Plant Based Nutrition
When it comes to plant-based lifestyle one’s approach to nutrition will be slightly different to that of an omnivorous approach. The basic principles of nutrition; 24-hour energy balance, macronutrients, micronutrients, etc. are the same but the practical application of that will be slightly different. Here are the main differences.
First of all, let us just clarify what we mean by ‘plant-based’. Any diet that places an emphasis on vegetables, fruits and whole grains is plant based. So, it is possible to eat meat and still consider your diet to be plant based. IN fact, if you follow the advice in Ben Coomber’s The Journey then your diet will be about 80% plant based anyway.
However, the popular concept of plant-based dieting means vegetarian. A vegetarian diet is one that is almost exclusively based around eating plant foods with a handful of exceptions. Here are the types of vegetarian diets:
• Lacto-ovo-vegetarian, the most common form where both dairy and eggs are still consumed.
• Lacto-vegetarian, where dairy but not eggs are consumed
• Ovo-vegetarian, where eggs are consumed but not dairy
• Vegan, no animal or animal bi-products are consumed
Pescetarian diets include fish which technically isn’t vegetarian but often gets counted as such.
The reason most people choose to follow a vegetarian diet is due to concerns about animal welfare, which is a sound and ethical reason for choosing to avoid meat. Some people choose plant-based diets for health reasons, although there is no evidence to suggest that avoiding meat (1) is necessary for health, there are concerns over red and, in particular, processed meats (2) and their, albeit weak, link to an increased risk of cancer.
The Main Differences
The advice we give about nutrition on the GymCube site still applies to plant based dieting but the biggest difference is with protein. A plant based diet would, ideally, be high in micronutrient-rich plant foods and fibre. In fact, by default a plant based diet would likely have a much higher fibre content than an omnivorous diet which is a good thing.
But, because most plant foods have a poor amino acid profile they are generally low in protein. As protein is necessary for growth and repair it is essential for active people. It’s also highly satiating which means that consuming more protein can lead you to eat less over the day. This obviously supports weight loss.
All animal protein sources have a complete amino acid profile, meaning that they contain all the essential amino acids which the body can’t create on it’s own. Very few plant-based protein sources contain all the essential amino acids which makes it necessary to consume a variety of plant-based protein sources. It isn’t necessary to combine these sources at each meal so long as you get a good mix throughout the day.
The Protein Sources
So, what are the best sources of protein in a plant-based diet? Because Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can have dairy and eggs the most protein dense sources are:
• Eggs (about 5-8 g per egg depending on the size)
• Cheese (about 20-30g per 100g but also high in fat and calories)
• Yoghurt (about 5-0g per 100g with Greek yoghurt having the highest protein content)
• Milk (about 5g per 100ml)
So, you can see that the protein amount are still quite low compared with lean meats and cheese is very high in calories so make sure you are tracking those kcals.
There are, of course, meat substitutes suitable for vegetarians and vegans and these tend to be lean (low in fat and calories) and higher in complete proteins than most other plant-based option, these include:
• Tofu (about 8g per 100g)
• Quorn (about 15g per 100g) Quorn may not be suitable for vegans
• Tempeh (about 19g per 100g)
• Soy meat (around 26g per 50g serving)
It’s necessary to know that some people have an intolerance to soy and should pay attention to how their body reacts to these products.
Other protein sources for plant based diets include nuts and seeds which tend to contain about 50% fat and 10-25% protein. This means that these are high-calorie options and care should be taken when portioning these out. The * denotes a complete amino acid profile.
• Hemp seeds* (About 30g protein and 45g fats per 100g)
• Flax seeds (about 18g protein and 42g fats per 100g)
• Sunflower seeds (about 21g protein and 52g fat per 100g)
• Peanuts (about 26g protein 42g fats per 100g)
• Almonds (about 21g protein and 49g fats per 100g)
• Cashews (about 18g protein and 44g fats per 100g)
• Walnuts (about 18g protein and 65g fats per 100g)
You can see that the quantity and quality of the protein varies in these examples. These foods also contain some carbohydrates and fibre and the fats are mostly either poly or monounsaturated fatty acids which are the so-called ‘good fats’.
Further to this pulses are also known to be a good source of protein for vegetarians and vegans but, again, they are generally higher in carbs than they are protein which makes it important to read the nutrition labels and pay attention to your tracking device when recording your food intake.
• Lentils (about 9g protein and 20g carbohydrate per 100g)
• Chickpeas (about 9g protein and 26g carbohydrate per 100g)
• Black beans (about 8g protein and 24g carbohydrate per 100g)
• Adzuki beans (about 8g protein and 26g carbohydrate per 100g)
• Edamame beans* (about 11g protein and 10g carbohydrate per 100g)
• Baked beans (about 6g protein and 22g carbohydrate per 100g)
The above amounts are all in their cooked form because the volume of food changes from their dry or uncooked form to their cooked form due to water absorption.
Lastly grains also contain protein, albeit it in low amounts but it’s important to understand that combining pulses and grains will give you a better balance of amino acids. Beans on toast anyone?
• Wheat flour (About 10g protein and 76g carbohydrates per 100g)
• Buckwheat flour* (About 11g protein and 75g carbohydrate per serving)
• Wholewheat bread (about 10g protein and 49g carbohydrate per 100g)
• Rye bread (about 9g protein and 48g carbohydrate per 100g)
• Oats (about 17g protein and 66g carbohydrate per 100g)
It’s important to know that wheat grains contain gluten and are unsuitable to anyone with coeliacs disease or other gluten sensitivities.
These foods are only touching the surface but so long as you read the nutrition labels on your food products and pay attention to the info in your tracking device (if recording your nutrition and calories) you will quickly learn to understand the composition of the foods you eat most frequently.
Of course, there is the option of including protein powders in your diet. These aren’t just for post workout shakes, you can also use them to make high protein smoothies, mixing into porridge, add to baking, etc. a whey protein, like Awesome Whey protein, is the most effective source of protein if you are including dairy. Otherwise you can have pea, hemp or rice proteins. Just be aware that the plain plant based protein powders aren’t palatable on their own.
The general recommendation for protein intake for active people is 1.2-2g per kg of bodyweight. Vegetarians and vegans may have to accept the lower end of that scale unless using a lot of protein powders to supplement their protein intake.
Vitamin and Mineral Deficiencies
Common vitamin and mineral deficiencies for plant-based eaters include B12, D and calcium while and long chain Omega 3 (3). Many plant-based foods like nuts and seeds contain the plant form of omega 3 ALA but this isn’t as useful in the body and DHA and EPA, mostly sourced from fish or kelp. There are vegan-friendly seaweed sources of EPA and DHA available but they are expensive, hard to find and have very low dosages. This isn’t a prescription to go out and get an EPA/DHA supplement just something to think about. But many vegans do supplements with B12 and sometimes also zinc and iron too.