Plant based or low animal product diets are a popular choice for many reasons, but as with all dietary choices, we have to ensure that we are supporting our health in the long term. Whether you are already vegetarian or vegan or just looking to try out Meatless Mondays, here are some considerations for how to take plant based eating to the next level.
- Eat Your Greens!
Surprisingly, many vegetarian/vegan people still do not eat enough vegetables! It seems unbelievable but many typical plant based meals are made up of legumes, carbohydrates and meat substitutes. Consider how few vegetables you need to make a veggie chili or lasagna and suddenly it becomes clear that just like in omnivorous diets, prioritizing vegetable intake is necessary. Vegetables should form the base of any meal you make regardless of whether you are vegan/vegetarian or omnivorous. Vegetables provide fibre, minerals and vitamins as well as contributing to our carbohydrate and protein needs. Eating our greens also supports a healthy gut which means we get more out of the food we eat (learn more about eating for gut health here). Crucifers, leafy greens, mushrooms, beets, artichokes and more! Eat lots and eat a variety.
Protein is essential for muscle health and growth as well as a healthy nervous system. There are a ton of great options for plant based protein but there are some important things to keep in mind.
Since very few plant based sources include all essential amino acids, a variety of sources is very important. For instance, include a raw nut source, a low inflammatory grain source such and millet, and multiple vegetable sources throughout the day. This will give you a broader selection of amino acids rather than just relying on one source alone.
While plant based sources can be quite comparable to animal ones in terms of protein, we do want to check that our serving size is getting us enough. Variety can help here as well, as can increasing our vegetable intake as many veggies have a decent amount of protein. Here is the protein content for some common sources:
- 1 large egg (free run/organic) 6-7g
- Walnuts ½ cup: 15g
- Hemp hearts 3 tbsp: 10g
- Mushrooms or cauliflower ½ cup: 1.2 g
- Spinach about 10 leaves: 3g
You can see how easy it is to get a good serving of protein when combining different plant sources. In general focusing on eating lots of vegetables with a goal 20-30G of plant based protein per meal will set most of us up for success in the long term. Getting enough protein is a common concern with plant based diets, and one that is easily resolved with quality whole food sources.
Lastly, beware of meat substitutes. Many faux meats are full of hydrogenated vegetable fats, inflammatory agents, sugars and not much real food! Be sure to read the label and if the product isn’t just smashed up vegetables, consider giving it a pass and try making your own.
3. Inflammatory foods and gut health
Gut health is big news these days. How well your gut operates can affect everything from how your immune system functions, to your sleep, and of course how you digest your food. As with any dietary choice, it is important to prioritize gut health in order to support healthspan. See our Managing Your Microbiome blog for more on gut health in general.
Some traditional plant based protein sources such as legumes (including soy, peanuts and cashews) contain proinflammatory anti nutrients called lectins that many people react to. Nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes and peppers) are also high in lectins and are often served with legumes in many staple vegetarian meals. Increasing the amount of high lectin foods you consume can cause gastrointestinal damage and distress along with a myriad of other symptoms. This is a huge part of why many people do not stay plant based long term, they simply feel, and are sick. Fortunately there are many alternative foods to eat and even some ways you can make high lectin easier on the gut.
First off, just eat less of them. Increasing your vegetable intake and focusing on lower inflammatory options such as nuts, hemp seeds and fermented foods such as tempeh means you don’t need to rely on these potentially gut damaging foods. Many of us can have these foods, just not everyday or every meal.
Pressure cooking, peeling and deseeding can reduce lectin loads in these foods, allowing you to reap the benefits of these foods without the same inflammatory response. Everyone responds to different foods in different ways. Listen to your gut (for real!) and reduce or eliminate foods that don’t serve you.
Reducing or eliminating animal products also means that you are reducing fat intake. Again, much like protein, this is easily remedied but requires consideration. Fat is essential for brain, gut and immune health and can be a key part of stabilizing blood sugars throughout the day.
Variety is important here as well, you want to ensure you are getting a variety of fats, just like you would with animal based foods. Raw nuts, nut butters, hemp and flax seeds, olives and avocado as well as certain cold pressed oils like coconut, olive and avocado are all great whole food sources of fat.
When choosing fat sources it is also important to stay away from hydrogenated oils, transfats and sources that are high in omega 6s. Plant based butter substitutes should be scrutinized carefully as many of these are rampant with trans and hydrogenated fats.
Omega 6s, while essential, are proinflammatory, and when out of balance with omega 3s, can contribute to heart disease and other systemic illnesses. Many of us already consume too much of them. Balancing omega 6 intake with a greater concentration of omega 3s is essential for long term health. Omega 6s are found in high amounts in oils such as canola, soy and safflower so avoiding these all together is key. They are also found in some of the above whole food sources but are in balance with omega 3s, making those sources healthier plant based options.
Some supplements to consider on a plant based diet are DEA and EPA rich omega 3s, zinc and b12. All of these can be difficult to obtain enough of through plant based eating alone, particularly if you are vegan. B12 and zinc are almost exclusively found in animal products. B12 is introduced to many fortified vegan alternatives like nut milk but you do want to be aware of other additives in those products. Nutritional yeast is an inactive yeast that can include b12 and a variety or amino acids and is a delicious topper for many vegan recipes. All yeasts are not equal so be sure to check that b12 is present in the one you are consuming. Zinc is generally not found in vegan products but is an affordable and easy supplement to add into your day. Zinc helps with immune function, healing and protein and DNA synthesis. DHA/EPA rich Omegas are essential for brain health and lowering systemic inflammation. Algal DHA/EPA is available and is a great supplement to consider in plant based eating.
All in all, plant based diets can be extremely healthy and support long term health and performance. They just require so careful thought when forming new habits so that nothing is left out when you remove animal products.