate?
Let’s explore the benefits, considerations and practical aspects of plant based eating, with our resident dietitian Marnie.
10 minute read.
Firstly, let’s define plant based eating
Actually, this isn’t as straight forward as it may seem, because the term ‘plant based’ can refer to a variety of dietary approaches from vegan, to vegetarian or even ‘flexitarian’ approaches. Essentially, we’re talking diets that put plants (fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds and nuts) front and centre.
This includes people who may be:
VeganNo animal products eaten, with avoidance of dairy, eggs and sometimes honey. Vegans often also reject animal derived products like leather, fur and beauty products tested on animals.
Lacto-ovo vegetarianAvoids meat but includes animal derived products, including eggs and dairy.
Avoids meat / poultry but includes fish and seafood.
Largely vegetarian, includes meat / poultry sometimes.
As a nation, we are embracing plant based diets
You’d have to be living under a rock not to have noticed the increased coverage of plant based eating in the popular media, and the boom in plant-based meat alternatives available in supermarkets and restaurants. But exactly how many of us are getting on board?
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, our per-person consumption of dairy and meat substitutes has risen a total of 29 per cent from 15 grams per day in 2018-19 to 20g in 2020-21.
A recent research collaboration from a number of Australian universities has surveyed more than 3000 Australians regarding their views and habits on plant based eating. They report that nearly a third of participants had reduced their meat intake in the last year (with only 3% increasing intake of meat products in the same time frame). They also reported that more consumers are thinking about ditching meat entirely.
How many of us are vegetarian?
Although more recent data is scarce, the 2016 Roy Morgan poll showed a steady increase in the number of Australian adults who self-identify as adhering to a predominantly vegetarian diet. The magic number was almost 2.1 million, or 11.2 per cent of the population.
Why the boom in plant-based eating?
According to recent research, reasons for reducing meat consumption or shifting to vegetarian diets are clear. Surveys repeatedly find that environmental and animal welfare concerns are the key factors influencing our dietary choices.
Are plant based dietary patterns more environmentally sustainable?
The environmental impact of various plant-based foods will differ, with more processed and highly packaged foods being more costly. Some crops require more water and land resources than others. Regardless of these variations, scientists overwhelmingly agree that a shift toward more plant-based eating would benefit us, the environment and our future as a species.
Why? There’s no getting around it - animal protein is more environmentally expensive to produce. A study published last year in Nature Food journal found that 57% of global greenhouse gas emissions from food production come from meat and dairy products, compared to just 29% from plant-based foods. Let’s also consider that it takes an estimated 1,500 litres of water to produce one kilogram of cereal, compared to 15,000 to produce one kilogram of meat.
Is a plant based diet better for your health?Due to extensive data, we now know that a well-balanced plant based diet can provide cardiovascular health benefits and even reduce your risk of some types of cancer. Vegetarian diets tend to be higher in fibre, natural phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins C and E, potassium, folate and magnesium. Vegans tend to have lower serum cholesterol, body weight and blood pressure, reducing their risk of heart disease.
But it’s also important to note here that just cutting out meat and dairy without proper consideration and planning isn’t a golden ticket to health and longevity. The best plant based diets include minimally processed foods from a variety of food groups, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains.
As we’ll explore in a minute, plant based diets can come up short in some important nutrients (namely B12, calcium, vitamin D, iodine and zinc), and studies show that vegans tend to have lower bone density and higher fracture risk that non-vegans.
These deficits are easily fixed, through the use of appropriate food fortification and nutrition supplements.
Some key nutrients to consider on plant based diets
Protein:Protein is an macronutrient made up of various amino acids. Nine of these are referred to as ‘essential’ amino acids, because we cannot make them and need to source them from our diet. Amino acids are the building blocks not only of muscle, but also of hormones, immune cells and even neurotransmitters. Consuming a good variety of plant proteins is important to ensure you’re getting all essential amino acids. Some high quality plant based proteins include:
- legumes (beans, chick peas, lentils)
- soybean products like soy milk, tofu and tempeh
- Vegetarian meat substitutes like quorn (a fermented mycoprotein) or seitan (made from wheat gluten)
- Nuts and seeds, nut butters or cashew ‘cheese’
- Plant based (e.g. hemp or pea) protein powder
- It may surprise you to learn that grains like quinoa and teff provide valuable protein too
Iron:Iron is important for oxygen transport and immune function. A deficient diet can result in anaemia, with symptoms like fatigue, listlessness, poor immune function, muscle aches and headaches. As you can imagine, an iron deficient vegan is not going to be much fun to hang out with!
Iron is found in two main forms – haem iron (found in meat, seafood, chicken, organ meats) and non-haem iron (found in plant foods, eggs and dairy). Vegetarian or vegan diets only provide non-haem iron, which is more difficult for us to absorb than haem iron. To boost your iron intake from food:
- Include legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts and seeds regularly
- Look for iron-fortified foods (e.g. breads, cereals, plant milks)
- Eat plenty of green leafy vegetables (e.g. spinach, kale, rocket, broccoli)
- Include a range of wholegrains (e.g. quinoa, amaranth, brown rice, rolled oats)
And some tips to enhance your iron absorption
- Vitamin C increases absorption of iron, so include vitamin C- rich foods with meals (e.g. citrus, strawberries, kiwi fruit, tomatoes, capsicum)
- Avoid drinking tea and coffee with meals (tannins can inhibit iron absorption)
- Avoid taking calcium supplements with meals (these can reduce iron absorption)
B12:Vitamin B12 is found in different forms in nature, but the type of B12 essential for humans is not found in plant foods. People who consume little or no animal products will need to take a B12 supplement regularly, and have blood tests to monitor their B12 status. Many vegetarian foods are also fortified with B12, e.g.
- Nutritional yeast, Vegemite® (salt reduced) and Marmite®
- Many fortified plant based meat substitutes (see above)
- Plant milks or products fortified with B12 (e.g. Vitasoy®, So Good®, Plant based Milo®)
Calcium:Studies indicate that vegans tend to have lower bone density and higher fraction risk than non-vegans, so getting enough of this essential bone-building mineral is a key consideration for those choosing a healthy plant based diet.
The highest calcium-containing foods in our diet are dairy products (milk, yoghurt and cheese), so lacto-ovo vegetarians consuming 2-4 serves of dairy foods daily will be well covered. When switching to plant-based alternatives, ensure your milk is fortified with calcium (at least 100mg per 100mL).
It’s also important to understand that many plant-based yoghurts and cheeses are based on highly saturated oils (eg. coconut, palm), and don’t provide the calcium and protein we would get from traditional dairy products.
Other reasonable plant-based calcium sources include:
- Tofu set with included calcium (which will be listed under ingredients as e516)
- Tahini, chia seeds, kale, chickpeas, figs, baked beans and dried figs
Iodine:Although a lesser talked-about micronutrient, iodine is an essential part of our diet. The most significant sources in the Australian diet include seafood, iodised table salt and fortified breads. Too little iodine can cause an enlarged thyroid gland (goitre), hypothyroidism and can also affect fertility, pregnancy and children’s development.
- Rather than sea salt, use iodised table salt in cooking
- Include sea vegetables like seaweed (eg. nori) regularly if you don’t eat seafood
Plant Based Day on a PlateWith all that technical stuff out of the way, you might be wondering what a typical day of balanced plant-based eating might look like. So here’s a bit of plant-based inspiration:
- Plant powered smoothie: 1 frozen banana, 1 cup calcium-fortified soy milk, maple syrup and 1 tbsp each chia seeds and pepitas
- Multigrain toast with peanut butter
- Fortified soy latte or chai
- 1 handful mixed nuts and two kiwi
- A big roast veggie salad with chickpeas, quinoa, spinach leaves, roasted sweet potato, toasted pine nuts, avocado and Extra Virgin Olive Oil Vinaigrette. (Here’s a link to my version).
- Vitawheat® crackers, chopped carrot & celery with a small pot of pesto, hummus or cashew cheese
- Soba noodles or brown rice with baked tofu, edamame, spiralised cucumber, grated carrot, shaved red cabbage, pickled ginger, and miso dressing topped with super seed sprinkles.
- Chia pudding made with fortified plant milk, topped with chopped dried fig, Chobani® Oat yoghurt and nuts
Final thoughts - in a nutshell (pardon the pun)
It’s clear that plant based eating has many benefits for our health and the environment. Plant based diets are not just the latest trend, and they certainly don’t have to be boring or restrictive. And while I’m on the topic, maybe let’s go easy on the sad vegan jokes!
Rather than seeing it as an ‘all or nothing’, why don’t we look at plant based eating as a continuum? We could all benefit from including more vegetarian or vegan meals in our regular diet, and opening up our palate to different flavours and textures.
Throw some tofu into your stir fry, try chickpeas in your curry rather than chicken, or put my *vegetarian chili* on the menu this week. Your good gut bugs will love the dietary diversity, and your grocery bill might look healthier too.*If you’re thinking about going veggie or vegan, and have specific health concerns or requirements, reach out to an Accredited Practising Dietitian for help making it work for you.