There has recently been increased chatter around the benefits of plant-based or vegan diets, especially since the release of The Game Changers documentary.
We cannot dispute that eating more plants and less meat is of benefit to not only our own health but also the planet. However, it is possible for a plant-based or vegan diet, to not actually be serving your health, if not balanced correctly, especially if it leads to nutrient deficiencies.
When adopting any style of eating regime, it’s important to ensure your nutritional requirements are being met by the diet. With that being said, here are a few common mistakes to watch out for when shifting to a plant-based or vegan diet
When meat, fish, eggs and dairy are either off the menu or being reduced, its important to replace these common sources of protein with adequate plant based protein.
Lack of protein can result in loss of muscle mass and lean tissue, insatiable appetite, poor wound healing, low immunity and low mood.
While our protein requirements will vary, as a general rule, aim for around 20-30g protein per meal and 5g per snack.
Previously, it was believed that specific plant-based proteins had to be combined at each meal to equal a complete protein, however, its since been found that what you eat across the day is what counts as opposed to having to be conscious at each meal. So opt for a wide variety day to day!
Sources of plant-based protein include; legumes (chickpeas, lentils, black beans, red kidney beans etc) and legume based products such as falafel, bean patties and hummus, tofu and tempeh, nuts/seeds including tahini and nut butters, wholegrains especially freekeh and quinoa and protein powder (hemp, pea, brown rice).
Some of us can thrive on getting enough iron from a plant-based or vegan diet yet others can really struggle. Keeping an eye on iron is important especially for menstruating females and if you are feeling fatigued, have a blood test to check your levels.
A trick to help facilitate this process is to combine a plant rich iron source such as legumes with a vitamin C rich food such as capsicum because vitamin C assists the body to absorb iron. Plant sources of iron include: lentils, spinach, grains, red kidney beans, molasses, oats, tempeh/tofu, prunes and dried apricots.
Low calcium intake
Dairy is a go to source of calcium for many and if you are consuming a dairy free diet, making sure the foods you choose to consume contain adequate calcium is important. For example, calcium fortified soy milk is a very good source of calcium. Additionally, green leafy’s including spinach and kale as well as Asian greens (Chinese broccoli and bok choy), tofu (set with calcium), almonds, brazil nuts, chickpeas, sesame seeds/tahini and dried figs are also good sources of calcium.
Specific nutrients aside, there are some other things to be mindful of such as:
Choose the right fats – beneficially plant-based / vegan diets are naturally low in trans and saturated fats which should be limited in the diet. However, it’s still important to pay attention to omega-3 DHA and EPA essential fatty acid intake. A very common dietary source of omega-3 DHA and EPA is fatty fish such as salmon. Nuts, seeds and vegetable oils contain ALA which the body coverts to DHA and EPA. Therefore when selecting nuts/seeds focus on those high in ALA such as hemp seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts and try to eat on a daily basis.
Focus on wholefoods – meat and 3 veg or fish and salad are examples of simple wholefood meals. When eating plant-based or vegan it’s important to aim to stick to wholefoods as much as possible and limit intake of refined and processed foods. Some examples of wholefood plant-based/vegan meals are vegetable/legume soup, tofu stir-fry, legume and brown rice salad with tahini dressing or a chickpea curry made using an array of herbs and spices and coconut milk.
Meal prep – meal prep will likely become your best friend when eating plant-based especially if you are shifting from a predominately meat based diet. We don’t always feel enthused to get in the kitchen and chop and cook veggies, cook grains or make some tasty sauces, so it can really pay to spend a few hours doing this in advance. For example, at the start of the week roast a large tray of vegetables, cook some grains and make a pesto (dairy free if required) which can be frozen and used as needed. Come mealtime, place some spinach/lettuce in a bowl, top with roasted veg, avocado, warmed up falafel or chickpeas and a dollop of pesto!
Don’t overdo the fibre… initially – if you aren’t used to eating a lot of fibre and start adding legumes, tofu, plant-based pasta, hummus, more veg etc to your diet, it can cause some initial gastrointestinal distress and unwanted side effects. Therefore, a better approach is to slowly increase your fibre intake over the course of a few weeks and allow your gastrointestinal tract to adapt to the change.
Eating out – with the current demand of more plant-based or vegan options it’s fairly easy to find suitable options on most menus. However, if in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask for substitutions or make a meal from sides and entrees.
Lack of satiety – many people presume plants are less satisfying then animal based products and this does not have to be the case. If you end a meal feeling unsatisfied firstly check whether you have added adequate protein and secondly ask yourself if there were any healthy fats in the meal? A bowl of pasta is unlikely to keep you full for long, but once some pesto or avocado and legumes or tofu are added, it becomes a much more satisfying meal.
Monitor how you feel – its crucial to regularly check in with yourself and make sure you are feeling good on your new eating regime. Just because you may have read plant-based diets are healthy it doesn’t mean it’s the right eating style for you at this stage in your life. Some people cannot simply handle the amount of fibre a plant-based diet offers and need to rely on more animal based protein. Therefore check in regularly and adapt your diet to suit your changing needs and requirements.