Experts have long promoted the benefits of following plant-based diets when it comes to improving health and fitness. And now, thanks to the rise in veganism, it has never been easier to reduce, if not remove, meat and dairy from your diet. Sainsbury’s, for example, has recently added 31 new plant-based meals to their inventory while Greggs are launching vegan steak bakes and doughnuts.
If you’re looking to eat healthier and enjoy the benefits of plant-based eating doesn’t mean, however, that you have to become a vegan. You don’t even need to cut out meat entirely (which can put some people off). You are simply adjusting the way you eat.
What does a plant-based diet include?
What makes a plant-based diet varies based on who is asked. In general, however, it means eating foods that come from plants. Along with fruit and vegetables, these include whole grains, legumes, plant-based proteins such as tofu, nuts and nut butters, seeds, spices and herbs.
Does following a plant-based diet make you a vegan?
People often think that following a plant-based diet means becoming a vegan. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. This is because veganism goes beyond diets and into political and ethical beliefs. As well as cutting any animal-related food from their diet, vegans also avoid all animal-based products including leather, wool and silk and products tested on animals.
Not all people who want to share their diets share the ethical beliefs of veganism. Others do, but aren't ready to change their diet completely. People who follow a predominantly plant-based diet but occasionally eat meat are generally called flexitarians. However, those who don’t eat meat but do eat fish are pescatarians. Those who don’t eat meat or fish but do eat eggs and dairy are vegetarians.
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?
Most people on plant-based diets find they eat less fast food, sweet treats, refined grains such as white rice, packaged foods and processed meats. As many of these foods are high in fats and sugar, their diets automatically improve, leading to a wide range of health benefits. These include a lower body mass index (BMI), lower cholesterol, and lower levels of chronic diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease.
There is also some evidence to show that people who eat predominantly plant-based foods sleep better and live longer than those who have high levels of meat in their diets.
It’s important to remember, however, that going plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean being healthier. This is especially true as the number of supermarkets and restaurants offering vegan food increases. Much plant-based fast food may not contain meat or fish, but it isn't always healthier.
A McDonald's vegetarian Happy Meal, for example, has more calories than the chicken nugget Happy meal (though it is lower in saturated fat). Which is why people on a plant-based diet still need to watch what they eat and make sure they are getting the vitamins and minerals they need.
Do people on plant-based diets need to take supplements?
People who eat a well-balanced, plant-based diet should get most of their key nutrients from the food they eat. These include protein, vitamin B12, calcium and vitamin D. Omega-3 fatty acids are also essential. These are not always as easily found in plant-based foods, and neither are vitamins D and B12.
If a person is unsure about whether they are getting enough nutrients, supplements are a good idea.
How to get started on a plant-based diet
Making the change to a plant-based diet can seem like a huge step. Those wanting to make that change, however, should:
- Start with meat-free Mondays, then build up to more meat-free nights.
- Reduce the levels of meat in every meal until there is none left on the plate.
- Fill at least half their plate with vegetables. Look for variety here, and for foods with plenty of colour and taste. Greens are a great veggie option as they are high in nutrients.
- Eat foods with good fats such as olive oil, nuts and nut butters and seeds. Avocados are also a good choice here, while nut butters can add protein to a diet.
- Choose whole grains for breakfast, including oatmeal, quinoa, and barley. Add seeds or fruit to porridge.
- Swap processed or creamy puddings for fruit when it comes to dessert.
Initially, these changes might seem hard to make. Gradually, however, they will become easier. People find they start making plant-based choices without having to think about it. As a result, their health improves, many lose weight and they’re skin and wellbeing