What is a plant-based diet?

The wellness world has embraced the plant-based diet — but don’t confuse it with a vegetarian one. Nutritionist Kathleen Alleaume reports.

The average person is, no doubt, a little confused about what constitutes an optimal diet. First we feared fat, then carbs became evil and now our fixation is making sure we eat enough protein. There’s something in common with these fads: we become overly obsessed with one particular nutrient, to the relative exclusion of all else.

It’s no surprise we’re confused about what to eat. It seems impossible to answer the question of what the best diet is.

However, one study from 2014 set in motion a view that most nutritionists now agree on: a plant-based diet is the common denominator for health across all kinds of eating patterns.

The review compared the major diets of the day, including low carb, low fat, low GI, Mediterranean, paleo and vegan (to name a few) and concluded that no diet was clearly the best, but that “a diet of minimally processed foods close to nature, predominantly plants” gave the best results. Best-selling author, Michael Pollan, sums up this type of diet in his book In Defense of Food in seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

What is a plant-based diet?

While vegetarian and vegan diets are defined by what they exclude, a plant-based diet is defined by what it includes — lots of plant foods! This means an eating plan based mostly on veggies, fruits, nuts, soy, legumes, pulses and wholegrains rather than on animal sources such as meat and dairy. Some versions of the diet allow for modest amounts of fish, lean meat, dairy or eggs, which saw the popularity of “flexitarian” lifestyles soar: those who occasionally lash out on a juicy steak or a few slabs of cheese when the urge kicks in. This style of eating allows people the flexibility to adapt it to their lifestyle, social life or health conditions.

Proven benefits of a plant-based diet

  • Diabetes prevention
  • Reduced risk of certain cancers
  • Blood pressure control
  • Weight loss
  • Improved metabolism
  • Reduced risk of heart attacks
  • Improved brain health

Am I getting enough protein?

For all the nutritional strength of plants, it’s widely believed that vegetarian and vegan diets fall short on critical vitamins and nutrients including protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12.

We assume that most protein comes from meat and dairy products, but there are loads of vegetables, grains and nuts that can give you the protein your body needs — and you probably don’t need as much as you think. A good rule of thumb is that you need 1g of protein for every 1kg of body weight, so for someone who weighs 70kg, 70g of protein a day is more than enough. For a well-trained athlete or body builder, slightly more may be required.

More important than amount is where your protein comes from. Some sources are rich in B vitamins, some in iron and some aren’t rich in anything at all. Getting a wide variety of plant protein sources is critical.

“Warnings about iron and zinc deficiency are ubiquitous and certainly relevant in countries where people struggle to find enough to eat,” says Dr Rosemary Stanton, Australia’s leading nutritionist. It’s true that haem iron in meat, poultry and seafood is absorbed better than the non-haem iron in plants and eggs, but people who need more iron absorb more non-haem iron, with absorption increasing as high as almost 60%. Simply combining a source of iron with a source of vitamin C will to help increase your iron absorption.

“The one relevant warning for plant-based diets is vitamin B12,” says Stanton. This vitamin is largely found in animal products, and those who avoid all animal foods will often need a supplement.

A little meat may be better than none

According to the World Cancer Research Fund, people who eat red meat should consume less than 500g per week, as more than this is linked with an increased risk of bowel cancer.

But lean red meat still has many health and nutritional benefits. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend a consumption of 455g per week, which is the equivalent of a small 65g serve each day or a few larger serves during the week.

What to eat

1. Beans, legumes and protein
Look for versatile and cost effective sources of protein, including lentils, chickpeas, peas, black beans, kidney beans, butter beans and soy products like edamame, soy milk, tofu and tempeh.

2. Nuts and seeds
You should eat nuts daily to achieve a balanced diet. It’s recommended to eat a handful (30g) every day. Almonds, cashews, ground flaxseeds, chia seeds and quinoa (which is like a grain, but are actually a seed) are packed full of nutrition.

3. Good fats
Luckily, not many plant foods contain artery-clogging saturated fats. Good fat helps our bodies absorb fat-soluble vitamins, eliminate waste from cells and aid in weight loss. Plants with good fats include avocados, almonds, flax seeds and extra virgin olive oil.

4. Greens, especially dark, leafy veggies
Most dark, leafy vegetables contain iron and a ton of vitamins, making them great for your whole body. Think kale, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. Include them in salads and stir-fries.

5. Fruits and veggies
Aim for five serves of both fruits and vegetables each day, with one serve equal to one cup. Eat plenty of different colours and from a wider range of types, preferably whole and in season — it’s cheaper and more nutritious that way.

6. Quality carbs
Carbs are not evil, just choose ones that give you lots of nutritional value. Sweet potatoes, wholegrains like rolled oats, sourdough, whole wheat and barley and gluten-free options like amaranth, buckwheat, millet or corn should be your go-to.

Make the Switch

Try these easy tips to help you design a plant-based diet.

  1. Redesign your plate. Fill at least half of your plate with vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and/or legumes, and make meat the condiment. Try veggie-based dishes like bean burritos or cauliflower and cashew curries served with wholegrain brown rice or quinoa.
  2. Pick healthier meat. When you do eat meat, downsize your portion, choose leaner cuts and focus on decreasing your intake of processed meat like bacon, sausages and deli meats. Include portions of fatty fish such as salmon, which is high in omega 3 fatty acids.
  3. Find your semi-veg style. Dedicate one day each week to plant-based meals. Meatless Mondays are a fantastic starting point, and then over time expand to other days of the week too.