It's hard to dispute the health benefits of plant-based eating. Compared to meat-eaters, people who eat vegetarian or vegan diets have been found to have lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, leaner bodies, a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes, healthier gut bacteria and even better moods.
Now, findings from a new study published online in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition add to the growing list of health benefits attributed to meatless eating. The review of 10 prospective studies concluded that vegetarian and vegan diets cut the risk of developing and/or dying from coronary heart disease by 25 per cent. Following such a diet was also found to reduce the risk of cancer.
Motivating stuff, for sure. (Environmental sustainability and animal welfare are other solid reasons to adopt a plant-based diet.)
If you're considering ditching your meat-and-potatoes (or chicken-and-rice) diet, though, you may have concerns. Can you properly nourish your body without animal foods?
Some argue that adopting a vegan diet is a bad idea from a nutritional perspective. It can put you at risk for missing out on nutrients, ones that can be met easily by including a little meat and dairy in your diet.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics doesn't agree, however. Last month, the 100,000-strong U.S. organization issued a position stating that vegetarian and vegan diets – if properly planned – meet the nutritional needs for all stages of life, including infancy, pregnancy, childhood, adolescence and beyond.
A few definitions are in order since vegetarian diets cover a wide spectrum. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat dairy and eggs but avoid meat, poultry and fish. Pescatarians eat fish and seafood and flexitarians eat meat and fish only occasionally.
Vegans don't eat (and often don't wear) any animal products, including honey.
Unlike vegan diets, plant-based diets aren't defined by the animal foods they exclude. Rather, they're characterized by the foods they do include: plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Whether you're considering a vegan or a plant-based diet – or you've already made the switch – planning is essential. Include the following foods (and in some cases, supplements) in your diet to help meet key nutrient needs.
All plant foods, except for fruit, provide protein. (Fruit contains negligible protein.) Beans, lentils, tempeh, soybeans, edamame, soy foods, soy beverages, nuts and seeds are excellent sources. (Almond, cashew, rice and coconut beverages are lacking in protein.)
Vegan energy bars and vegan protein powders are other ways to increase your protein intake, if you can't get what you need from whole foods.
Eat a variety of plant proteins over the course of each day to ensure an adequate intake of essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein which the body can't make on its own.
Include a source of protein at each meal. Include healthy starchy foods, too. Quinoa, kamut, millet and amaranth also deliver some protein.
Used to make DNA and red blood cells, B12 isn't found in plant foods. Plant-based eaters should consume fortified foods such as plant milks (e.g., soy, almond, rice), ready-to-eat breakfast cereals and some soy products such as soy burgers (check labels).
Fortified nutritional yeast is an exceptional source of B12, providing 4 to 12 micrograms (mcg) each tablespoon (adults need 2.4 mcg a day). Include B12 fortified foods in your diet at least twice a day to ensure an adequate intake.
Supplements can also be taken – a multivitamin with 25 to 100 mcg of B12 daily or 1000 mcg of B12 two or three times a week.
Vegetarians typically consume as much iron, or more, than meat-eaters. Decent sources of the mineral include soybeans, tofu, lentils, chickpeas, lima beans, black beans, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, barley, cooked spinach, raisins and dried prunes.
The problem though, is that iron in plant foods (called non-heme iron) is often poorly absorbed. Include 50 mg of vitamin C (e.g., ½ cup broccoli, ¼ cup red pepper, ½ cup sliced strawberries) in meals to significantly enhance iron absorption.
Fortified breakfast cereals are good sources of readily absorbed iron.
Excellent sources of well absorbed calcium include fortified plant milks, calcium-set tofu and cruciferous vegetables such as bok choy, collard greens, rapini, turnip greens and kale.
Spinach and Swiss chard contain poorly absorbed calcium and, as a result, won't deliver much calcium to your diet.
Baked beans, black beans, navy beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, soybeans, tempeh, tahini, almonds and almond butter are also good sources of calcium.
Plant foods aren't always a good source of iodine – a mineral needed to make thyroid hormones – since the iodine content of soil varies widely. Iodine is found in sea vegetables and iodized salt (sea salt and kosher salt are generally not iodized).
If you don't use iodized salt, take a 75 to 150 mcg iodine supplement each day. Women of childbearing age should take 150 mcg daily. (Thyroid hormones are needed for proper brain and bone development during pregnancy.) The daily iodine requirement for adults is 150 mcg.
Because vegan diets don't include fish, they lack DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), the two omega-3 fatty acids needed to develop and maintain the brain, retina and cell membranes.
Plant-based diets do contain ALA (alpha linoleic acid), a plant-based omega-3 fat thought to guard against Type 2 diabetes and, possibly, heart disease. Flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, walnut oil, soybeans, camelina oil and canola oil are good sources.
Women require 1.1 g of ALA a day; men need 1.6 g. Two tablespoons of flaxseed, chia seeds and hemp seeds supply 3.2, 2.5 and 1.7 g, respectively.
Since the body can't convert much ALA to EPA and DHA, consider taking a vegan DHA supplement made from algae. I recommend that pregnant and breastfeeding women do so.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.