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What You Need to Thrive on a Plant-Based Diet

Posted by Cole Adam on
What You Need to Thrive on a Plant-Based Diet

Plant-based eating is becoming more popular. People are swapping out meat and dairy products for plant-based alternatives for a variety of reasons—some are looking to reduce their environmental footprint, some have aligned their love for animals with their food choices and some are looking to improve their health.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that well-planned plant-based diets are healthy for all life stages and can be used to help prevent or treat certain diseases.  The World Health Organization also encourages a diet rich in plants, as does the American Cancer Society, American College of Cardiology and Harvard School of Public Health. ₂₋₅ All of these organizations recommend a diet centered on whole grains, legumes (such as beans, peas and lentils), fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, which reflects the overall weight of evidence when it comes to optimal human nutrition.

Despite the overwhelming consensus that we should be eating a diet centered on whole, plant-based foods, many people fear they won’t be able to get adequate amounts of certain nutrients. This isn’t true. With a little bit of planning and a basic understanding of plant-based nutrition, one can easily ensure adequate consumption of all essential nutrients while reaping the benefits of plant-based nutrition.

Here are some nutrients to be mindful of on a plant-based diet: 

1 | PROTEIN

All plants contain protein. In fact, all protein originates in plants. The idea that animal protein is “better” is inaccurate, as people getting more protein from animal sources tend to have higher rates of chronic disease, while people getting more protein from plants tend to be healthier.  It’s also a myth that you need to combine certain plants to form a “complete protein” source. All plants contain all the essential amino acids (building blocks that make protein), so as long as we are consuming a variety of plants throughout the day, we will likely get more than enough protein. But for the record, here are some high-protein plants to include in your diet: legumes, soy products (organic tofu, edamame, soy milk), whole grains, peanut butter, nuts and seeds.

2 | CALCIUM

Most people associate calcium with cow’s milk. It turns out we have no nutritional or biological need for cow’s milk and roughly 70% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant.  Plants can provide all the calcium we need. Good sources include dark leafy greens (collards, kale, bok choy, Swiss chard, Chinese cabbage), legumes, organic tofu, soy milk, nuts, seeds (chia, sesame/tahini), broccoli, fortified plant-based milks and even some fruit like oranges and figs. The main function of calcium in the body is to maintain bone health. Research suggests that intakes ranging from 500-1,200mg/day can be sufficient for bone health depending on other lifestyle factors (smoking status, exercise, salt intake).  The U.K. nutrition guidelines recommend adults consume at least 700mg/day, which is an appropriate goal. This can easily be achieved with regular consumption of the foods mentioned above.

3 | VITAMIN D

Very few foods contain vitamin D. This is likely because we can make it from the sun’s UV rays. During the summer months, 15 minutes of direct sun exposure to at least 30% of our body can produce roughly 10,000-25,000 IU of vitamin D (we only need about 600 IU per day). Vitamin D can be stored in our body for rainy/cloudy days. If you live within 30 degrees latitude north or south of the equator, you can likely get adequate vitamin D from the sun year-round. For those who don’t live in this region, the sun is not intense enough in the winter months to make adequate vitamin D. During this time, we need to rely on fortified foods and/or supplements. Additionally, if you’re not much of an outdoor person or are avoiding the sun due to skin cancer concerns, you will need to get vitamin D from food or supplements. Regular consumption of fortified plant-based milk or cereal can be a reliable source, otherwise a supplement is recommended. For most adults, 1,000-2,000 IU/day is a sufficient supplement dose.

4 | OMEGA-3 FAT

Omega-3 fat is a type of fat that is essential in our diet. Some fish contain large amounts of omega-3s (salmon, mackerel, sardines), but due to extensive overfishing and concerns about environmental pollution, these may not be the best source. Other, more sustainable and less polluted sources, include walnuts, ground flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, mung beans and soy products. These foods should be consumed on a regular/daily basis. Additionally, an algae oil-based supplement can provide the exact same omega-3s found in salmon or fish oil. Algae are the original producers of this fat, which then works its way up the food chain, so algae oil supplements allow us to cut out the middleman. If you opt for an algae oil supplement, a daily dose of 250mg, or 2,000mg taken every few days, is likely sufficient.

5 | IRON

There are two types of iron in our diet—heme (found in the blood/muscle of animals) and non-heme (found mainly in plants). Heme iron is better absorbed but its consumption is linked to a variety of diseases. ₁₀ We’re better off sticking with non-heme iron from plants. Good sources include dark leafy greens, legumes, whole grains, dark chocolate, nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds, cashews, sesame seeds). Iron from these sources is inhibited if consumed with coffee or tea but boosted if consumed with foods rich in vitamin C, such as bell peppers, citrus fruit, strawberries and broccoli. Men and postmenopausal women can easily meet their iron needs but women of reproductive age have higher needs due to their monthly menstrual cycle. These women should ensure regular intake of high-iron plant foods and may also need to include fortified foods such as breakfast cereals or a supplement.

6 | IODINE

The top two sources of iodine in the western diet are iodized salt and dairy products (an iodine solution is used to clean the cow’s udders, so a little ends up in the cow’s milk). Given that we want to reduce salt intake and are better off avoiding dairy, we need to consider other sources in our diet. Regular consumption of seaweed can be an option, however levels vary depending on the species. Kelp granules can be purchased and sprinkled onto food and are an excellent source of iodine. If using salt, iodized salt is preferred. Or, we can always take iodine supplements. Everyone should ensure adequate iodine in their diet but pregnant and breastfeeding women have the highest needs and should be especially vigilant.

7 | VITAMIN B12

Vitamin B12 is the one nutrient we can’t get from plants or the sun. It’s made by soil microorganisms that blanket our natural environment. Due to our modern sanitary lifestyle, we don’t regularly get B12 from our environment as early humans once did. Animals get B12 by inadvertently consuming soil, drinking out of streams/lakes or eating their own feces. B12 accumulates in their tissue making meat a source of B12. However, this is not the best source due to the unhealthy baggage that comes packaged with it. The safest, healthiest, easiest-absorbed source of B12 is a supplement. A reliable source of B12 is necessary for anyone on a plant-based diet and is recommended for anyone over the age of 50, regardless of diet (due to a decrease in absorption as we age). A daily dose of at least 50mcg, or a weekly dose of 2,000mcg, is sufficient for most adults.

THE BOTTOM LINE

These recommendations are geared toward healthy adults. Nutrition and supplement needs vary based on age, gender, pregnancy status and your medical history. Although this list can be a good starting point for most adults, meet with a doctor or dietitian if you have specific concerns or a complicated medical history.

Any healthy diet requires a little planning and plant-based diets are no exception. Most nutrients not mentioned in this list can be easily obtained by eating a plant-based diet based on whole grains, legumes, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. However, it’s worth being mindful of the nutrients mentioned above and supplementing when appropriate. This will ensure long-term success on a plant-based diet.
 


References:

  1. Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(12):1970-1980. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025
  2. WHO.com
  3. Kushi LH, Doyle C, McCullough M, et al. American Cancer Society Guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention: reducing the risk of cancer with healthy food choices and physical activity. CA Cancer J Clin. 2012;62(1):30-67. doi:10.3322/caac.20140
  4. Acc.org
  5. Hsph.harvard.edu
  6. Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, et al. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(10):1453–1463. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4182
  7. Storhaug CL, Fosse SK, Fadnes LT. Country, regional, and global estimates for lactose malabsorption in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2017;2(10):738-746. doi:10.1016/S2468-1253(17)30154-1
  8. Willett WC, Ludwig DS. Milk and Health. N Engl J Med. 2020;382(7):644-654. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1903547
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  10. Etemadi A, Sinha R, Ward MH, et al. Mortality from different causes associated with meat, heme iron, nitrates, and nitrites in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study: population based cohort study. BMJ. 2017;357:j1957. Published 2017 May 9. doi:10.1136/bmj.j1957

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