For some time now we have been inundated with a variety of diets, each claiming to be the best – most of which end up being fads. So how do you know which is the best for you?
After recently watching the 2011 documentary Forks over Knives, the plant-based diet was brought to my attention.
Director Lee Fulkerson demonstrated how people could help eliminate and control diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, by abstaining from meat and other animal-based products.
As the name suggests, a diet of this nature minimises, or in extreme cases doesn’t include any animal products, and instead is made up of mostly (or only) plant foods such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
The description sounds almost identical to a vegan diet, though according to Melbourne-based dietician Lucy Taylor, opting to be vegan often extends beyond diet.
“The term ‘vegan’ refers to the total exclusion of animal products from a person’s diet and lifestyle,” Lucy tells Neos Kosmos.
“A vegan not only follows an entirely plant-based diet, but also doesn’t wear wool, silk or leather, and avoids animal derivatives in personal care products (such as lanolin) and cosmetics (such as beeswax).”
Everyone’s reasons for following a plant-based diet are different, but fall into one of three broad categories: health, environment or ethics.
When it comes to health, the proven benefits are countless, including assisting people with losing and controlling weight, improving cholesterol levels, reducing blood pressure, and as mentioned earlier, in improving blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes. Other benefits include better intestinal health, a boost in energy levels and improvement in skin conditions such as acne, along with assisting multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
“Large population studies show that people who follow plant-based diets are healthier; they tend to weigh less (they have lower BMIs), have better markers of cardiovascular health (such as lower cholesterol and blood pressure) and have a reduced risk of developing certain cancers,” she explains.
One concern that has been drilled into carnivores is the need to eat meat to meet our daily protein quota. However, according to Lucy, as long as you’re consuming enough calories and make an effort to inform yourself about the food you are consuming, you shouldn’t encounter any problems.
“Protein is widely distributed throughout plant foods, and as such, is of no concern. Foods also tend to be miscategorised as either protein, carbohydrate (carb) or fat – in reality, it is incredibly rare to find a whole food in nature that is made up of one single macronutrient (i.e. protein, carbohydrate or fat). Only in processed foods do we find foods composed of a single macronutrient. Oil, for example, only contains fats, and refined sugar only contains sugar (carbs),” she explains.
With all whole plant foods containing a combination of protein, carbohydrate and fat, your meat-free diet has you covered – half a cup of rolled oats containing five grams of protein.
To put this into perspective, the Nutrient Reference Values for Australia recommend a female aged 19-30 consume 46 grams of protein a day – achievable with a plant-based diet.
“In my practice, I usually find that people actually eat too much protein, which is at the expense of whole grain carbohydrates, which provide dietary fibre and beneficial phytochemicals. On a plant-based diet, legumes, lentils, tofu and tempeh are all excellent sources of plant-based protein,” Lucy explains.
Therefore, by eating certain foods you’re covering a variety of nutrients needed by the body, for example legumes, lentils, tofu and tempeh are all sources not only of protein, but iron as well.
Tofu is also a rich source of calcium for bone health and neuromuscular and cardiac function, along with calcium fortified non-dairy milks such as soy and oat milk, Asian green vegetables like bok choy and Chinese cabbage, kale, tempeh, broccoli, dried figs and apricots, chia seeds, amaranth, tahini and almonds.
But anyone who has recently ventured into a supermarket or pharmacy will be familiar with the shelves upon shelves of vitamin supplements. Living in a time when people are time poor, many are opting for their vitamins from a little bottle. So if you’re not consuming animal products, how do you know you will be adequately covered?
“If someone is eating a well-balanced, plant-based diet there shouldn’t be any need for supplements, with the exception of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods (meat, dairy, fish and eggs) and so must be taken as a supplement if you’re following a plant-based (vegan or vegetarian) diet,” she explains.
Lucy decided to transition to a vegan diet and lifestyle in 2013 for ethical reasons, having developed a great interest in the numerous health benefits of plant-based diets. After extensive research, it became clear to her that a diet rich in plant foods was suitable for everyone, from children to expecting women and even athletes, with examples such as Australian test cricketer Peter Siddle and bodybuilder Billy Simmonds.
If you are pregnant, however, and wish to switch diets, you will need to take a prenatal vitamin to ensure you are meeting the nutrients needs of iron, zinc, iodine and folate, which is necessary regardless of the diet you follow.
In addition to the health benefits, following a plant-based diet might even save you a few dollars when doing your weekly shop.
Buying legumes and lentils in bulk will save you both time and money. Dry grains such as rice, quinoa, millet, barley and whole grain pasta provide a cheap source of whole grain carbohydrates, while raw, unsalted nuts and seeds are great for snacking on and adding to meals.
So all in all, is the plant-based diet sustainable, or is it just another fad that will be superseded by a superior variety of diet soon enough?
“Plant-based diets are definitely not just a fad – they’re sustainable and provide numerous health benefits in the long term,” Lucy explains.
“I truly believe plant-based diets are our future for our health and environment. Plant-based diets have been thoroughly researched for decades and have
consistently shown benefits.”
If you are interested in following a plant based diet, visit the Whole Food Plant Based Health Australia website www.wholefoodsplantbasedhealth.com.au for more information. Additionally, if you have a medical condition, take medication or have specific nutritional requirements, make sure to visit your GP first.
For more information on Lucy Taylor, visit her website and blog, which is full of great advice and tasty recipes, at www.bloomnutritionist.com