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The pitfalls of a plant-based diet

There are plenty of benefits to eating a plant-based diet including improved weight management, reduced incidence of some disease such as cancer, cardiovascular and type 2 diabetes but eating more plants does not guarantee all dietary needs are meet. There are some things to look out for before you embark on a radical makeover of your diet.

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet shifts the balance of foods we eat towards plants including vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, cereals, and pulses. Even some seaweeds count as plants.

Why eat more plants?

Currently only 28% of adults and 18% of children in the UK eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Most people eat around three and a half portions a day which falls short of the Government recommendations.

Types of plant-based diets

There are three common types of plant-based diets:

  • vegetarian which can include eating dairy foods
  • vegan which is made up entirely of plant foods and excludes meat, fish, and dairy foods
  • flexitarian which can include eating animal products occasionally.

Take home message

It is important to remember the idea behind a more plant-based diet is to eat more plant foods and not necessarily cut all animal foods from your diet.

Planning a plant-based diet

If you cut down on or remove a food group from your diet you need to make up the nutrients from another source. For example, if you cut down on meat, fish, dairy, and eggs you cut out a major source of protein from your diet. This needs to be replaced by eating high quality plant protein such as tofu, pulses, nuts, wholegrain cereals, and plant-based milks such as Oat Drink.

If you substitute one food for another look at nutrition the labels to check they are nutritionally equivalent.

Look out for highly processed plant-based foods

Many ready-made plant-based foods are processed and contain high levels of sugar, and fat, and little dietary fibre. There are plenty of plant-based biscuits, cakes and ice-creams that are high in fat and sugar.

Check nutrition labels for the fat and sugar content of plant based ready meals and snacks. Also look at nutrition labels to see if the food contains essential nutrients such as protein, calcium, vitamin B12, iron and fibre.

Cook from scratch

Try to prepare more meals using fresh, plant-based ingredients. Less than a quarter of young adults (25 -34 years) regularly cook from scratch. You can then be more in control of the nutritional quality of your plant based diet.

Is your diet diverse enough?

The range of plant foods you eat is crucial to ensuring you get all the nutrients needed for a healthy diet. Many people fall into the trap of buying and eating the same foods each week. Others cut out key food groups from their diet. Try to make your diet as varied as possible. Experts recommend eating at least 30 different plant foods each week. Nuts, seeds, pulses, wholegrains, fruit, and vegetables all count.

Is your diet colourful?

Some plant-based diets can lack colour because they rely on foods such as pasta, white rice, ready meals, cheese, and sliced bread.

The ideal plant-based diet is full of colour. Think of beetroots, red peppers, carrots, red kidney beans, lemons, and fresh, green herbs.

Colourful plant foods contain a multitude of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients which are beneficial to health.

The influence of social media

Social media is awash with misinformation about diet. Beware of extreme messages such as ‘vegan diets are the only way to be healthy’. Also beware of the term ‘clean eating’. Cutting whole food groups out of the diet can lead to a very restrictive diet that can ultimately lead to nutritional deficiencies.

Finally….

It is important to enjoy the food you eat with your friends and family. For many moving towards a more plant-based diet is a matter of tweaking what is done already rather than making a radical change.

Adding more fruit, nuts, and seeds at breakfast, eating a tasty vegetable soup and wholegrain bread for lunch and opting for vegetable or pulse based main meals a few times a week is a good way to start.

For more information:

British Dietetic Association

World Cancer Research Fund