It's first important to note that a plant-based diet is not automatically healthy – there are plenty of vegan processed foods out there too! It’s a good idea to be aware of nutrition essentials – what we need and where we get it from.
A varied, wholesome diet is the best choice for anyone who wants their body to perform at it's peak.
Macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are equally important and essential to our health.
Our bodies are built to utilise carbohydrates as the primary source of energy. When carbohydrates are broken down, they release glucose into the bloodstream which serves as the primary fuel required for each cell in your body to perform all the vital reactions. That’s why carbs are so important for our health and any kind of physical activity.
However, not all carbs are equal – there are three types:
1. Simple carbs – these are sugars that the body quickly digests, resulting in a rapid surge of energy. While they can provide an immediate energy boost, their effects are short-lived. They are primarily found in refined foods such as sugar, white flour, processed snacks, and cakes. These foods have undergone extensive processing, stripping away most of their nutrients, and can lead to fluctuating energy levels.
2. Complex or starchy carbs – these are slower for the body to break down, leading to a gradual release of glucose. These carbohydrates offer a sustained and dependable source of energy throughout the day and are the preferred choice for carb intake. Complex carbs can be found in whole foods like wholemeal bread, oats, brown rice, fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, and sweet potatoes. What makes these especially beneficial is that they come bundled with fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, providing not only sustained energy but also essential nutrients that boost performance. Diets based on complex carbohydrates can help maintain a healthy body weight and improve blood sugar control.
3. Fibre – a category of complex carbohydrates that the body cannot digest. However, it plays a critical role in maintaining gut health, slowing down the release of energy from foods, and regulating blood sugar and fat levels. Fibre is an indispensable component of a healthy diet, and the good news is that it is naturally present in plant-based whole foods. Therefore, by building your diet around these foods, you can ensure an adequate intake of fibre without worry.
What about fruit? Despite containing some simple carbohydrates in the form of fruit sugar, it also provides a substantial amount of fibre, which slows down its digestion, making it an excellent source of gradual energy release. There's no need to restrict your consumption of fruits.
How about low-carb diets?
Low-carb diets force the body to get its energy from fat and protein which is less efficient, so there’s less left for actual muscle maintenance.
Regarding low-carb diets, such as ketogenic or paleo diets, they predominantly emphasize foods high in protein and fat while severely limiting carbohydrate intake. This shift in metabolism forces the body to primarily derive energy from fat and protein, reducing hunger and potentially resulting in weight loss. However, this approach is not a natural metabolic state, and while it may be effective for short-term weight loss, prolonged adherence to such diets can lead to a range of undesirable side effects, including constipation, headaches, kidney strain, halitosis (bad breath), elevated cholesterol levels, increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and even premature death.
Protein plays a vital role in the composition of each and every one of our cells. Its significance extends beyond muscle growth, maintenance, and repair, as it is essential for numerous daily bodily processes. Protein is a key player in thousands of everyday reactions within the body and plays pivotal roles in immune and hormonal systems. Additionally, it contributes to the formation of collagen, which essentially holds our bodies together, and is crucial for the production of neurotransmitters in the brain.
If you've heard the term 'complete protein', this refers to foods that contain all nine essential amino acids. Plant examples include tofu, tempeh, buckwheat, quinoa, cashews, chia seeds and pistachios. However, a well-rounded diet with a variety of foods naturally provides all the necessary amino acids when sufficient calories are consumed.
Despite the aggressive marketing of companies promoting protein products, obtaining an adequate protein intake solely from foods is not a difficult task. In fact, most individuals unintentionally consume more protein than required. It's only when one engages in more rigorous training or seeks to build muscle that increasing protein intake becomes relevant.
Distributing protein intake evenly throughout the day, rather than consuming a large protein portion in a single meal, is advantageous. This approach ensures a steady supply of amino acids to support muscle function.
Fat is an essential component of cell membranes and brain tissue. It plays multiple crucial roles within the body, including aiding in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), providing energy, offering insulation, and safeguarding vital organs.
Fat is the most energy dense of all the macronutrients, containing more than twice as many calories (per unit of weight) as protein or carbohydrates. That’s why it’s a great energy source but also why we don’t need too much of it.
In the plant kingdom, fats are typically stored in seeds (such as nuts, seeds, soybeans, and corn), and sometimes in the fleshy layer that surrounds the seed (for example- avocados, olives, and coconuts).
Some fat is healthy and necessary, yet other fat is unhealthy and unnecessary. There are four types of fat to be aware of:
1. Saturated fats – these are solid at room temperature and are predominantly found in animal-derived foods, as well as coconut and palm oil. Our bodies can synthesize saturated fat, so there is no nutritional requirement for it. Diets high in saturated fat are associated with elevated blood cholesterol levels and an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, including prostate cancer.
2. Trans/hydrogenated fats – these fats are particularly harmful, as they raise the risk of heart disease and stroke by increasing levels of harmful cholesterol. They have twice the impact on blood cholesterol compared to saturated fats. Smaller amounts of trans fats are naturally present in dairy products, lamb, and beef fat, while larger amounts can be found in many processed foods. These fats are created through a hydrogenation process, converting liquid vegetable oils into solid fats, resulting in what is essentially hydrogenated vegetable oil or fat, commonly known as trans fats.
3. Monounsaturated fats – offer a range of benefits and are present in many plant-based sources and vegetable oils. Oleic acid, an omega-9 fat, is one of the most common monounsaturated fats and is a major component of oils like olive, macadamia, avocado, and sunflower oil.
4. Polyunsaturated fats – these are the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fats. Plants contain plenty – particularly in nuts, seeds, and legumes. Omega-6 fats are easily obtained from plant-based foods, shifting the focus to omega-3 fats. Notable sources of omega-3s include flaxseed, hempseed, chia seeds, and walnuts, along with oils derived from them (best used cold to preserve their nutritional value). Cold-pressed rapeseed oil is an excellent choice for cooking due to its high omega-3 content, as is olive oil.
Plant-based omega-3s primarily come in the form of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which our bodies convert into EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). While fish oils contain pre-formed EPA and DHA, they are often contaminated with heavy metals (such as mercury, cadmium, and lead) and pesticide residues, making fish oil consumption less advisable. Pregnant women and young children are cautioned against consuming fish for this reason. For those who prefer supplements, algal omega-3s are an excellent choice. Marine algae produce EPA and DHA, similar to fish, and supplements derived from these algae provide a healthy alternative.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals, often referred to as micronutrients, are natural compounds essential for our well-being. These small but crucial amounts play vital roles in our metabolism, hormone production and regulation, the composition of our cells and tissues, and the control of muscle and nerve functions. Some vitamins and minerals also serve as antioxidants, safeguarding our bodies from harm caused by free radicals—unstable compounds that can damage our DNA, cells, and tissues. While free radicals are naturally produced in the body as by-products of metabolism, their levels can significantly rise due to factors such as alcohol consumption, smoking, environmental pollution, stress, and inadequate sleep.
Antioxidants act as the cavalry against free radicals, neutralizing their harmful effects. Plant-based foods are rich sources of numerous antioxidants, including vitamins like A (in the form of beta-carotene), C, and E, as well as minerals like selenium, lycopene, and polyphenols, among others. The most effective approach to ensure an adequate intake of antioxidants is to include a variety of brightly colored plant foods in your diet, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, black beans, red lentils, whole grains, nuts (with their skins on, like almonds, walnuts, and Brazil nuts), edamame, cinnamon, turmeric, and even mushrooms.
A diverse plant-based diet naturally provides most nutrients in sufficient quantities.
The two exceptions to watch out for are vitamins B12 and D.
Vitamin B12 is produced by bacteria in the soil, and in the past, we obtained it from contaminated fruits and vegetables. However, due to modern sanitation practices and depleted soil, it is advisable to take a supplement. Contrary to a common misconception, meat is not inherently rich in vitamin B12; farm animals are actually given B12 supplements. Instead of relying on recycled B12 from animal flesh, it's more direct to take a supplement. People over the age of 50 are generally recommended to take a B12 supplement, regardless of their dietary choices.
Research indicates that some populations have a significant portion of individuals with insufficient B12 levels, and nearly half of the global population lacks vitamin D.
Vitamin D is synthesized in our skin when exposed to sunlight, primarily during the spring and summer months. However, during autumn and winter, people tend to cover up more, and the sun's intensity decreases. Official guidelines advise vitamin D supplementation from October to April, but some may need supplementation throughout the year.
Eating a varied plant-based diet makes you thrive and boosts your health better than any other diet. If you want an additional nutritional boost you can always add some powerful natural aids, such as turmeric, ginger, ashwagandha, matcha green tea, moringa leaf powder, ginseng, maca or acai, all of which are strong antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and help you combat stress, but they are not a must.