In 2018 there were said to be 600,000 vegans in the UK, this is 4 times higher than the number in 2014 and is still rising sharply each year. Whilst this number is growing, so is the number of people that take a more flexible approach to their diet (known as flexitarian). 50% of people now say they have eaten meat-free alternative foods (e.g. burgers). Many people are reducing the amount of meat they eat and eating more plant-based meals, with the main reasons being for their health and also their concern for the impact on the environment. There are a number of campaigns and initiatives that encourage this including meat free Monday’s and Veganuary, all driving the growth behind plant based eating.
As the number of people eating plant based food grows, so does the array of products on offer in our supermarkets. It is still all too easy to eat an unhealthy plant-based meal with the number of heavily processed meat alternative meals and ready meals available on the market. Eating plant based can also come with its own nutritional challenges by taking out whole food groups such as meat and dairy, but with a bit of knowledge and planning these are easy to overcome.
What does a health balanced plant based plate look like?
There are some things to remember when planning your meal and these are the food groups you should look to include on your plate:
- Protein – e.g. beans, legumes etc.
- Healthy fats – e.g. nuts, seeds, avocado, extra virgin olive oil etc.
- Carbohydrates – e.g. grains, starchy vegetables, fruit etc.
- Vegetables – variety is key, eat the rainbow
You can use a vast array of herbs and spices to add flavour to your dishes too.
Portion sizes and sources
This is the area where there are the most myths and misconceptions with many believing you can’t get enough protein from a plant based diet but this is simply not true. There are many sources of plant based proteins and it is best to eat these in combinations and get variety to ensure you get the full array of amino acids essential for the body that are derived from protein. Requirements for protein do vary with age, gender, and activity levels, but the recommended daily intake (RNI) for protein is 0.75g per kilogram body weight per day in adults.
Nuts & Seeds: These are easy to throw into salads, porridge or a smoothie or even have as a snack. They typically contain around 20g of protein per 100g. Nut butters are a great source of protein.
Beans & Lentil: Can be used as meat alternatives in many dishes, put in stews and soups and turned into dips. They typically contain around 20g of protein per 100g.
Soya foods: These include tofu, tempeh and seitan and can be used in many meals as the main meat alternative, especially good in curries and stir-fries and they taste great when marinated. Tofu contains about 8g of protein per 100g and seitan has 75g of protein per 100g.
Healthy fats are needed in our diets to ensure we get an adequate intake of Omega 3, something normally obtained by eating oily fish.
Nuts and seeds: as well as being a good source of protein they are a great source of healthy fats. especially those rich in omega-3 fat such as walnuts and flaxseed. Chia and hemp seeds are also good sources.
It can be hard for the body to convert these fats into EPA and DHA which are required by the body in particular for brain and heart health so if you are eating a completely vegan diet, it may be worth supplementing with algae derived omega 3 supplements.
Obvious sources of carbohydrates include foods like pasta, rice, and oats. If you are having these then you should always try and have wholewheat versions that break down slower as all carbohydrates break down into sugar and these release that sugar into the bloodstream slower than the white varieties. Each portion should be no more than 75g per person of rice or pasta and 35-40g of oats.
Vegetables are often the forgotten or unknown source of carbohydrates so see below for details on eating vegetables.
Vegetables are packed with fibre, essential vitamins and minerals, and a variety of phytochemicals all of which are vital for good health. The natural chemicals in many fruits and vegetables also act as powerful antioxidants which protect the body from harmful free radicals (found in pollutants) that can cause disease.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend that adults should be eating 5 portions of 80g a day of fruit and vegetables. An easy way to think of a portion is as 1 portion is the size of your fist.
Things to remember when choosing your fruit and vegetables:
- Eat the rainbow – the different colours in fruits and vegetables are derived from different nutrients and antioxidants within them, so eating a variety of colours will increase your amount and variety of nutrients.
- Eat seasonally – they are more likely to have been grown locally and will taste better
- Have more vegetables than fruit each day
- Don’t eat too much dried fruit. A 30g portion does count towards your 5 a day but these are high concentrations of sugar. Try to have with your main meals and not as snacks to limit the impact of the sugar.
- Use the freezer. Frozen foods are a wonderful way of keeping vegetables on hand and are often just as nutrient dense as fresh varieties.
- Be careful how you cook your vegetables. Nutrients in fruit and vegetables can be easily destroyed when heated. Whenever possible, steam or roast rather than boil to retain the maximum amount of nutrients.
If you are looking to change your diet and want to go more plant-based then get in touch with Helen at Nutritionist London to book a consultation and get the support you need to get you started on your journey to a healthier way of eating.