How to eat a healthy plant-based diet

By Nicky Gilbert

Traditionally, we have tended to define our food preferences by ‘eating meat’ or ‘being vegetarian’. Nowadays, we have many other variations e.g. veganism, flexitarianism, semi-vegetarianism and pescetarianism – some of these may include small amounts of meat or fish or dairy, but all are plant-based.

Our reasons for cutting back on meat, or choosing to eat more meat-free and dairy-free alternatives, can vary. You might have nutritional, financial or ethical motivations. Perhaps you have particular concerns for the welfare and future of our planet. Whatever your reasons, adopting a plant-based approach to eating can be a healthy choice for you, and also beneficial to our planet and our fellow Earth dwellers!

Wednesday, April 22, was the 50th International Earth Day and there were some great social media posts and images shared and that has inspired me to share more information with you about how to eat a healthy plant-based diet.

Did you know?

  • Our eating habits are having an adverse impact on the environment and we are endangering the future of our planet
  • Food production contributes 15-30% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK – contributing significantly to global warming
  • Agriculture and livestock farming are big contributors to deforestation, biodiversity loss and soil pollution.

We can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through making simple changes to our eating habits by:

  • Consuming less meat and dairy and eating a plant-based diet
  • Choosing to eat locally sourced and seasonal foods
  • Being less wasteful by not buying more food than we need, using left-overs and throwing less away.

What actually is a ‘plant-based’ diet?

A plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean total avoidance of all animal products. Simply making changes to eat more fruit, vegetables, beans, pulses and wholegrains and less meat and dairy can be a substantial step in the right direction.

Instead of meat, chicken, fish or eggs being the main focus of your meal or snack, try basing your meal on wholegrains and high-fibre starchy foods such as jacket potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, rice, pasta and noodles, couscous, bulgur wheat or quinoa. These foods are not only ‘plant-based’ but typically cheaper, filling, fibre-rich and excellent sources of carbohydrate for energy.

You can either replace animal sources of protein by swapping with plant-based protein-rich sources – all types of beans, pulses, nuts, lentils, tofu and soya products, and Quorn – or you could simply choose to reduce your portions of meat, chicken and fish and add protein-rich lentils, beans, nuts to enrich your dishes.

Some simple and tasty plant-based dishes

  • Baked beans on granary toast  – try adding a little spice to your beans and serving with avocado
  • Chilli made with Quorn mince, kidney beans and peppers – serve with rice or as a filling for baked sweet potatoes
  • Lentil soup served with flatbread, humous with vegetable sticks
  • Mushroom risotto – try making with pearl barley and adding spinach
  • Pesto pasta sprinkled with toasted pine nuts and a mixed side-salad

What makes a plant-based diet healthy?

Replacing meat and processed meat products e.g. burgers, sausages, pies with plant sources of protein, is a positive way to reduce salt and fat, especially saturated fat. It also provides an opportunity to eat more fibre and antioxidant nutrients, such as Vitamins C, A, beta carotene and potassium, as well as the health promoting chemicals ‘polyphenols’, which are abundant in colourful fruit and vegetables.

Are plant-based diets always healthy?

Diets based on a wide variety of plant foods can offer affordable, tasty and nutritious options. However, a plant-based diet of processed foods can be high in sugar, white flour, salt, hydrogenated vegetable fats and low in fibre, and certainly won’t be healthy or balanced.

Meat, poultry, fish and dairy are rich sources of essential micronutrients so simply cutting out these animal products, without very carefully choosing plant-based alternatives, can mean inadequate intakes and ultimately lead to deficiencies.

Top tips for a nutritious and healthy plant-based diet

  • Dairy foods are rich sources of calcium. If you choose to cut down on milk, cheese and yoghurt make sure that you choose calcium and Vitamin D enriched dairy alternatives and eat figs, almonds, leafy green vegetables, red kidney beans, sesame seeds, tahini and tofu which also provide some calcium.
  • Fish, seafood and dairy products are our major sources of iodine which is essential for brain development and cognition. It may be wise to continue to eat small amounts of these foods to meet iodine requirements if you are not a strict vegan. Otherwise, you are recommended to seek advice on safe supplementation.
  • If you choose not to eat fish you can replace essential fatty acids with plant sources found in walnuts, flax or linseed, hemp seeds, chia seeds and soya beans. Rapeseed and flaxseed oil are good sources of omega 3 and ideal choices for cooking.
  • Meat and poultry are rich sources of iron, so be sure to eat plenty of iron-rich alternatives (fortified breakfast cereals, dried fruits, wholegrains, nuts, green leafy vegetables, seeds and pulses) and combine with good sources of Vitamin C (citrus fruits and juices, strawberries, peppers, green leafy vegetables) to promote absorption of iron by the body.
  • It’s best to avoid drinking tea with meals as this can hinder iron
  • Phytates in wholegrains and beans can impede zinc absorption so compensate by choosing rich sources such as fermented soya (tempeh and miso) nuts, seeds and fortified breakfast cereals.
  • Most people get their Vitamin B12 from animal products. If you are eliminating all animal-derived foods then you will need to rely on supplements and fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, yeast extracts, soya yoghurts and dairy-free milk alternatives.
  • You may need to seek advice from a dietitian if you are eliminating all animal products and unsure of meeting the needs of your body and your lifestyle.

RECIPE OF THE WEEK

Moroccan chickpea and vegetable tagine with harissa couscous

Nutritional features:  Vegan, low GI, high fibre, good source of vegetable protein, plant-based dish

Ingredients for tagine to serve four

1 red onion

2 courgettes, sliced

500g sweet potato, diced

50g dried apricots, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

2-3 coriander stalks, chopped

2 x 400g tins chickpeas, drained and rinsed

Juice of 1 lemon

2tsp cumin

1 pinch of cinnamon

400g chopped tomatoes

2 tbsp olive oil (or rapeseed or flaxseed)

Ground black pepper to season

If you don’t have all the herbs, spices and flavours, leave them out or experiment with what you already have in your cupboard.

Ingredients for harissa couscous as a side dish for four

200g couscous

½ bunch spring onions, finely sliced

1 tbsp chopped mint

125g halved cherry tomatoes

200ml hot vegetable stock

1 level tsp of harissa paste

1tbsp olive oil

Juice of ½ lemon

Method for tagine

1.    Peel and finely chop the onion

2.    Warm a large pan and add 2 tbsp oil and onion. Add pepper and gently sweat with lid on, stirring occasionally until onion is soft.

3.    Add courgettes and sweet potatoes to the onion. Replace the lid and sweat for another 10 mins. Stir in dried apricots, garlic, coriander and add cumin, turmeric and cinnamon. Cook and stir for 1 min.

4.    Tip the chickpeas into the pan and add chopped tomatoes. Squeeze lemon juice over pan and pour in 900 ml water. Bring to boil and simmer for about 20 min until the vegetables are tender.

5.    Grind black pepper to taste

Method for couscous

1.   Add spring onions, mint and tomatoes to couscous in a heatproof dish

2.   Mix harissa into hot vegetable stock and pour onto couscous.

3.   Stir and cover with a plate.

4.   Leave for 5 mins and then pour olive oil and lemon juice and stir through

Accompaniments

Ideal with broccoli or a selection of green vegetables and flat bread, pitta or sourdough

This recipe can be easily adapted to suit the ingredients in your fridge or store-cupboard. You can use all types of vegetables and add tofu or Quorn.

For more information on plant-based diet and sustainability

http://p4snutrition.co.uk – Philip Woodbridge MSc BA (Hons) SENr has a wealth of information on plant-based diets for people who lead active lives, including those running and training.

https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/plant-based-diet.html – Food fact sheet on plant-based diets from the British Dietetic Association.

https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/one-blue-dot.html – One Blue Dot is the BDA’s Environmentally Sustainable Diet Project. On these pages you will find a toolkit of information, graphics, tools and links to help improve your understanding of environmentally-sustainable diets.

 

Nicky Gilbert is a freelance dietitian, lecturer and Registered Sport and Exercise Nutritionist with 30 years experience in the field. For many years she worked with the players at Nottingham Forest Football Club as well as supporting other national teams and Olympians. As well as working with DIS athletes, she also works with industry to support health and wellbeing in the workplace as an accredited BDA Work Ready Dietitian.

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