Myths surrounding plant-based eating have led to veganism being criticised as unhealthy. Nutritionist Rob Hobson sets the record straight.
Plant-based eating is here to stay and that’s a fact! As the popularity of this diet continues to gather momentum, more people than ever before are beginning to explore this way of eating.
Plant-based diets appeal to people looking to improve their health while also addressing the wider issues of food production, which include both environmental and animal welfare concerns. It allows people who may not be ready to go vegan to eat healthier and more sustainably.
However, myths surrounding plant-based eating and diets have led to this style of eating being criticised as unhealthy or lacking in the nutrients that the body needs to function properly.
What are the health benefits of plant-based eating?
A well-balanced plant-based diet contains more fibre, which is an important nutrient lacking in the diet of many people. The plant-based diet has also been shown to include more fruit and vegetables which are a rich source of micronutrients and essential nutrients. Studies also show that eating less meat- may lower the risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
Why is plant-based eating and especially veganism often criticised?
Criticism often comes from a lack of knowledge on how to cater for a fully plant-based diet. This style of eating does require knowledge, imagination and a degree of cooking skills to create heathy balanced meals.
With the right information there’s no reason a plant-based diet cannot supply you with everything your body needs which in turn will dispel many of the myths surrounding this way of eating.
People on a plant-based diet need to take supplements
Not necessarily. The plant-based diet is often assumed to lack essential nutrients, but this is more about food choice than the diet per se. Plant-based eating does take a little more planning and food knowledge but once you understand what to include in your diet, preparing balanced meals quickly becomes second nature.
One exception is omega 3. Plant-based omega 3 comes from foods such as nuts and seeds, and while these are useful sources, they’re not adequately converted in the body so a vegan supplement may be an option worth exploring. Linseed oil, for example, is an excellent source of Omega 3 which can be found in plant-based butters or margarines.
Plant-based diets don’t get enough vitamin B12
Plant foods naturally rich in vitamin B12 are limited to yeast extract spreads such as marmite. Some forms of seaweed do contain vegan vitamin B12 and may be a useful source but not one to solely rely on.
But this doesn’t mean you can’t get what you need from your diet as many foods such as plant-based drinks (soya, nut and coconut), cereals and spreads are a reliable way to top up your intake.
Plant-based diets don’t get enough iron
There’s no reason why you can’t get enough iron from a plant-based diet as it’s found in many foods such as beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, fortified breakfast cereals, tofu, dark green leafy vegetables and seaweed.
You can absorb more iron from plant-foods by teaming them with a source of vitamin C found in fruits, broccoli, red peppers and cauliflower. You should avoid drinking tea with meals as it contains compounds called tannins which can prevent the uptake of iron in the body.
Plant-based diets don’t get enough protein
Criticism that is often levelled at quality of plant-based protein. But, if heavyweight boxer David Hayes can get enough protein on a vegan diet, then so can you! Proteins are made up of 21 amino acids, nine of which are referred to as being essential.
Many plant proteins are lacking in essential amino acids but if you eat a full range of these foods across the day then you will be able to glean all the necessary amino acids required to build proteins in your body. Plant protein can be sourced from foods such as soybeans, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds, quinoa, tofu and edamame beans.
Plant-based diets don’t get enough calcium
Dairy is not the only source of calcium and sufficient quantities of calcium are available from many plant foods. To ensure a good intake of calcium you should include 2-3 servings of foods such as tofu, almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds, tahini and fortified plant-milks.
Plant-based margarines are chemically processed and bad for you
This is a myth that has been flung around for many years but is not the truth. Plant-based spreads and margarines such as Flora contain healthy fats including the omegas and monounsaturates which are good for your heart. They do not contain trans fats and are usually lower in saturated fats which is better for health.
These spreads contain a few ingredients which are all-natural and, in some cases, they are fortified with other nutrients to help support good health for those following a plant-based diet.
A plant-based diet is boring and bland
Plant-based foods are actually brimming with colour and flavour, you just need to know what to use when cooking them. Fresh herbs and spices are essential to flavour plant-based dishes as are sauces like soy or sriracha.
You can create a very savoury ‘umami’ flavour by using ingredients such as dried mushrooms, seaweed or miso to create stocks and dressings. Other foods such as flavour oils, citrus fruits, dried fruits, nuts and seeds add both flavour and texture.
Don’t let the myths outweigh the many positives associated with following a plant-based diet. With a little planning and understanding on how to prepare tasty plant-based dishes there’s absolutely no reason you cannot get everything your body needs for optimal health.
Rob Hobson is a registered nutritionist and Nutritionist Partner for Upfield. Follow him at @robhobsonnutritionist
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