Plant-Based Diet: Guide for Vegans, Vegetarians, etc.

plant-based diet benefits

Precision Nutrition has written a guide for all “-arians” explaining the benefits, pitfalls, and success secrets of various types of a plant-based diet. The Lion Health brings this guide’s summary.

In this article, we will look at a number of issues that people usually get confused about when trying to switch to vegetarian diets:

  • Is it a “vegetable” diet that includes all groups of natural products (even the flesh of slaughtered animals)? Or should you give up any food of animal origin?
  • What are the pros and cons of vegetarian and vegan diets?
  • What’s worse: eating fresh red meat or hellishly processed plants?
  • What do you need to eat on a plant-based diet to get enough protein, iron, calcium, and other important macro and micronutrients?
  • How do you know if a plant-based diet is right for you?

Calculation of the “Plantiness” of the Plant-Based Diet

The main question is: how did meat get into the “plant-based” diet?

The fact is that sometimes people whose diet consists almost entirely of plant foods also eat meat. Even those who call themselves vegetarian.

Let’s imagine all the variety of diets in the form of a scale, where at one end is an absolute meat eater, and at the other is a vegan who does not touch any animal products.

Plant-Based Diet
  1. Maximum
  2. Minimum
  3. “Meatiness”
  4. “Plantiness”

As you can see, plant-based diets (more plant-based than animal-based) that are closer to vegan on the right side may include different food combinations.

  • Strict vegans exclude any products (and even things) of animal origin so that the “Plantiness” of their diet is 100%.
  • Vegetarians sometimes consume animal products such as eggs and milk. The diet is not as harsh as that of vegans, but plant-based foods prevail anyway.
  • Flexitarians – semi- or partial vegetarians – eat meat, fish, and seafood occasionally or in small amounts. But since there are still significantly more plants in the diet than meat, they also fall into the “vegetable” category.
  • Fans of the Mediterranean or Paleo diet can eat meat every day. But they tend to eat a lot of natural plant foods as well. If salads make up a significant part of their diet, we also consider it plant-based.
benefits of plant-based diet

Variety of Plant-Based Diets

  1. Flexitarianism (semi- or partial vegetarianism)
  2. Pollotarianism
  3. Pescetarianism
  4. Ovolaktovegetarianism
  5. Lacto-vegetarianism
  6. Ovo vegetarianism
  7. Vegetarianism
  8. Veganism
  9. Meat
  10. Bird
  11. Fish, seafood
  12. Egg
  13. Dairy products
  14. Plant foods
  15. Use of leather/fur

Of course, this is only a part of the options, various combinations are possible.

Plant-Based Diet Benefits

Plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of:

  • Diseases of the cardiovascular system,
  • Diabetes,
  • Cancer,
  • Kidney disease,
  • Diseases of the gallbladder [1, 2, 3, 4, 5].

But all these joys, perhaps, do not follow from giving up meat. Let’s look at a number of potential causes.

Reason 1: Plant-Based Diet Appeals to Health Conscious People

For example, they regularly brush their teeth, play sports, prefer stairs to lifts, sleep for 7-9 hours, and regularly undergo medical examinations [6].

In short, they can be healthier not only because of the diet but because of a healthy lifestyle in general.

Reason 2: On a Plant-Based Diet, Oddly Enough, More Plant Foods Are Consumed

We all know that minimally processed natural herbal products contain many natural compounds that actually improve health and reduce the risk of developing various diseases [7].

Different groups of herbal products contain:

  • Antioxidants that help protect our DNA from free radical damage,
  • Health-promoting phytonutrients,
  • Fiber to improve digestion, as well as help regulate appetite and control cholesterol and blood sugar levels,
  • Healthy monounsaturated fats (avocados) and polyunsaturated fats (nuts and seeds).

Reason 3: Minimally Processed Plant Foods Are Better Satiating (Displacing Calorie Processing from the Diet)

Plants are high in water and fiber, which adds bulk without adding calories. So when we eat more natural plant foods, less room is left for ultra-processed treats – chips, cookies, ice cream, etc. [8, 9]

Restrictions’ Cost

Significant dietary changes lead to a number of trade-offs.

For example, a highly restricted diet can increase not only the time spent finding and preparing food but also the risk of deficiencies in important nutrients. On the other hand, if you get carried away with ready-made (and highly processed) foods, it takes less time, but the risk of shortage is even higher.

nutrition

Reason 4: Strict Plant-Based Diet Rules Help Some

In order for a plant-based diet to be complete, you need to try hard in order to read all labels, prepare food correctly, carefully study the menu. All this helps to eat more mindfully. In addition, vegans and vegetarians have significantly fewer temptations – regular, high-calorie burgers and hot dogs, for example, are banned.

Are you getting enough protein on a plant-based diet?

Vegetarians are not faced with a lack of protein as often as people think.

FOODPROTEIN (in grams)
Animal-based protein sourcesPer palm-sized portion*
Skinless chicken breast, grilled31
Cottage cheese25
Greek yogurt, plain22
Shrimp, cooked21
Eggs12
Plant-based  protein sources
Seitan, cooked22
Tempeh, cooked18
Tofu, drained and cooked16
Plant-based fat sourcesPer thumb-sized portion*
Pumpkin seeds2
Peanut butter3.5
Plant-based carb sourcesPer cupped hand*
Cooked lentils8
Bread, multigrain5
Pasta4
Non-starchy vegetablesPer fist*
Broccoli3
Spinach1
Carrots1

*Palm-sized = 3-4 oz cooked meat / tofu, 1 cup cottage cheese / Greek yogurt, 2 whole eggs; Cupped handful = 1/2-2/3 cup cooked grains / legumes, medium-sized fruit / tuber;
Thumb = 1 tbsp; Fist = 1 cup

A couple of caveats:

  • Natural products are more valuable. Customers who regularly consume tempeh, legumes, beans, nuts, and seeds can easily meet their protein needs. On the other hand, customers who eat mostly refined pasta, refined bread, vegan baked goods may experience nutrient deficiencies.
  • Vegetable protein is not as rich in essential amino acids and is not as well absorbed as animal proteins (digestibility of animal proteins – about 90-95%, vegetable – about 75-85%). For people who eat exclusively plants, the need for protein increases slightly compared to omnivores.

Plant-Based Diet Drawbacks

Plant-Based Diet Drawbacks

But there is also bad news.

If you’ve eliminated whole food groups from your diet, you will have to work harder to get all the nutrients you need.

This is harder to achieve if you:

  • switched to strict veganism,
  • tend to eat highly processed foods.

To reduce your risk of deficiency, try to consume 80-90% of your diet from natural foods with minimal processing.

Pay special attention to the following nutrients:

Calcium

In addition to being important for bones and teeth, calcium helps muscles (including the heart) function.

Dairy products are especially rich in calcium: each serving contains almost a third of the 1000-1200 mg that we need to get daily.

If you have given up milk, then:

  • Switch to plant-based foods high in calcium: leafy greens (collard greens, etc.), calcium tofu, sesame oil, broccoli, figs, beans, almonds, edamame (green soybeans), and calcium-fortified plant milk. For better calcium absorption, cook, rather than consume raw greens.
  • Cut back on salt, alcohol, and soda. These foods tend to crowd out calcium-rich options, such as drinking soda instead of calcium-fortified plant milk or snacking on chips rather than figs and broccoli.
  • Exercise. Resistance exercise is important not only for muscle but also for bone tissue: it increases bone density and reduces the risk of fractures.

Vitamin B12

Needed by our body for a bunch of important things, for example, synthesizing DNA and RNA, strengthening blood vessels, and keeping the nerves working. Since B12 is involved in red blood cell formation, a deficiency can lead to anemia.

Although a number of plants contain substances that our smart bodies can convert to B12, it is better absorbed from animal products [10].

By the way, many people over 50 suffer from B12 deficiency – even if they eat meat. This is because as we age, our stomach produces less acid (to break down B12) and Castle’s intrinsic factor (a protein that helps metabolize B12). And some other medications, such as acid blockers, further reduce absorption.

Therefore, taking a B12 supplement is extremely useful for:

  • people over 50,
  • individuals taking medications that interfere with the absorption of vitamin B12 (for example, in the treatment of ulcers and diabetes),
  • people who adhere to an all-plant diet (vegans).

Even with supplementation, someone may show signs of a deficiency: fatigue, dizziness, decreased mental capacity. In this case, see a specialist (doctor) to check your B12 level in your blood and possibly prescribe an injection.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Read alsoWhy fats are important? What fats are good?

These fats are beneficial in preventing heart disease and are also important for the development of tissues in the eyes, nerves, and brain (especially in the fetus and infants).

Omega-3s come in several forms:

  • Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): The richest sources of EPA and/or DHA are seaweed and seafood (salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel, sardines, and oysters).
  • Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA): Rich in flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans, dark leafy greens, and cruciferous vegetables.

Before using ALA, our body must convert its EPA / DHA, but the efficiency is extremely low. If you consume 2.5 grams of ALA from plants, your body will receive only about 10% (0.25 grams) of the omega-3 acids it needs [11].

So when avoiding seafood, you need to include in the diet legumes, nuts, flaxseed oil, ground flaxseed, walnuts, and other foods rich in ALA [12].

Iron

Low iron levels can lead to chronic fatigue as it helps carry oxygen around the body.

Animal foods are rich in the heme form of iron, which is more readily available than the non-heme form of beans, peas, lentils, and other plant sources. Our body assimilates from 15% to 35% of heme iron and from 2% to 20% of non-heme iron.

Here’s how to increase both the “supply” and the absorption of iron:

  • Vitamin C aids in the absorption of iron, so, for example, sauté tofu with broccoli or pick bean salads with tomatoes, peppers, and limes.

Let this table help you:

Rich in ironRich in vitamin C
Pumpkin seedsCitrus fruit and juices (ex: oranges)
TofuCantaloupe
TempehStrawberries
EdamameBroccoli
LentilsTomatoes
BeansPeppers
PeasWinter squash
Sunflower seedsWatermelon
NutsGuava
HummusKale
Almond butterKiwi
Leafy greensPotatoes
Fortified foods
Potatoes
White and oyster mushrooms
Amaranth
Spelt
Oats
Quinoa
Dark chocolate
  • Cook in a cast-iron pot. It can increase the iron content of food [13].
  • Do not drink coffee or black tea with meals. These drinks contain tannins, which interfere with the absorption of iron.

Who Will Benefit from Plant-Based Diets?

Some people easily switch to vegetarianism and stick to it all their lives. They look better, feel better, and genuinely wonder why everyone else doesn’t eat the same way.

But the rest sometimes just don’t succeed. They hardly comply with all the restrictions, they do not feel very well, they cannot get involved in any way.

A plant-based diet is suitable for those who:

  • Tries new things easily. Seaweed salad? I’ll take a portion. Slimy fermented soy? Give me two!
  • Prefers natural products with a minimum of processing, such as vegetables and legumes.
  • Has enough time, money, and desire to search for vegetarian food and recipes, restaurants, and delivery services.
  • Already surrounded by vegetarians – relatives or friends.
  • Bases their dietary choices on a worldview, such as not wanting to harm animals or seeking to reduce their carbon footprint.
  • Is able to flexibly change the menu according to the circumstances, that is, stick to predominantly plant-based products, but also include eggs, dairy products, seafood, or meat in the diet, if there are no other options.
  • Takes care of animals and the planet (the production of meat food is associated with a noticeably larger expenditure of resources, including energy and water).

A plant-based diet is unlikely to be suitable for those who:

  • Cooks for fastidious family members who cannot live without meat, or who hate everything vegetable (or both at once).
  • Loves highly processed refined foods (fast food).
  • Has no particular reason to become a vegetarian.
  • Has no time and effort searching for new recipes and cooking.

How to Coach Clients on Plant-Based Diets

Here are some strategic ideas.

Strategy 1: If the client says “I’m vegetarian” or “I’m on a plant-based diet,” don’t jump to conclusions

As we said at the beginning, there are many plant-based diets. Therefore, first, ask in more detail:

  • What does this mean for you?
  • Can you tell me more about which foods you like and which ones you avoid?
  • What do you eat and how often?

Trust us, there are a lot of options. Some clients are daytime vegetarians, for example, they eat salads until the evening, and eat meat for dinner with the rest of the family.

Others are vegetarian at home and are not limited outside the home.

Strategy 2: Understand the reasons

Different people have different reasons for switching to a plant-based diet – there are more and less compelling reasons.

If, for example, a person has an allergic reaction to eggs, then it is easy to understand why they refuse to use them for life.

But sometimes a person has a rather vague idea of ​​why “meat is bad”. And they love bacon very much. After watching a trendy documentary on the benefits of veganism, they can switch to a plant-based diet … temporarily. Soon the impressions of the propaganda film will fade, and memories of bacon will rush … and now they are already in the meat department.

In such cases, the 5 Why’s exercise will help. It was originally developed by Toyota Motor Corporation and we use it to train nutritional consultants.

Ask your client: Why do you want to switch to a plant-based diet?

Then – depending on what they answer – ask again: why?

And so on, five times in total.

Let’s show it on the example of one of our clients; it took us 4 “why’s” to figure it out:

Coach: So, tell me a little more about your reasons for being a vegetarian. Why do you want to do this?
Client: Well, I grew up vegetarian. In my religion, we don’t eat meat.
Coach: That’s really interesting. Tell me a little more about that. Why do you believe you shouldn’t eat meat?
Client: {Laughs} I don’t personally believe that. My religion says that.
Coach: Okay, I see. But why do you do it if you don’t really believe it’s bad?
Client: See, it’s my family. My siblings and parents are more devout than I am. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still religious. I’m just not as religious as they are. And I don’t want them to think badly about me.
Coach: I can understand why you’d want to remain close to your family. I’m curious: If you’re only a vegetarian because you don’t want your family to think badly of you, why do you remain vegetarian when they’re not around?
Client: Truthfully? I don’t. I mean, I don’t eat a lot of meat, mostly because of guilt. But, if my family isn’t around, I’m happy to go to rib fest, you know?

This conversation helped the client to understand that flexitarianism (partial vegetarianism) is more suitable for him. He simply has no compelling reason to completely reject meat, especially since he enjoys animal food – until the family sees it.

Strategy 3: Discuss potential obstacles

Have a joint brainstorming session: what can get in the way and how to deal with it?

  • What to do in the company of caring friends who are trying their best to treat: “Come on, just eat one wing”?
  • What to do when grandma says, “I know you love meatloaf. That’s why I made it especially for you, honey”?
  • How to behave in restaurants where there are practically no vegetarian dishes?

After discussing these situations, ask clients: How far can you deviate?

In other words, will they be looking for purely plant-based foods or are they willing to snack on animal products … under certain conditions?

Let’s remind:

An imperfect plan that you follow is better than an ideal one but unrealizable.

In this “imperfect plan” some of our clients include:

  • ready-made soups containing chicken broth, but not pieces of meat,
  • meat, if a friend serves it to them, but not if they’re home preparing their own meals. Salads, even if sprinkled with small pieces of bacon,
  • chicken wings – in special cases,
  • a turkey at a festive dinner with your family, etc.

Strategy 4: Shape your environment yourself

Plant-based people live in the same environment as everyone else, meaning they are likely to:

  • Be surrounded by highly processed food,
  • Products are often selected for convenience.

You are more likely to snack on what is close at hand, and less likely on what you need to climb far for. The same applies to cooking – when some products you need to wash, peel and cut, while others you can simply take from the refrigerator.

To consume a sufficient amount of natural products, you need to take care of their availability. And hide low-volume and high-calorie processing away:

  • always keep chopped vegetables in the refrigerator for a snack,
  • on weekends, soak lentils or other legumes,
  • buy pre-washed salad mix in sachets,
  • store processed snacks on the highest shelf out of sight.

Sources:

  1. Rizzo NS, Sabaté J, Jaceldo-Siegl K, Fraser GE. Vegetarian dietary patterns are associated with a lower risk of metabolic syndrome: the adventist health study 2. Diabetes Care. 2011 May;34(5):1225–7.
  2. Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Dec;116(12):1970–80
  3. Huang R-Y, Huang C-C, Hu FB, Chavarro JE. Vegetarian Diets and Weight Reduction: a Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. J Gen Intern Med. 2016 Jan;31(1):109–16
  4. Yokoyama Y, Nishimura K, Barnard ND, Miyamoto Y. 22 – Blood Pressure and Vegetarian Diets. In: Mariotti F, editor. Vegetarian and Plant-Based Diets in Health and Disease Prevention. Academic Press; 2017. p. 395–413
  5. Oussalah A, Levy J, Berthezène C, Alpers DH, Guéant J-L. Health outcomes associated with vegetarian diets: An umbrella review of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Clin Nutr [Internet]. 2020 Mar 11; Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2020.02.037
  6. Espinosa A, Kadić-Maglajlić S. The Mediating Role of Health Consciousness in the Relation Between Emotional Intelligence and Health Behaviors. Front Psychol. 2018 Nov 8;9:2161
  7. Clarys P, Deliens T, Huybrechts I, Deriemaeker P, Vanaelst B, De Keyzer W, et al. Comparison of nutritional quality of the vegan, vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian and omnivorous diet. Nutrients. 2014 Mar 24;6(3):1318–32
  8. Lee-Kwan SH, Moore LV, Blanck HM, Harris DM, Galuska D. Disparities in State-Specific Adult Fruit and Vegetable Consumption – United States, 2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2017 Nov 17;66(45):1241–7.
  9. Martínez Steele E, Baraldi LG, Louzada ML da C, Moubarac J-C, Mozaffarian D, Monteiro CA. Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study. BMJ Open. 2016 Mar 9;6(3):e009892
  10. Watanabe F, Yabuta Y, Bito T, Teng F. Vitamin B12-Containing Plant Food Sources for Vegetarians. Nutrients. 2014 May;6(5):1861.
  11. Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Adv Nutr. 2012 Jan;3(1):1–7
  12. Gebauer SK, Psota TL, Harris WS, Kris-Etherton PM. n-3 fatty acid dietary recommendations and food sources to achieve essentiality and cardiovascular benefits. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Jun;83(6 Suppl):1526S – 1535S.
  13. Geerligs PDP, Brabin BJ, Omari AAA. Food prepared in iron cooking pots as an intervention for reducing iron deficiency anaemia in developing countries: a systematic review. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2003 Aug;16(4):275–81.

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