Plant-based eating is becoming trendier and more mainstream, as health-conscious individuals seek out the best ways to nourish their bodies. This trend pertains to a diet focused primarily around plant foods like vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes with little to no animal products.
In my studies as a clinical nutritionist and scientist, I see food for its components- the nutrients it provides our bodies that we can utilize and benefit from. From this perspective, plant-based nutrition can be incredibly healthy. Inherently, plant foods are cholesterol-free and lower or free of saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease in excess. They boast fiber, which helps regulate digestion and remove cholesterol from our bloodstream, and they contain a plethora of cancer-fighting antioxidants.
However, from an objective, scientific approach we know that eliminating animal products all together may result in key nutrient deficiencies, which is something to be cognizant of. Animal foods provide us with several vitamins and minerals that are much harder to obtain from plant foods for several reasons including bioavailability. Some vitamins in fact, can be found exclusively in animal foods alone namely, vitamins K2 and B12 needed for bone health and mental health, respectively. I’ve broken down what you need to know about eating a plant-based diet to live a vibrant and health-driven life.
What should I eat?
The base of any plant-based diet begins with fruits and vegetables, primarily focusing on the latter. Produce of all colors provides our body with a plethora of antioxidants, a different range of phytonutrients with mechanisms that help fight aging. A good rule of thumb is to focus on “eating a rainbow of produce” to ensure you are providing your body variety that it can benefit from.
Next, you want to focus on whole grains. Brown rice, quinoa, oats, whole grain bread and sprouted grains all come to mind. Whole grains are known to boast B-vitamins, which help promote skin, hair and nail health along with a buzzing metabolism.
Legumes are known for their high fiber and protein content, which help induce satiety and maintain our weight. They are naturally low in fat and are a significant source of vitamins and minerals, namely iron. Legumes and whole grains are complementary proteins, meaning eating both together will ensure you are getting all the essential amino acids your body needs from food to make a complete protein.
Nuts and seeds are also considered in a plant-based diet. These are concentrated in fat- but the healthy kind, and you’ll want to aim for these in moderation. Mono- and poly-unsaturated fats help reduce harmful cholesterol levels in the blood which can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Other healthy plant-based fat sources to consider are avocado and olives.
Finally, while a plant-based diet puts a heavy emphasis on eating primarily from the earth, many individuals choose to include a portion of animal foods like eggs, fish, meat and poultry. The benefits of these foods include being a reliable source of high biological value protein, which is a measure of the proportion of absorbed protein from food that becomes incorporated into our body proteins and how readily we digest it. They are also a source of bioavailable (easily-absorbed), hard-to-obtain vitamins and minerals like iron, zinc, B12 and omega-3 fatty acids.
Nutrients of concern
Eating a plant-based diet can be beneficial to our health, linked to improved health outcomes like lower levels of obesity, reduced cardiovascular risk and lower blood pressure. You drastically decrease your saturated fat intake while increasing the good stuff like fiber and vitamin C. Well-planned plant-based diets can meet your nutrition needs. However, if you choose to limit your animal product intake, there are particular nutrients that you should be aware of. These include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc and iodine.
B12: Vegans and vegetarians are intimately aware of this nutrient of concern, which is generally found only in animal foods. This nutrient plays a key role in metabolism and maintaining our nervous system. Eggs and dairy foods boast this nutrient as well as foods like nutritional yeasts and breakfast cereals, which may be fortified.
Calcium: Bone health is not the only role that calcium plays. This mineral is needed for muscle, nerve and vascular function. While dairy is typically the coveted source of calcium, it can also be found in fortified non-dairy milks and tofu. Leafy greens also possess this key nutrient but may be absorbed less optimally due to their high oxalate content.
Iron and Zinc: Iron is an essential nutrient needed for transporting oxygen to our body tissues. Low levels can manifest in fatigue and compromised immunity. Zinc plays an important role in immunity. Heme iron found in animal products is most readily absorbed as opposed to non-heme iron in plant-foods like beans and lentils. The same bioavailability concept applies with zinc, with animal protein being the most readily absorbed source. Sprouting, soaking and fermenting your beans, seeds and grains before cooking can significantly enhance iron and zinc absorption. Vitamin C also helps enhance absorption by neutralizing antinutrient, phytic acid. Adding some spinach to your brown rice would do the trick.
Vitamin D: Ten to fifteen minutes, two to three times per week is all you need to naturally meet your body’s vitamin D needs. This vitamin plays an important role in bone health, immunity, nerve and muscle function. It is found abundantly in fatty fish, however fortified dairy products and egg yolks are also sources.
Omega-3s: Salmon isn’t the only source of this anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy nutrient. Animal sources provide forms DHA and EPA most intimately linked to these noted benefits while plant-based sources provide its less active precursor, ALA. Though ALA is still considered an essential nutrient, the conversion process to its more bioactive forms is largely inefficient and dependent on many dietary factors and your current nutritional status. Plant-based sources of this key nutrient include walnuts, chia seed, and flaxseeds.
Iodine: This mineral is needed to make thyroid hormones which control metabolism. Though it is found naturally in fish and dairy, sea vegetables can also be a significant source.
A note about protein: will I get enough?
A common myth when it comes to plant-based diets is whether or not you will get enough protein. Typically protein is associated with animal foods like eggs, fish and meat. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. Some of these amino acids are non-essential meaning our body has a steady supply of them or we have the ability to make them ourselves. On the other hand, some of these amino acids are essential, meaning we need to obtain them from foods.
Why is this important you may be thinking? If you eliminate meat all together, you need to be the most mindful when it comes to protein. Animal protein is your sure way of getting a “complete” source of protein meaning they contain all the essential amino acids that our body cannot make and therefore must be obtained from food. Given that plant-based sources of protein are typically “incomplete”, this is the group that needs to be most cognizant. We know that protein plays a huge role in the body helping to rebuild tissues and muscles, produce energy and hormones, maintain immunity and catalyze enzymatic reactions.
Can you still reap the benefits from protein on a plant-based diet? Absolutely. The key is to eat a variety of protein sources to ensure your body is getting the essential amino acids it needs. There are also several plant-based sources of complete proteins that you can seek out, namely quinoa and hempseeds.
Listen to your body
Everyone’s eating style is unique when it comes to feeling our personal best. Choosing more plant-based options will naturally increase your fiber and nutrient intake while decreasing saturated fat. Being conscious of nutrients that you may be lacking will help guide you in making balanced choices to support your body. Ultimately, eating a variety of foods will help ensure you are getting the nutrition you need and seeking out quality animal products, may be most effective at helping you meet all your nutrient needs to live your healthiest, most vibrant life.
Mia holds a master's degree in nutritional science from Columbia University in New York City. She is passionate about sharing timely, evidence-based nutrition and debunking misinformation in this dynamic and relevant field. She values making nutrition tangible for the public to seamlessly implement into their lives. You can find her at nutritionbymia.com, at Facebook.com/nutritionbymia or Instagram (@nutritionbymia) sharing whole food recipes, sound nutrition advice, and daily inspiration on how to infuse nutrition into aspects of our everyday.