Sourcing everything you need from a plant-based diet
In recent years there has been a plant-based diet boom, with many people choosing this option as a way of reducing their carbon footprint, as well as for concerns over animal welfare. In 2020, sales of plant-based food doubled 1 and it has continued to be a talking point alongside the climate emergency. I know that I chose to go vegetarian as a way of reducing my own impact on the planet as there are studies that show animal agriculture contributes to climate change and deforestation.
I started by gradually cutting down and having majority vegetarian meals each week until I eventually went vegetarian. Now, I try to mix in some vegan dishes and substitutions for dairy.
I try to run the shop with an open and balanced view so I'm not here to tell everyone to go vegan or vegetarian like me. However, our modern diet is heavier in meat and dairy than it used to be and increasing all the time. Given the growing evidence that our planet can't keep up with the demand I do think that it's important we all cut down on our intake of animal products, even if you don't feel you can cut it out entirely.
A common concern when people start considering a plant-based diet, or reducing animal products in general is where they will source protein from and how they will get enough. The idea that we can't get enough protein from a plant-based diet is a myth, we actually don't need as much protein in our diets as we think we do. In fact, here in the UK we eat 45-55% more protein than we need for a healthy lifestyle. There are also many more plant-based sources of protein than you might think.
Other than protein we also source fats (omegas 3, 6 and 9), amino acids, vitamins (B12 and D) and minerals (such as Calcium and Iron) from animal sources 3. Deficiencies should not be a problem if you're only switching your diet for one month. But, many people continue to eat a plant-based or more flexitarian diet after they have completed the Veganuary challenge. If you decide to do this too, I hope that this blog will help to provide a little information about ensuring you get the right nutrition from your new diet in the longer term.
Plant-based diets are generally considered to be the healthiest available and are associated with reduced risk of cholesterol, heart disease and high blood pressure. The important thing to remember is variety!
Sources of protein and amino acids:
Amino acids are the building blocks for protein and necessary for all bodily functions, from digesting food and repairing tissue to hormone balance and brain function. There are 20 amino acids in total, but only 9 of these are considered essential. The rest are split between non-essential amino acids, which the body can make and doesn't need to source from food, and conditional amino acids which the body needs in times of stress, such as illness. 4
Focusing on the 9 essential amino acids, here is a whistle-stop tour of where you can find them in a plant-based diet:
Histadine - is found in beans, buckwheat, corn, cauliflower, mushrooms, potatoes, bamboo shoots, bananas, cantaloupe and citrus fruits.
Isoleucine and Leucine - are found in quinoa, buckwheat, soy, lentils, black beans and pinto beans.
Lysine - is found in green leafy vegetables, like kale, watercress, romaine lettuce and swiss chard.
Methionine - is found in brazil nuts, sunflower seeds and oats.
Phenylalanine - is found in chickpeas, beans, lentils, soy beans and tofu.
Threonine - is found in soy, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils.
Tryptophan - is found in pumpkin and sunflower seeds, cashews, walnuts, almonds, peanuts, split peas, lentils, kidney beans, and black beans.
Valine - is found in nuts, seed, wholegrains, mushrooms, beans and lentils.
As you can see from the list above you can find a good amount of protein in lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and peas. There are also some plant-based foods that have complete proteins, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids in one food. These complete protein sources are quinoa, buckwheat, soy, chia seeds, pistachios and hemp seeds.
The trouble with sourcing protein on a plant-based diet is that the level of protein and amino acids is lower than it is in animal products. This is because the animal has done the work of processing and producing the protein through it's own diet. As such, to get enough protein it's recommended to have more than one plant-based protein source in each meal.
Sources of healthy fats and omegas
There are three types of fat in our diet, these are:
Saturated Fat, usually found in meat and dairy but is also found in coconut oil. It isn't usually thought of as a healthy fat as its associated with high cholesterol.
Unsaturated Fat, usually found in nuts, seeds, some dairy, fish and vegetable oils, are where we get our Omega 3, 6 and 9 from. They are thought of as healthy fats and we are encouraged to add more of them to our diet.
Trans Fat, which is found in some hydrogenated vegetable oils is considered an unhealthy, processed fat as it contributes to a lot of health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and strokes.
Although fats are broken down in this way and some are considered healthier than others, it's important to remember that food isn't bad and we need fat in our diet. It's good for the brain, necessary for things like blood clotting and cell function, and is essential to absorb certain vitamins from our diet.
Sourcing fats isn't too difficult in a vegan diet, and you're likely to be eating some of the healthier fats already by cutting out animal products. Nuts and seeds are great for omegas 3 and 6, while olive oil and avocados are a source of omega 9. You can also source healthier fats from cacao nibs, soya, tofu and tahini.
A good measure of how much fat to include in your diet is to aim for between 70g and 95g. 5
Sources of vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are abundant in vegetables, especially dark green and leafy ones. You'll also find that nuts, seeds and fruit will provide almost all the vitamins and minerals that you need for a balanced diet.
There are some known deficiencies associated with a vegan diet but with a bit of careful meal planning you can help to fix these.
One of the main vitamins to be aware of is B-12. There aren't any food sources for this vitamin that aren't animal based, but you can get fortified cereals and plant-mylks that have it added in, or you can supplement it. For Veganuary, it's important to note that the body stores vitamin B-12 and unless you have an underlying condition, you are unlikely to become deficient within a month.
Some of the minerals that are harder to get without animal products are also listed below with their plant-based sources:
Calcium - beans, sweet potato, oranges, tahini, tofu and leafy greens such as broccoli, cabbage, watercress and bok choy.
Zinc - lentils, beans, oats, quinoa, whole grains and nutritional yeast.
Iron - soy, tahini, cashews, sunflower seeds, pumpkins seeds and dried fruit.
I hope that this has been a helpful guide to sourcing essential nutrients from your diet. I know that researching for this blog taught me a lot and I'll be adding more variety to me meals going forward.