Is a plant-based diet healthy?

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11 min read
AUTHOR: Molly Long

Few eating regimes have achieved such runaway success in recent years as the plant-based diet. From ever-expanding product ranges in supermarkets, to record sign-ups for this year’s Veganuary, the movement has seemingly gone from strength to strength. 

According to a recent poll, more than a third of Brits are interested in becoming more plant-based in their eating habits. And while the diet lived for many decades in the shadow of its more socially palatable sibling, vegetarianism, it appears vegan and plant-based diets dominate when it comes to internet searches. 

But with so many options available, it can be hard to make sense of the diet. Here are the answers to some of the biggest questions. 

What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?

According to Registered Dietician Esther King, “following a plant-based diet may help to reduce your risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.” Additionally, a 2020 BMJ study concluded those adopting a plant-based diet were associated with lower odds of severe Covid-19 infection.

Author and Registered Dietician Sandra Hood concurs, saying: “The benefits of plant-based eating are that it has the potential to optimise health and is protective.” 

Several studies also show plant-based eaters have the best levels of fibre in their diet, which itself is linked to a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and bowel cancer. This does mean however that those following a diet low in fibre may find the transition to plant-based more difficult. 

Is a plant-based diet good for diabetics?

Diabetes UK reports plant-based diets are associated with lower levels of type 2 diabetes, less hypertension and lower cholesterol levels.

Additionally, many of the foods which make up a healthy plant-based diet, like lentils and pulses, are also good for diabetics, as they have a low glycaemic index, meaning they don’t spike blood glucose levels as high as other carbohydrates. 
As with any regimes, diabetics should consult their doctors before making any drastic changes to their eating habits and avoid products containing sugar (including brown and fructose), honey, agave and maple syrup and certain types of other carbohydrates, such as processed wheat found in white pasta, bread, rice and some types of breakfast cereals.

Is a plant-based diet suitable for athletes?

A growing cadre of plant-based athletes also prove the diet is applicable to high-intensity lifestyles and exercise. Myths surrounding athletes’ need for protein from animal sources were debunked in the 2019 documentary The Game Changers

Racing driver Lewis Hamilton, champion tennis players Serena and Venus Williams, boxer David Haye, former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger and footballers Jack Wilshere and Chris Smalling all follow a plant-based or majority plant-based lifestyle. 

Is there a difference between plant-based and vegan? 

It depends on who you ask. Some people consider the terms synonymous. However, it is perhaps best understood that plant-based refers to a diet, while vegan refers to a diet and lifestyle. 

Some people, particularly during their ‘transition’ phase, might choose to eat majority plant-based with some animal products. But this is more likely to be considered a “flexitarian” diet. 

When it comes to product labelling, foods labelled as vegan are suitable for a plant-based diet and vice versa. A good rule of thumb is to always check the ingredients, particularly if the brand in question is not wholly plant-based. 

What does a plant-based diet include? 

Grilled vegan sausages with hot sauce, potato wedges and vegetables

Left: Grilled vegan sausages with hot sauce, potato wedges and vegetables

Most dieticians and nutritionists will agree that a plant-based diet should be arranged mainly around whole foods. Whole food refers to produce that hasn’t been processed, refined or added to. The most obvious are fruits and vegetables – but this category also includes nuts, legumes and seeds. 

Also included in this group are food items like brown rice, quinoa, bread and pasta. While white bread, rice and pasta are usually plant-based too, they’re more processed than their brown counterparts. But this doesn’t mean they can’t also be eaten in healthy moderation. 

These days there is a large variety of animal product alternatives on the market, such as plant-based steak, sausages, mince, burgers, meatballs, fish, cheese, yoghurt, cream and egg substitutes, that can also make up part of a plant-based diet. With ever-improving foodtech start-ups, more products are being released continuously. While there is a common belief that all processed food is bad, many plant-based meat and dairy alternatives have a high nutritional value and contain few ingredients, making them a healthy option. 

Certain brands of plant milks, for example, are fortified with nutrients, while alternative meat products often contain high levels of protein. Other foods which can make up the diet include tofu, tempeh and seitan.

As with all diets, care needs to be taken to achieve a healthy balance. “As you might with following any diet, make sure to take stock of what you’re eating, read food labels and do your own research to ensure you’re meeting your nutritional requirements,” says Esther. 

What do I need to watch out for? 

Nutrients

One of the first hurdles plant-based eaters need to jump is getting sufficient levels of different nutrients and vitamins into their diet. As Sophie explains: “The challenge with plant-based diets is that animal products such as meat, fish, milk and eggs are powerhouses in terms of nutrition. They contain almost all the nutrients we need to survive in highly bioavailable forms, and you only need relatively small amounts of them to meet your needs.”

Animal proteins are commonly known as ‘complete’ proteins, because they contain all nine essential amino acids – the building blocks of protein – which the human body needs to get from its diet. Plant-based protein sources are often ‘incomplete’ however, because they don’t always contain all nine. Though some, like pea and soy protein do. 

Replacing these items with plants often means having to work harder to achieve adequate levels of some nutrients. In particular, things like iron and calcium can be hard to come by in a bioavailable (easily absorbed by the body) plant-based form, Sophie says. 
Those suffering from allergies, should also watch out for soy, a common allergen widely used in plant-based foods, whilst coeliacs will need to avoid gluten-based seitan, and opt for gluten-free pasta, or pasta made with legume flours such as pea and lentil, and bread options.

Supplements

Because some nutrients are harder to find, Sophie advises supplements. “Very strong data shows even when plant-based eaters get the correct amount of calcium from plant sources, their risk of fractures is significantly higher,” she says. “A calcium supplement is likely to be valuable in people who are at higher risk of osteoporosis.”

The dietician also advises supplements for other potential deficiencies, like omega 3, B12, vitamin D and iron. One final one to look out for, Sophie says, is iodine. “Iodine deficiency is rarely spoken about but can have a significant impact on thyroid function and therefore fertility and energy levels. 

“Our main source of iodine in the UK is dairy milk so when this is taken out of the diet, the risk of deficiency is much higher. Vegans can have seaweed or iodised salt to make sure they’re getting enough or take a supplement that includes iodine.

Food additives

Many of the foods which already make up an everyday diet can be vegan. Bread, cereals, biscuits, crackers and pre-packaged meals like vegetable soups are good examples. However, it is crucial to look out for certain animal-derived ingredients which can sneak their way into products that would otherwise get the green light. 

Common food additives which aren’t plant-based like milk and milk powder (found in some breads), cream (often used in soups), whey, butter, honey, and egg powder are easy enough to spot. There is also a long list of ingredients which can be less familiar to consumers, like: beeswax, albumen, casein, carmine, gelatine, isinglass, and shellac. These are never plant-based and should be avoided. 

What foods should I be eating? 

Tempeh, beans, nuts, mushrooms, green vegetables, plant-based milk and tofu

Homemade freshness vegan green lentils with pan roasted sprouts and tofu cubes, serve with chia seeds

Left: Tempeh, beans, nuts, mushrooms, green vegetables, plant-based milk and tofu

Right: Homemade freshness vegan green lentils with pan roasted sprouts and tofu cubes, serve with chia seeds

Foods that can replace animal-derived nutrients

There are some good plant-based sources for nutrients usually found in meat, according to the NHS. Their list is helpful for beginners: 

  • Green, leafy vegetables, fortified plant-based milks, calcium-set tofu, sesame seeds, pulses and bread are good sources of calcium
  • Pulses, wholemeal bread and flour, fortified breakfast cereals, dark green, leafy vegetables, nuts and dried fruits are good sources of iron
  • Flaxseed oil, rapeseed oil, soya-based foods and walnuts are good sources of fatty acids like omega-3

Is tofu part of a plant-based diet?

Tofu is widely eaten around the world, particularly in Asia where it is a staple food for both meat- and plant-based eaters. While it is a food that often bears the brunt of many jokes because of its so-called blandness, its versatility and capability to absorb flavour is what makes it such an attractive part of a plant-based diet. This is in addition to its nutritional benefits: tofu is low in fat and carbohydrates, while high in protein. 

Tofu can be used in all manner of ways for every meal of the day. From a breakfast tofu scramble to tofu stir-fries, curries and burgers. Softer varieties can also be used in many sweet dishes. For example, silken tofu can be blended with sweetener and flavourings to mimic the cream cheese that would be used in a traditional cheesecake. 

Another minimally processed protein alternative is tempeh, which is a fermented soy product. Like tofu, it is easy to incorporate flavours with and is very versatile. Additionally, because it is fermented, it is good for gut health. 

What foods should I avoid? 

Meat replacements are getting more sophisticated all the time, with added nutrients and fewer, smarter ingredients – however it is still advisable to eat them as part of a balanced diet. Many are highly processed, and a 2021 study found ‘excessive’ salt quantities in products across the UK plant-based market. 

Vegan food manufacturers are adding more B12 to their products, but we don’t want anyone to be reliant on processed foods for essential nutrients,” says Sophie. 

Additionally, just because something is labelled as plant-based doesn’t mean it can be eaten excessively. Plant-based ice creams, chocolate, biscuits, puddings, crisps and cakes, for example, should still be eaten in a balanced way, and not assumed to be healthy just because they don’t contain animal products. Just like their non vegan counterparts, these treats are still high in sugar and fat.

Is it hard to go plant-based?

According to Registered Dietician and author Sandra Hood, following a plant-based diet is “no different to formulating a conventional diet” – but the key is to plan. She adds that thought should be given to the quality and quantity of foods to meet diet requirements for everyone. 

Sandra says it is possible to move from a meat-eating diet to one that is plant-based. However having a transition phase can also be very helpful for those trying out the diet. In this instance, some meat replacements eaten in moderation can be useful. 

She explains: “There have also been significant advances and choices to meat alternatives such as mushroom based Quorn and soya-based tofu which can be useful choices, particularly in the transition phase.”

The dietician advises a transition period as it is likely to be easier socially and psychologically. “After all, humans have been omnivores for thousands of years. Nevertheless, what separates us from the rest of the natural world is our ability to learn new skills, embrace new ideas and ways of thinking,” Sandra says. “We know that migrating to a plant-based diet has numerous health benefits, a positive effect on the environment and improves animal welfare.”

Plant-based staples for your cupboard and fridge

  • Whole grains like pasta, rice, oats, quinoa, and bread
  • Legumes like dried or canned beans, chickpeas, red, green or puy lentils
  • Plant milks like oat, soya, rice, almond, hazelnut, cashew and coconut. Options are expanding all the time, with even potato milk on shelves now
  • Other plant-based dairy products like butter, cream or yoghurt
  • Versatile minimally processed protein sources like tofu, tempeh and seitan
  • Meat alternatives, perhaps made with mycoprotein, soy if not allergic, pea protein, seitan if not coeliac, or jackfruit
  • Nut butters like peanut, cashew, almond, and hazelnut
  • Healthier oils like cold-pressed rapeseed, extra virgin olive oil, avocado and nut oils
  • Plenty of fruit and vegetables, fresh or frozen
  • A wide variety of herbs and spices to impart flavour into more bland protein sources
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Nuts, seeds and dried fruit for snacking
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