Plant-Based Nutrition: How to Stay Healthy and Happy
One of the most common (and understandable) concerns shared by those who transition to primarily plant-based nutrition is staying healthy while doing so.
On one hand, it is an extensively studied and well proven fact that vegetarian and vegan diets can be beneficial to health in many ways. Just a few of the potential health benefits of plant-based eating include lower risk of some types of cancers, a decreased heart disease risk, better blood sugar control and simplified weight management.
But at the same time, it can sometimes be challenging to ensure you get all the nutrients your body needs on a daily basis - particularly as a newcomer to plant-based living.
Of course, there are major differences between those who go partially plant-based and those who adopt 100% vegan lifestyles. If you continue to consume dairy products, you’ll continue to have access to readily available sources of calcium, protein and other key nutrients.
For those who intend to cut out meat, dairy and animal-derived products entirely, it takes a slightly more strategic approach. Everything you need is available in one form or other, but may not be quite as readily available in your everyday foodstuffs as before.
Staying healthy and happy as being a vegetarian is, for the most part, no different than when following any other lifestyle or eating regime. You simply need to know what you’re eating, make conscious dietary decisions and prioritise the main nutrients your body needs.
Here are a few tips from the pros on how to stay healthy and happy - especially when getting used to life as a newcomer to plant-based eating:
1. Don’t assume that plant-based products are always good for you
There’s a major misconception among the general public, which presumes that the inclusion of a “vegetarian” or “vegan” label on a product means that it is good for you. It doesn’t, and in many instances it can mean the exact opposite.
The plant-based product world is packed with a surprising volume of vegan and vegetarian products that are highly processed and contain a wide variety of questionable ingredients. It’s not common for lower-quality vegan and vegetarian products to be crammed with countless artificial ingredients and additives, used in place of more expensive natural or organic alternatives.
In addition, the fat, sugar and calorie content of plant-based foods can be just as high as any comparable animal-based alternative. It is also not uncommon for plant-based products to lack the typical nutrient content of their counterparts.
2. Always ensure you get enough Vitamin B12
You may have heard associations between plant-based eating and difficulties in getting enough Vitamin B12. To an extent, there is some truth to this - research has shown that vegans and vegetarians are more likely to develop a Vitamin B12 deficiency than their carnivorous counterparts.
Vitamin B12 can cause a wide variety of physical and psychological health issues, ranging from numbness in the extremities to memory problems to chronic daytime fatigue. What’s also important to know is that in some instances, elevated folate intake can hide the symptoms of Vitamin B12 deficiency, while it continues to do its damage silently in the background.
Not that any of this has to be an issue, as there are endless vegan and vegetarian foods available that are fortified with a generous quantities of Vitamin B12. In addition, Vitamin B12 supplements are readily available and can be useful where appropriate products are in short supply or difficult to track down.
3. Avoid excessive reliance on cheese
This (of course) applies exclusively to vegetarians and anyone who continues to assume dairy products. One of the easiest and most satisfying ways to move away from meat is to simply pack your dishes with more cheese.
In moderation, cheese can play a valuable role in a person’s diet, providing good quantities of key vitamins, minerals, protein, calcium and so on. Nevertheless, it doesn’t have anything close to the same amount of iron, zinc or several other key nutrients as an equivalent portion of meat. It’s also significantly lower in protein, yet way higher in fat and calories than lean meat.
Excessive reliance on cheese as a meat substitute is therefore inadvisable. Cheese can and should be included in a vegetarian diet where possible, but should nonetheless be consumed in sensible moderation. There are alternative sources of protein and key nutrients available that are considered ‘healthier’ than cheese, including nuts, beans, lentils, chickpeas and so on.
4. Keep your calorie intake at the right level
Whereas many presume they’ll need to focus heavily on keeping their calorie intake down, it’s actually quite the opposite for most newcomers to vegetarianism.
A recent study conducted on the diets of just under 1,500 participants found that vegans are statistically more likely to have a lower daily calorie intake than vegetarians and meat eaters. Vegetarians also typically consume fewer calories than meat eaters, which goes some way to explain why those who follow plant-based lifestyles are more likely to have a lower BMI than their counterparts.
This may not be a problem for those who are pursuing healthy weight loss, who may find switching to vegetarian or veganism works wonders for them. However, consuming too few calories on a daily or weekly basis can lead to fatigue, a metabolic slowdown and even certain nutrient deficiencies.
Staying happy and healthy when living a plant-based lifestyle means enjoying what you eat - and ensuring you eat plenty of it!
5. Focus on your hydration
The importance of drinking enough water on a daily basis is universal, irrespective of dietary choices. However, experts typically recommend that those following a predominantly or exclusive plant-based lifestyle place particular emphasis on hydration.
This is to do with the fact that in most instances, vegetarians and vegans consume a great deal more dietary fibre than those who eat a mixed diet. Whole grains, vegetables, legumes and other sources of dietary fibre are important staples in plant-based lifestyles. The more dietary fibre you consume, the more water your body needs to move it efficiently through your digestive tract.
On average, research suggests that most people eat in the region of 27g of fibre per day. With vegans and vegetarians, this can increase to as much as 41g of fibre per day. There are no specific guidelines as to how much additional water vegetarians and vegans should drink, but staying hydrated and avoiding dehydration at all costs is nonetheless crucial.
6. Make sure you are getting enough iron
Iron is another key nutrient that sometimes causes concern among new and prospective vegans and vegetarians. Again, statistics show that those that exclude meat from their diet entirely are at an elevated risk of developing an iron deficiency.
But this does not need to be the case, as a carefully planned and proactive plant-based diet can incorporate all the iron a person needs to stay fit and healthy. There are countless rich sources or iron available without resorting to meet, including leafy greens lentils, beans, fortified cereals, nuts, seeds, oats and so on.
If any of the iron-rich foods available to you are not to your taste, there’s always the option of supplementation. Either way, nutritionists advise keeping a close eye on your iron intake when making the switch to a predominantly or exclusively plant-based lifestyle.
7. Prioritise protein where possible
There’s really no shortage of healthy protein sources for vegans and vegetarians. But what comes as a surprise to many is just how much protein the average person needs to consume each day, which for a typical meat-eater is comparatively easy.
Experts recommend that the average adult weighing around 70kg should consume up to 60g of healthy protein per day. An 86g serving of chicken would provide 27g of this RDA, while the same amount of salmon would contribute around 20g.
For those who follow plant-based lifestyles, it would take around 200g of cooked lentils to fulfil 18g of this recommended daily allowance. There’s plenty of protein in various plant-based products and ingredients, but you may need to eat more of them than you think to keep your protein intake at the right level.
8. Keep your eye on refined carbs
Last but not least, one of the easiest, cheapest and most enjoyable ways of staying full when transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle is to eat vast quantities of refined carbs. Examples of which include cakes, bagels, biscuits, breads and almost all conventional types of pasta.
The issue with products based predominantly on refined carbs is the way in which they have been drained of pretty much all their beneficial nutrients, during the production process. They contain next to no fibre and are comparatively high in calories, while also being associated with poor blood sugar management and even a higher risk of developing diabetes.
Under no circumstances does this mean that refined carbs should be eliminated from your diet entirely. It’s simply a case of sensible moderation, and ensuring you’re not bingeing on them habitually to keep yourself full.