A plant-based diet means that the majority of your food consumption is from plants rather than animal origins. There are different variations of plant-based eating, ranging from flexitarians, who occasionally consume animal products, to vegans, who exclude all meat and products from animals.
There is strong evidence to suggest that plant-based diets have a positive effect on our health, including reducing the risks of developing many chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, obesity and some cancers.
Benefits of a plant-based diet extend beyond an individual’s health, having an impact on animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
Recreational and elite athletes can incorporate all variations of plant-based diets with careful planning.
If you choose to adopt a plant-based diet then consider your intake of protein, vitamin B12, iron and zinc, and make sure your doctor is aware so they can monitor key nutrients via a blood test.
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Where to Start?
There are a multitude of benefits for choosing a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet. Maybe you’re looking to improve your health or shed unwanted kilos? Are you concerned about the welfare of millions of animals? Or maybe environmental sustainability is where your true passion lies.
The truth is, choosing to adopt plant-based, vegetarian or vegan practises is much more than what you eat. It’s a lifestyle choice and it’s becoming more and more popular amongst athletes, celebrities and everyday people.
According to Google Trends, vegan interest has gained increasing momentum over the past 10 years in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and the UK. Unless you’re an all-or-nothing kind of person, you may have considered a vegan lifestyle but found it too difficult to sustain. Like many lifestyle practices, there are smaller steps you can take towards your goal, and this approach tends to be more realistic and sustainable in the long-run.
A good place to start is knowing what options you have. If your ultimate goal is to change to a vegan lifestyle, then work your way down the list of vegetarian diets. This will give you time to learn and adapt to the change without feeling deprived and overwhelmed.
Variations and definitions of vegetarianism
A relatively new term used to describe a diet that is predominantly plant-based, but doesn’t come with the commitment of completely eliminating meat and animal products.
A plant-based diet that includes poultry, fish and dairy products but excludes red meat.
A plant-based diet that includes fish and seafood, eggs and dairy products but excludes meat.
A plant-based diet that includes eggs and dairy products but excludes all other animal products.
A plant-based diet that includes dairy foods but excludes meat, poultry, fish and eggs.
Solely plant-based diet excluding all fish and animal products.
Predominantly a raw fruit diet but may include some nuts, seeds and vegetables (not recommended due to the high risk of nutrient deficiencies).
What are the benefits?
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, almost two out of three Australian adults were overweight or obese in 2014-15. Most of us at some point in our lives have tried to shed a few kilos, but exactly how to achieve weight loss success is highly controversial.
People following a vegan diet have been shown to eat less energy and more fibre than an omnivorous (meat-eating) diet, which is a proven method in achieving weight loss1. If we focus on filling our bellies with low-calorie, nutrient-dense plants then we won’t have room to indulge on less desirable choices like hamburgers and pies.
Reduced disease risk and longevity
The nutrient quality of vegetables and fruits are well known, but what is less known is the effects of a plant-based approach on major health issues that our Western culture is experiencing.
The Adventist Health Study showed that vegetarian dietary patterns were associated with lower Body Mass Index (BMI), lower prevalence and incidence of diabetes, lower prevalence of hypertension and metabolic syndrome, lower all-cause mortality, and lower risk of some types of cancer. The same study showed an impressive 48% decrease in risk of dying from breast cancer for those who followed vegetarian eating practices compared to an omnivorous diet2.
Vegetarians have also been found to have lower risks for diverticular disease and eye cataract3. Whilst vegan diets seem to offer additional protection and risk reduction for obesity, hypertension, type-2 diabetes and death from cardiovascular related issues4.
Due to the long list of benefits, one journal article suggests that all physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or obesity5.
There are multiple benefits from choosing a plant-based lifestyle that stretch beyond your health and nutrition. For example, many people choose to adopt a vegan lifestyle because of their concerns for animal cruelty or environmental sustainability. Vegan Australia explores many of these issues and is a great place to start if this interests you, too.
Reasons for dietary change is often a personal choice and people can feel very strongly about these issues, so it’s important to keep an open mind and show respect and empathy, even if you disagree with others’ opinions.
What about my fitness, training and muscle mass?
Research published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism showed that vegetarian-based diets do not hinder or enhance athletic performance compared with an omnivorous diet6. However, there is conflicting research to show some nutrients could be lacking in more restrictive types of plant-based diets.
Athletes who choose a plant-based diet, particularly vegan, should take special care in meal planning and preparation to ensure they are meeting their nutritional needs with the added demands of exercise.
Key nutrients to watch
Switching to a plant-based lifestyle is more than flicking the meat off your plate. Lean cuts of meat are valuable sources of protein and need to be substituted appropriately, meaning that you are consuming enough protein in your overall diet and it contains all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein).
Other forms of animal products, such as eggs, milk, cheese and yoghurt, contain protein and amino acids, so most vegetarians can reach their protein needs relatively easily. However, if you are an active person on a vegan diet, then sprinkling some chickpeas over your salad won’t cut it. You will need to plan your meals strategically to meet your nutrient needs. Canned chickpeas contain about 6.3g/100g protein, so it can be more convenient to supplement with True Plant Protein, as one serving provides the same amount of protein as 400g chickpeas.
Vitamin B12 is essential for normal nervous system function, homocysteine metabolism and DNA synthesis. It is found in foods from animal origins. Due to an absence of animal and dairy products, vegans are at an increased risk of developing vitamin B12 (cobalamin) deficiency. A deficiency can cause megaloblastic anaemia and can be detrimental to your health long-term, but a dietary supplement or regular B12 injection can be a simple solution1.
The main source of iron in a plant-based or vegan diet is non-haem iron, which is less bioavailable than the haem iron found in animal products1. This means not as much of it will be absorbed by your body and you could become deficient in iron.
If you exercise a lot and lose iron through sweating, your body will need additional iron to assist in transporting oxygen to working muscles. Symptoms of iron deficiency include tiredness, fatigue and frequent illness from a lowered immunity, so be sure to include lots of dark green leafy vegetables, fortified whole grains, nuts and seeds in your diet. Coupling your consumption of iron-rich foods with vitamin C can help to increase absorption.
If you suspect an inadequacy, seek advice from your doctor who can conduct a blood test. Self diagnosing iron deficiency could mean that you have missed an underlying health issue and excessive supplementation can interfere with the absorption of other minerals like copper.
Plant-based foods contain less of the mineral ‘zinc’ compared to animal proteins. This is important for those following a vegetarian or vegan diet, particularly because some plants can be high in phytates, such as legumes and grains, which lowers the absorption of zinc in our body. Whereas protein and amino acids have shown a positive effect on absorption7.
True ZMA contains 30mg of elemental zinc combined with magnesium and vitamin B6 in one single serve.
If you do choose a plant-based diet, it’s a good idea to make your doctor aware so key nutrients like protein, vitamin B12, iron and zinc can be monitored during your regular check-ups.
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Simples ways to eat more plants
Start small - If your goal is to adopt a vegan lifestyle, then start by reducing your consumption of animal products one step at a time. This will give you time to learn, trial and adapt to change, which will be more sustainable compared to an entire overhaul.
Meat Free Monday - By having at least one day that is meat-free per week you will be taking one step closer to a healthier and happier body, a cruelty-free world and a sustainable planet.
Try different recipes - There is a plethora of vegetarian and vegan recipes online and in the True blog, like our Raw Caramel Slice, yum! By incorporating a new recipe in your weekly meal prep you’ll learn new cooking techniques and flavour combinations to add to your repertoire.
Taste something new - Each week, pick a new vegetable or fruit that you usually wouldn’t eat. Try different ways to prepare or cook with it. Diversity in the diet encourages a healthy gut flora and a range of micronutrients.
Find your local farmers’ market - Your local farmers’ market will have an abundance of seasonal, fresh and organic produce. Often you can chat with the growers themselves who offer a wealth of knowledge when it comes to their fruits and vegetables, and I personally love hearing the story ‘from paddock to plate’.
- Rogerson D. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2017;14:36. doi:10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9.
- Orlich MJ, Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets in the Adventist Health Study 2: a review of initial published findings. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014;100(1):353S-358S. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.071233.
- Appleby, P., & Key, T. (2016). The long-term health of vegetarians and vegans. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 75(3), 287-293. doi:10.1017/S0029665115004334
- Le LT, Sabaté J. Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings from the Adventist Cohorts. Nutrients. 2014;6(6):2131-2147. doi:10.3390/nu6062131.
- Tuso PJ, Ismail MH, Ha BP, Bartolotto C. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal. 2013;17(2):61-66. doi:10.7812/TPP/12-085.
- Joel C. Craddock, Yasmine C. Probst, and Gregory E. Peoples. Vegetarian and Omnivorous Nutrition—Comparing Physical Performance. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2016. 26:3, 212-220.
- Bo Lönnerdal; Dietary Factors Influencing Zinc Absorption, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 130, Issue 5, 1 May 2000, Pages 1378S–1383S, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/130.5.1378S