healthy food

The health benefits of going plant-based

Thinking of switching to a plant-based diet? Then you’re in good company: according to the vegan charity Viva!, approximately three per cent of the UK’s population (that’s roughly 2 million people) now identify as vegan, with a further 33.5 per cent making a concerted effort to cut down their meat consumption.



a person standing in front of a brick building: Nutritionist Naomi Mead chats about the advantages of plant-based diets, eating more fruit and vegetables and less animal-based foods.


© SolStock – Getty Images
Nutritionist Naomi Mead chats about the advantages of plant-based diets, eating more fruit and vegetables and less animal-based foods.

If you’re thinking about joining the club, there are many great reasons to do so, from improved health to environmental and ethical concerns – and it’s a great budget-friendly lifestyle choice, too.

But just what does a plant-based diet entail – and what’s the best way to get started? We spoke to Toni Vernelli, from Veganuary about how to leave animal products off your plate and still enjoy a rich and varied diet.

What is a plant-based diet?

As the name suggests, a plant-based diet is one that puts plants centre stage, while omitting animal products, including meat, dairy and eggs. However, as Vernelli says, while it’s often explained in terms of what is cut out, it would be far better to view it in terms of all the amazing foods it can open your eyes (and tastebuds!) to.

‘A plant-based diet is often defined by what is omitted: meat, fish, eggs, dairy and honey, plus some of the animal ingredients that are hidden away in products, such as whey, gelatine and cochineal,’ says Vernelli. ‘But it should really be defined by all of the delicious vegetables, grains, fruit, nuts, beans, pulses and seeds we do eat!

It’s true that deciding to be plant-based can actually offer so much more variety, as you try vegetables and other plant-based options you wouldn’t have considered before. This more positive approach can help you make the switch with enthusiasm and creativity in your cooking.

‘One thing new vegans often report is their culinary repertoire increases significantly once they stop relying on the same seven evening meals on repeat, and start investigating a whole new world of taste, flavours and ingredients. After all, there are hundreds of thousands of edible plants in the world, and we tend to eat just a handful! So going into your new plant-based diet with a sense of adventure and experimentation will make it much more exciting and rewarding.’

The best plant-based foods to fill up on

While ‘plant-based’ sounds like it should automatically be healthy, it’s perfectly possible to eat plant-based junk food too. However, Vernelli says it’s easy to stick to a diet that’s as good for you as it is for the planet if you’re prepared to do some research and shop around.

‘It’s common sense, really,’ she says. ‘Eat a balanced diet based on whole grains, legumes, fruits, proteins and healthy fats, and limit processed and sugary foods to occasional treats.’

People tend to panic about how vegans (and even vegetarians) can get enough protein, iron and calcium, but as long as your diet is varied, you’ll likely be covering all the bases without even thinking about it. Here’s how to get enough nutrients on a plant-based diet:

Protein

Think you need meat to get your protein hit? Think again! The list of plant-based protein sources is long. According to Vernelli some of the best plant-based sources of protein include:

  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Black beans
  • Baked beans
  • Edamame
  • Seeds
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Rice and grains
  • Vegan sausages made from pea or soy protein

Calcium

If you’ve been brought up to believe dairy is the primary source of calcium, you might be surprised to discover how readily available it is in plant-based sources.

‘Beans and greens tend to be calcium-rich, so eat plenty, including black turtle beans, kidney beans, soya beans, kale, watercress, okra and broccoli,’ says Vernelli. ‘You’ll also find calcium in sweet potato, butternut squash and tofu, and if you snack on dried figs and almonds, you’ll be getting a calcium hit again. Plant milks and yogurts are often fortified with it, too.’

Iron

Even Popeye the Sailor knows you don’t need meat to hit your iron quota. ‘To ensure you eat your daily requirement of iron, start your day with a breakfast of oats, or a cereal that is already fortified with it,’ says Vernelli. ‘Sprinkle some seeds and dried fruit on top, and you may just have reached your daily intake before you even leave the house!’ she adds. According to Vernelli, plant- based foods containing good sources of iron include:

  • Edamame beans
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Beans
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Quinoa
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Watercress
  • Kale and other dark green leafy vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Dark chocolate

And when it comes to iron, it’s not just about quantity. ‘Be sure to eat plenty of vitamin C to help you absorb it and avoid drinking coffee or tea with your meal,’ says Vernelli.

Essential fatty acids

Omega-3 is most often associated with fish, but there are plant-based sources available. ‘Omega-6 can be found plentifully in leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains and most vegetable oils – in fact, it’s very easy to get sufficient omega-6 on a balanced vegan diet,’ says Vernelli.

‘But this fat competes with omega-3 for use in the body, and so we need to make sure we are getting sufficient omega-3 every day,’ she adds.

The best sources of plant-based omega-3 includes:

  • Walnuts
  • tofu
  • Soya beans
  • Rapeseed oil
  • Ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil
  • Leafy green vegetables (Brussels sprouts, kale and spinach)

Should you take supplements on a plant-based diet?

While you can get almost all of the nutrients you need to stay healthy from a plant-based diet, it’s recommended that you take the following supplements:

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin for the formation of red blood cells, the regulation of the nervous system and the health of our hearts, says Vernelli. ‘We absolutely must be sure we get sufficient, and for this reason we advise vegans to take a supplement – and not just vegans!’ she says. ‘The Institute of Medicine recommends a B12 supplement for everyone over the age of 50, as well as those with coeliac disease, Crohn’s disease, pancreas dysfunction and those who use certain medicines.’

Iodine

Iodine is a mineral needed to maintain the thyroid hormones and adults need very little – just 150mcg a day – but it’s not always easy to find, says Vernelli. ‘The main source is fish, as sea creatures get their iodine from the waters they live in, which is also what makes seaweed a rich natural source, but the levels vary,’ she explains. ‘Some plant milks are fortified with it, but not all, and some salt is iodised, but not all. So to ensure an adequate daily dose of iodine, most vegans should consider a vitamin that contains it.’

Vitamin D

Many of us are low in Vitamin D, particularly in the winter months, irrespective of our diet, says Vernelli. ‘Be out in the sunshine as much as possible and look out for dairy-free margarines, breakfast cereals and breads that are fortified with it. In the winter months, it’s recommended we all supplement with vitamin D.’

The benefits of a plant-based diet

The advantages of switching to a plant-based diet are tenfold, with advocates reporting a variety of health improvements, as well as a clearer conscience due to the reduced impact a plant-based diet has on the planet – and not forgetting the welfare of animals.

According to Veganuary (the charity that encourages people to follow a vegan diet for the month of January each year), a whopping 38 per cent of participants sign up for health reasons – and the evidence is compelling:

Disease prevention

Research has shown that following a plant-based diet can prevent and even reverse chronic diseases. ‘There is substantial evidence showing that a balanced, plant-based diet reduces our risk of suffering some of the most common – and deadly – diseases,’ says Vernelli. ‘Research has repeatedly shown that vegans suffer less from heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and some cancers.

Body benefits

Plant-based diet fans have reported a number of body benefits. ‘Some of the most common health improvements reported by Veganuary participants include a desired change in body weight, clearer skin, increased energy and better mood,’ says Vernelli.

Environmental and ethical benefits

It might surprise you just how much animal agriculture contributes to climate change but, if you do a little digging, the evidence is alarming. ‘Animal agriculture is one of the leading contributors of climate-changing emissions,’ says Vernelli.

‘In fact, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has stated that animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5 per cent of human-induced emissions – which makes animal products more damaging than the exhaust from every car, plane, bus, truck, train and ship on the planet. Animal agriculture is also incredibly wasteful. It uses vast amounts of land, water and energy, while giving us fewer calories back in meat, milk and eggs than we fed to the animals.’

The impact of a plant-based diet

If you decide to try a plant-based diet, don’t underestimate the difference you as an individual can make, even if it’s just over a short period of time, or you decide to have a certain number of plant-based days a week.

‘More than one million people have already completed Veganuary’s one-month challenge since it began in 2014, and new statistics compiled by Dr Helen Harwatt from Harvard University’s Animal Law and Policy program show that their collective impact has been huge,’ says Vernelli.

If that’s not enough to convince you, according to the stats going plant-based has led to the following environmental benefits:

  • 103,840 tonnes of CO2eq have been saved, equivalent to driving around the world almost 15,000 times.
  • 405 tonnes of PO43-eq (eutrophication) have been saved, the same as 1,645 tonnes of sewage.
  • 6.2 million litres of water have been saved, the same as flushing the toilet almost half a million times.
  • Additionally, more than 3.4 million animals have been saved, according to the Vegan Society’s Veganalyser calculations.

Switching to a plant-based diet

There is no right or wrong way to embark on a plant-based diet, and the way you choose to do so is entirely your decision. Some people like to make a complete overnight switch, while others prefer to make the move gradually, starting with one or two plant-based days a week and increasing gradually, until you completely cut out the animal produce from your diet. This can be across days or months – again, it’s your choice.

How to stick with a plant-based diet

Once you’ve made the switch to plant-based, you might be surprised how quickly you notice a positive difference, and this alone can motivate you to stick with it.

‘Many Veganuary participants report that they feel much better after 31 days on a plant-based diet and that is their motivation to continue,’ says Vernelli. ‘For others, it is the sense of satisfaction from aligning their actions with their beliefs that keeps them going after their Veganuary pledge ends.’

If you find your motivation or enthusiasm starts to wane, here are a few tips on how to keep your enthusiasm for your new plant-based way of life high:

1.Find your tribe

It’s easy to feel isolated as a new vegan, but there are millions out there, says Vernelli. ‘Find your local vegan meet-up group and make like-minded friends in real life, or search online for vegan groups that interest you, from vegan runners, to bakers, to knitters, to weightlifters, to fashionistas, to activists! They’re all there waiting for you.’

2. Be kind to yourself

Manage your expectations and don’t give up completely if you slip-up or fail when you’re getting started. ‘Everyone makes mistakes,’ says Vernelli. ‘Whether you ate something non-vegan accidentally or simply gave in to temptation, it’s OK. It doesn’t mean you are no longer vegan; it just means you are human! Chalk it up to experience and move forward.’

3. Persistence pays

Shop around until you find the right foods to suit you, and invest in some good vegan or vegetarian cookbooks for inspiration.

‘Not every vegan product will work for you, but just because the first cheese you try or the first latte you make doesn’t hit the spot, don’t rule out all other plant-based cheeses or plant milks,’ says Vernelli. ‘There are so many different ones to try, so you’ll soon find your perfect match.’

Last updated: 23-12-2020