I’ve always been passionate about believing that all foods can fit into a healthy eating pattern. However, there are many reasons why people may seek out a more plant-based style of eating.
Within plant-based diets, there are different subcategories: vegetarian diets include eggs and dairy but do not include meat and fish, whereas vegan diets involve abstaining from animal products altogether. Many folks choose to follow these patterns of eating for ethical reasons, such as supporting animal rights and protesting the harms of factory farming or environmental reasons (meat and dairy contribute more significantly to environmental pollution than most plant foods).
There are pros and cons to any dietary pattern. The pros of a plant-based eating pattern include reduced saturated fat intake, which can help improve or reduce the risk of metabolic disease. Another possible advantage is the extra fiber intake, mostly from plant foods. Research has shown that diets rich in plant foods have been associated with longevity and lower disease risks. That being said, you don’t have to eliminate animal products to get these benefits completely, but rather, include more plants in your diet!
The benefits of plants extend well beyond the benefits of fiber. For example, plant foods also contain phytochemicals, which are powerful chemicals that can help decrease the risk of developing certain cancers, as well as heart disease and Diabetes.
Whenever you cut out certain foods or food groups, you run the risk of nutrient deficiencies. It is very possible to have a well-balanced diet as a plant-based eater; it simply requires more thoughtfulness and planning. The key is variety—including plenty of diverse vegetables, fruits, starches, plant-based proteins, healthy fats, and sources of omega-3s and fortified foods/supplements. The main nutrients to watch closely include protein, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, iodine, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, and selenium.
Despite the long list, only a few supplements and fortified foods are needed. The rest can be obtained through a well-thought-out diet. Most of us don’t get enough Vitamin D from food or the sun (and sunscreen blocks its absorption). Therefore, most people should supplement with a small dose a few times a week, year-round.
For vegans, another common supplement is Vitamin B12, as it’s not found in plant foods except for nutritional yeast, which is a plant-based source of Vitamin B12 that imparts a cheesy flavor and texture to dishes.
Iodine is a mineral found inconsistently in plant foods, and similarly, commercial and processed foods (and sea salt) are not typically iodized. One can cook with salt labeled “iodized” or take a multivitamin with iodine to supplement. Iron, zinc, and selenium are minerals found abundantly in animal products but are also available in plant foods in smaller amounts, so they need to be included more intentionally.
There are also ways to enhance absorption. For example, iron from plants is best absorbed with Vitamin C (e.g., lemon juice) and when avoiding tea, coffee, red wine, and calcium supplements within an hour of meals. Sources of these minerals include legumes, tempeh, nuts/seeds, cooked green vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals (iron), legumes, nuts/seeds, oatmeal, bread, tempeh, and miso (zinc), and Brazil nuts (selenium).
Contrary to popular belief, getting enough protein isn’t a difficult task if you include awide variety of protein options, such as soy products (e.g., tempeh, tofu, seitan, veggieburgers), beans and lentils, high protein pasta such as chickpea and lentil pasta, nuts/seeds, and grains such as quinoa and oatmeal. To ensure you are getting the nine essential amino acids that cannot be made in the body, include different types of proteins and grains within these categories.
Omega 3 fatty acid intake can be trickier. While plant-based foods contain omega 3s (e.g., chia, flax, walnuts, and soy foods), it can be difficult to get the optimal recommended daily amounts from these foods when compared to fish. Some, therefore, opt to take a vegan omega-3 (algae–based) supplement, although the research on the necessity of this is conflicting.
If you want to change your diet towards a plant-based eating pattern, especially for a climate impact, I recommend taking it slow. For instance, you could start with just one plant-based meal a week. You could also consider reducing the portions of animal products at meals (e.g., having a smaller amount of steak and adding beans).
The bottom line is that when it comes to the influence of dietary patterns on the health of our planet, having more people eating fewer animal products is a lot more impactful than having a small minority of people eating none. Small changes in all our individual diets add up to big differences.