The beginning of a new year has us setting all kinds of resolutions and more often than not, trying to stick to weird eating plans. And, if you saw or heard the hype around The Game Changers documentary on Netflix about the benefits of plant-based eating, then you probably tried to be vegan for about two days – seriously, check it out! It got us thinking, is a plant-based diet better for your health and is this something we should seriously consider?
We decided to do our own research, so we spoke to Amelia Freer, one of the UK’s leading nutritional therapists and healthy eating experts, and author of the cookbook Simply Good For You. Amelia literally spilled some insane nutrition knowledge and all the pros and cons of a plant-based dite, so get your notebook out, this is going to be good!
In case you’re wondering – what exactly is a plant-based diet? – well, you’re not alone. We put the question to Amelia, who told us that the definition is quite varied but mostly “A plant-based diet is one that is based mainly around fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and nuts/seeds. The term often includes both vegan and vegetarian diets.” She also explained that “Some people also use the term plant-based to mean a diet that is mostly made up of plants, but might include a small amount of fish, eggs, dairy or meat on occasion.”
However, most importantly, the focus of a plant-based diet is one that “Maximizes intake of nutrient-dense whole plant foods but minimizes processed foods, refined oils, and animal foods. It includes a wide variety of different foods, and is brightly colorful.”
So now you’re probably wondering, what are the benefits? Well, we asked Amelia everything about the pros and cons, and how you can start on your plant-based journey.
The Benefits Of A Plant-Based Diet
Alongside the fact that a well-rounded plant-based diet should focus heavily on nutrient-rich food, which is, of course, amazing for your skin, Amelia tells us there is also evidence that it may “potentially be beneficial for cardiovascular health, blood glucose control, and weight management.” However, Amelia does say they’re not yet sure “whether these potential benefits are due to the increased intake of plants, or reduced intake of animal products.”
Another plus that Amelia highlights are non-nutritional benefits, “This way of eating generally requires less land, energy, and water to produce than a diet high in animal products. These potential benefits on greenhouse gas emissions are often the motivation for making the transition.”
Plant-Based Diet Cautions
“Exclusion of animal products may reduce the intake of certain important nutrients, which may ultimately lead to nutritional deficiencies. This might be particularly important for women who are one day planning to become pregnant, or for children/ adolescents who are still growing,” Amelia tells us.
It’s also important to note that just because you’re not eating meat or dairy, it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily eating healthily. Amelia highlights that a diet “high in refined grains, juices, processed foods, sugary drinks, and other processed snack foods may increase the risk of various long-term conditions – just as any other ultra-processed diet could do.”
Amelia also points out that, “As with any restrictive diet, there is also the potential risk of developing anxiety or excessive worry around food, which may go on to negatively impact your social or emotional health.”
Can a Plant-Based Diet Encourage Weight Loss?
Again, this depends on the composition of your plant-based diet. As Amelia highlighted, “There are plenty of unhealthy and ultra-processed plant-based options available,” so plant-based doesn’t automatically equal a healthy diet. Especially as Amelia tells us there’s a “rapid rise in the availability of vegan ‘fast food’ and sweet snack products, many of which are very energy-dense.”
However, Amelia does say that “Eating a mostly whole foods plant-based diet – one that contains plentiful fresh fruits and vegetables (especially green leafy vegetables), unrefined whole grains (such as brown rice, oats, and quinoa), nuts, seeds, nut butters, olive oil, pulses (lentils, chickpeas, cannellini beans, red kidney beans, peas etc) and perhaps some soy products (like tofu, tempeh, and edamame beans) – may be a good way to support healthy weight loss for some people.”
“Whole foods generally tend to be higher in nutrient density but lower in energy density. This means you can have a satisfying, nourishing meal but still stay within a sensible energy balance for the day. Over time, this can potentially lead to weight loss – if necessary. But I generally prefer to focus on overall health and wellbeing, rather than weight alone, as I think this is more important in the long term,” and we couldn’t agree more.
How to Do a Plant-Based Diet Properly
To ensure you’re consuming a balanced diet for your body and to help balance your energy levels, Amelia says there are two key things to consider: “The first is to make sure that the macronutrients you are eating (the breakdown of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) are in a sensible balance. So, making sure you’re having some sort of plant-based protein (such as legumes, nuts, seeds or soy products), and a small portion of healthy fats [avocado, salmon, olive oil], at every meal. Plant-based diets tend to have plenty of carbohydrates in them already from the fruits, vegetables, pulses, and grains.”
Another important issue not to be overlooked is your iron levels, “Particularly if you are having regular periods, it is really important to get enough iron into your diet,” Amelia insists. She continues, “However, the iron found in plants is generally less readily absorbed than the iron in meat or fish, so it can take a little more planning to ensure you’re getting enough. Sources of plant-based iron include legumes, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and some fortified foods. Try to have some vitamin C at the same meal (tomatoes, peppers or citrus fruit are good sources) to boost absorption. Soaking and sprouting nuts, grains or pulses before cooking can also help to optimize absorption of iron.” Amelia also advises that if you have any concerns about this, it’s worth speaking to your doctor.
How to Transition to a Plant-Based Diet
Amelia says most importantly “Make sure you are informed about how to have a balanced and nutritionally-replete plant-based diet. It is more than possible to eat well without any animal products, but there are certain nutrients, such as Vitamins B12, D, zinc, iron, selenium, iodine, calcium, for example, that may require more thought and planning than if you were eating an omnivorous diet.”
To make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need, Amelia highlights that you should know “which foods important nutrients are found in, and the best ways to prepare them to maximize nutrient absorption.” Then ensure you’re getting enough of these each week. Amelia suggests focusing on foods you should include, rather than what you want to exclude, and recommends seeing a healthcare provider or qualified nutrition professional for advice to help ensure you’re getting all the various essential nutrients you need.
Amelia also points out that dietary choices don’t have to be all-or-nothing and says, “Consuming a mainly whole food, plant-based diet is likely to have benefits for ourselves and the planet, but occasionally having some well-chosen animal products may also be OK.” To begin, she advises “Start by taking a few small steps, such as replacing some meat or fish-based meals with pulses and nuts as the protein source or increasing your intake of fresh fruit & vegetables. It doesn’t all have to happen at once.”
Also, check out Amelia’s cookbook, Simply Good For You, which contains lots of nutritionally-balanced, delicious plant-based recipes. Amelia’s website is also a haven for healthy eating tips and recipes, and this guide on how to build a healthy plate is a great place to start – we sidetracked for over an hour bookmarking recipes while writing this!!
Who Should Avoid a Plant-Based Diet?
According to Amelia, more caution should be taken if you are “Planning pregnancy, pregnant or breastfeeding, [and with] young children and adolescents, those with specific nutritional requirements (high-performance athletes, people with underlying medical conditions, those with pre-existing nutrient deficiencies etc.), or who have a complex emotional relationship with food, where the restrictive ‘rules’ of being plant-based may be triggering.”
Another consideration Amelia points out is “There are also some people who might find that a higher fiber diet worsens their digestive symptoms, or who really struggle to maintain their iron levels without any animal products. As always with nutrition, there is no one-size-fits-all.”
Finally, Amelia says “We need to take responsibility for the fact that we are all unique, and what works for one person may not necessarily work so well for us.”
So, the key takeaways: A plant-based diet that is nutritionally balanced can be great for your health and undoubtedly your skin as well. However, if this is a drastic change to your current diet or you have any kind of nutrient deficiencies, it’s definitely worthwhile discussing your plans with a healthcare advisor or nutritionist.
Would you guys try this? Or are you already on a plant-based diet? Let us know about your journey in the comments below.