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What To Know If You’re Considering A Plant-Based Diet

By Nourish Intern Eileen Kugler.

Plant-based diets have been linked to lower risk of developing a variety of chronic diseases. This is largely due to the decreased amounts of saturated fat and increased fiber content of these diets. If you are considering reducing the amount of meat or animal products in your diet, there are several ways to make changes. The most common eating patterns are pescatarian, vegetarian, and vegan. Individuals who following a pescatarian diet consume fish, eggs, milk, and cheese but no red meat or poultry. A vegetarian diet excludes red meat, poultry and fish but individuals will consume milk, eggs, and cheese. The vegan diet is the most restrictive and excludes all animal products.

When considering switching to a plant-based it is important to remember that what you include in your diet is just as important as the foods you choose to exclude. Here are some of the nutrients that you should consider when removing animal products from your diet:

1. Protein. Consuming enough protein is normally not a concern for those choosing not to consume animal products. There are numerous options out there between processed meat alternatives and foods naturally high in protein like beans and legumes. Dairy and eggs are high-quality complete proteins for those following vegetarian diets. If choose to eliminate all animal products you will need to pair a variety of foods together to ensure that you are consuming all the essential amino acids. A classic example is beans and rice, individually they are considered incomplete proteins. However, when both are present in the diet you can get all essential amino acids.

2. Iron. Iron is present in legumes, dark leafy greens, whole grains, and fortified foods. However, the iron present in plant foods is more difficult for our bodies to absorb than the form found in animal products. Because of this, iron deficiency may be a concern for those following a vegan diet. Vitamin C enhances iron absorption and pairing iron rich foods with foods containing vitamin C can help increase your intake. For some an iron supplement may be needed to obtain adequate levels of iron.

3. Zinc. Similar to iron, zinc is not absorbed well from plant sources. In addition, phytates and fiber, which are high in plant-based diets, interfere with zinc absorption. Supplementation may be necessary ensure that you obtain enough zinc.

4. Calcium. For those choosing to remove all animal products calcium intake may become a concern. Some plant foods that are good sources of calcium include broccoli, almonds, and some legumes. However, just like the last two nutrients absorption varies and is limited in some foods. Including fortified milks and cereals can help ensure you are consuming enough calcium to help protect your bones.

5. Vitamin B12. Unlike the other nutrients, vitamin B12 is present in very few plant-based products. These products include the seaweed nori, nutritional yeast, and some fortified products. Even if you include these items in your diet, supplementation may be necessary.

6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Fish is a commonly discussed source of omega-3 fatty acids. However, unsaturated fatty acids can easily be incorporated into a plant-based diet through the use of flaxseeds, soy products, and canola oil. EPA and DHA can be obtained from algae derived supplements.

7. Vitamin D. Vitamin D can be made in the body from sunlight or obtain from the diet. Spending 10-15 minutes out in the sun tends to be adequate for the body to produce sufficient vitamin D for most individuals. However, sunscreen, which offers protection from skin cancer, may interfere its production. Few very foods naturally contain vitamin D with the most commonly fortified foods being dairy products. Even if you choose to consume dairy products, supplementation may be beneficial especially for those living in northern states with less sun exposure.

The key to obtaining all of the essential nutrients on a plant-diet is variety. Nutrients are more readily available in some foods than others and including a variety of whole fruits and vegetables will ensure that your body gets the most out your meals.Try this easy Mexican Quinoa Salad from EatingWell which takes advantage of some of the seasonal veggies grown right here in Maryland. You can make this ahead of time and use it as quick side during the week or an entrée.

References

Whitney, E. N., & Rolfes, S. R. (2019). Understanding nutrition. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.Whitney, E. N., & Rolfes, S. R. (2019).

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