3 things plant-based eaters should watch for

Plant-based diets are beneficial for health, but to make the most out of them avoid these mistakes

Eating less meat and more plants? There’s probably no better one step to take that will benefit your wellbeing as much. A plant-based diet is beneficial to your health, kinder to animals, and good for the environment.

Whether you’re doing Meatless Monday, going vegetarian or full vegan, here is what you should be mindful of.

Vegan = healthy?

Kale, cauliflower, oranges and quinoa are vegan. Soda, chips and no-chicken nuggets are vegan too, which, in and of itself, doesn’t qualify a food as healthy, as this example demonstrates.

Vegetarian and vegan diets are characterized by what people abstain from eating, but if you want to eat healthy, your plant-based diet should also avoid highly processed foods.

Sugar originated from a plant and is vegan, it was once a beet or cane sugar plant, but everything that was good about that plant – the fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals – was taken away during processing.

Try to eat whole or minimally processed plant-based foods as much as possible and minimize highly processed foods.

Don’t overlook those tiny plants

Spices and herbs are some of the most concentrated plant foods out there. In fact, they top the antioxidant charts, and contain large amounts of wonderful phytonutrients in every pinch. 

And then, they of course add all these memory-evoking, mouth-watering flavors. They are truly nature’s gift of flavor.

As you move towards a more plant-based diet, add these powerful flavor and nutrition boosters. They’ll enrich your food and bring the scent of faraway places. Add more of them to your plant-based diet and they’ll help you stay away from adding all that extra sugar, fat and salt.

Is anything missing?

Plant-centered diets are not only healthful and nutritionally adequate, they have also been shown to prevent many diseases, and people who practice them are among the longest lived and most vibrant people on this planet. In fact, nutrition experts and physicians now warmly endorse vegan and vegetarian diets.

Worry not, many of the concerns about plant-based diets have been debunked:

Protein

Despite common belief, plants pack sufficient protein -- nuts, seeds, soy products, legumes and whole grains are great sources, but many vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, and artichoke also have some and it all adds up

A discredited belief stated that on a plant-centered diet, one has to watch protein carefully, as animal protein is a complete protein -- it contains all 9 essential amino acids -- and most plant sources of protein do not contain complete protein. It turns out, that although we do need all these essential amino acids we don't need them all in the same meal, and since plant foods have a wide variety of amino acid profiles you get the full complement with little effort throughout the day.

Calcium

Likewise, calcium, important for bone health, is abundant in milk, dairy foods and canned fish. Vegans tend to have lower intakes of calcium, but there are plenty of plant-based sources of calcium, including dark green vegetables (kale, broccoli, collard greens), sesame seeds, almonds and dry beans.

Watch for these: a few nutrients to watch for if you’re eating only plants:

B12

This is the biggie.

B12 is found almost exclusively in animal products, therefore strict vegans need to find adequate alternative sources. B12 deficiency can manifest as anemia and neurologic disease -- including weakness, tingling of hands and feet, loss of balance and even dementia.

Unfortunately, B12 deficiency can go unnoticed for a long period of time, especially in people who eat lots of plants, because the high levels of folate in their diet may mask the signs. 

The only reliable sources of vitamin B12 for vegans are foods fortified with this nutrient, and supplements. 

Adults age 50 or older should eat foods fortified with vitamin B-12, or take a multivitamin that contains B-12 or a separate B-12 supplement.

So which is better, the supplement or the B12 added to food?

Supplements of vitamin B12 usually present as cyanocobalamin, a form that the body readily converts to the active forms, or methylcobalamin -- which is already active. There doesn't seem to be much of a difference between these two types of forms as far as absorption.

However, absorption of vitamin B12 from a dietary supplements is limited by the capacity of intrinsic factor, a special substance secreted by the stomach that enables the body to absorb vitamin B12. Studies show that only about 10 mcg of a 500 mcg oral supplement is actually absorbed in healthy people.

So you can meet your needs by eating several meals with small amounts of supplemental vitamin B12 -- the typical, more physiological way omnivores get their B12.

Or you can get your vitamin B12 all at once, by taking a pill several times a week. Since only a small amount is absorbed you'll need a much larger dose, most of which will wash out.

Iron

There's plenty of iron in plants. Dark leafy green vegetables (spinach, kale), dried beans and peas, lentils, whole grains, tahini, soy products and dried fruit are good sources of iron. The iron in plants is nonheme iron; unlike the heme iron, typical of meat, nonheme iron's absorption is affected by other foods we eat. Some nutrients -- like calcium, phthalates and the polyphenols in coffee and tea -- somewhat inhibit its absorption.

That's why it's recommended that vegetarians and vegans almost double their recommended daily intake.

On the other hand, nonheme iron absorption is aided by other nutrients, such as vitamin C. Therefore combinations of iron containing foods with vitamin C sources -- such as beans with citrusy lime, or spinach with tomatoes -- are a great idea.

Iron stores are usually lower in vegetarians and vegans, but high iron stores are a risk factor for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and all too common among the general population, so here again, a conscious plant-based diet is advantageous.

Omega-3 fatty acids

These heart-healthy essential fats are abundant in fish and eggs, but there are excellent plant-based sources: nuts (especially walnuts), canola and soy oils, ground flax seeds, soybeans. Make sure to include a good source of these important nutrients in your diet.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a nutrient everyone is worried about lately. Vitamin D is produced by our skin in response to sun exposure. It’s typically added to cow's milk, and some other soy or rice milks. If vitamin D is a concern, plant derived vitamin D supplements are available; consult with your doctor.

Going plant-based is a good for you, and it can be delicious, too. I’ve been on this road for a long time, and come up with a bunch of tricks that transformed my cooking and the nutritional value of plant-based dishes. I share them in my blogs and newsletter.

Dr. Ayala

Try to eat whole or minimally processed plant-based foods as much as possible and minimize highly processed foods.
Plant-centered diets are not only healthful and nutritionally adequate, they have also been shown to prevent many diseases, and people who practice them are among the longest lived and most vibrant people on this planet.