Eating a plant-based diet and reducing your meat intake is one of the most important things you can do for your health. The ever-growing evidence that supports the transition towards a plant-based diet, based on research into human health and environmental impact, has led to an increasing trend to turn to plants for our food.
What is a plant-based diet anyway?
A plant-based diet is made up primarily of foods derived from, you guessed it, plants. This includes: fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds, plant oils, whole grains, legumes and beans.
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?
Plant-based diets that involve mainly whole foods have shown to significantly reduce the risk of: obesity, high cholesterol, heart disease and type 2 diabetes (Fayet-Moore, 2018). In addition, the increased fibre from plant-based diets can reduce or improve gut issues such as constipation and diverticulitis, and reduce the risk of bowel and other cancers. Consuming a higher fibre diet is also beneficial for weight management, since it helps you feel full without adding a lot of extra calories to your diet. The result? A harmonious gastrointestinal system and a happier, healthier and lighter you.
Plant foods are our only source of dietary fibre
On average, most Australians consume only 20–25 g of fibre daily. The Heart Foundation recommends that adults should aim to eat 25–30 g (NHMRC, 2014). Inadequate fibre intake can lead to constipation in the short-term and a number of serious health conditions in the long run, such as bowel cancer, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Increased fibre intake also assists with weight management, since it helps us to feel full without adding a lot of extra calories to the diet. For example, if I eat a potato instead of a bag of chips, I’m not only eating fewer calories, I’m also less likely to be hungry an hour later and less likely to overeat or consume too many calories on a given day.
Microbiota Accessible Carbohydrates (MACs)
The latest research suggests that a diet high in microbiota accessible carbohydrates – a type of dietary fibre – is linked to the growth of friendly bacteria in your gut, which in turn supports your immune system and improves overall health. These good bacteria supply your gut with beneficial by-products such as short chain fatty acids like butyrate, acetate and propionate. You probably haven’t heard of these guys, but in a nutshell, they are the main source of nutrition for the bacteria in your bowel.
Incorporating MACs into your diet will keep your bowel healthy and happy.
Some excellent examples of MAC sources include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and onions.
Polyphenols or Plant Chemicals
Polyphenols (plant chemicals) in fruit and vegetables further support your gut microbial population by stimulating beneficial bacteria and slowing the growth of pathogenic bacteria – that is, the ones that make you sick (Liu, 2004).
Looking to really learn about nutrition – not just the health benefits of fruits and vegetables – and how you can make healthy eating part of your life? Come and check out food.com.au’s Nutrition Education & Self Reflection Program – First 13 – as in the first thirteen weeks of the rest of your life!.
What’s the beef with meat anyway?
We’re having too much of it
Did you know that the average Australian consumes more red meat than the Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend? Meat, especially red meat, is often high in saturated fat and cholesterol – both of which can increase unhealthy blood cholesterol levels and the subsequent risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and other circulatory disorders (WCRF, 2007).
Cut down on red and processed meats to reduce your risk of chronic disease
Regular meat eaters also have an increased risk of heart disease and stroke through processes that begin with gut microbes converting certain meat components (namely choline and L-carnitine) into a compound, trimethylamine (TMA). TMA is absorbed through the gut wall and further processed by the liver into another compound TMAO, which promotes atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the main underlying cause of cardiovascular disease. It is the process by which plaque builds up inside your arteries, causing them to harden and narrow.
Cut down on meat to reduce your cancer risk
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), meat and processed meat consumption (such as bacon, ham and sausages) is linked to numerous cancers, including bowel cancer (IARC, 2015). In fact, the WHO cancer prevention guidelines recommend limiting meat intake as one of the most effective strategies for reducing your risk of these cancers.
What’s good for your individual health is also good for the environment and the future health of all humankind
As well as reducing your risk of various cancers, diabetes and heart disease, moving towards a plant-based diet also reduces your carbon footprint. Agricultural production is the fourth largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, and is responsible for 16% of these. Two thirds of these emissions come from the livestock industry – specifically, grazing beef and sheep (DPIRD, 2018). Next to limiting aeroplane trips and walking or riding your bike instead of driving a car, adopting a plant-based diet is one of the most important ways you can reduce your impact on our environment. Moreover, studies show that a diet based mainly on plant foods is the best option to feed the growing global population without harming the health of our planet – this means that we get to stick around on it for longer. So if you’re not concerned about your environment, think about your children and your children’s children and what kind of future you envision for them.
Did you know that pigs have the same level of intelligence as a 3-year old? They are sentient, intelligent beings. Choose more plant-based foods, so they can continue to live and feel.
If slaughterhouses had windows, would you choose more plant-based foods?
Make no mistake, the animals we kill and eat are sentient beings. They feel, perceive and experience, just as we do. Adopting a plant-based diet is promoting the safety of animals by reducing the incidence of animal torture, artificial insemination, caging and killing. If you truly love animals, think about whether or not you’re causing them any harm when you next sit down to a meal.
A plant-based diet can reduce world hunger purely by feeding more mouths
A plant-based diet can reduce suffering for human beings too, because more people can be fed. Currently, the majority of crops we grow are used to feed the animals destined for our plates. As a result, humans from many parts of the world go to bed hungry and malnourished. A global shift to a plant-focused diet will allow more crops to be used for human consumption. In fact, a recent study concluded that the current crop production is enough to feed as much as 9.7 billion people! (Berners-Lee, 2018) The current world population is approximately 7.7 billion and estimated to reach 9.8 billion in 2050. This means that the current crop production is easily enough to feed the human population until 2050 if we start adopting a plant-based diet.
Plant-based diets and protein
There is a common misconception that a plant-based diet will leave you protein deficient. This is so far from being true. In fact, on average, most Australians consume far more protein than the human body requires, so deficiencies are rare. One of the reasons we easily meet our protein requirements is because there’s protein in everything we eat. For instance, all plant foods contain protein. Did you know that broccoli contains 11.1g of protein per 100 calories compared to only 6.4g in beef? Grains and legumes are excellent sources of protein and some are also more protein-rich than meat.
Plant protein is gentler on the body’s excretory system, i.e your kidneys!
Excretion of protein metabolites are easier on the kidneys because their amino acid profiles are different from those of animal sources. Animal proteins contain high amounts of sulfur-containing amino acids, which creates a highly acidic environment in the body. This causes bones to release calcium in order to buffer the acidity, which weakens bone strength if you are not consuming enough calcium (Remer, 2000).
The bottom line is this: the protein quality of plant foods is more than adequate if you are eating a wide variety of whole foods as our national dietary guidelines recommend.
If you’re interested in learning more about protein, register for our First13 Program! We cover topics such as – what protein is; what the body uses it for; the link between dietary protein and building muscle; the difference between plant-based and animal-based protein foods; the safety of high protein diets; and, how vegetarians and vegans can get enough protein in their diet.
Don’t like the taste of vegetables?
Rest assured, you’re not alone. Nearly 96% of Australian adults don’t eat their recommended serves of vegetables and some of the reasoning behind this might reflect that they haven’t fallen in love with healthy food. The good news is that you can – we all can! You can do this by actually retraining your taste buds, by the plain and simple strategy of exposure. You can mindfully and gently guide your taste preferences away from salty, sugary and fatty foods and towards nutrient-dense foods – also known as vegetables – purely by exposing yourself to more of them and more frequently.
Problem: Don’t like your broccoli? Solution: Eat more broccoli. This little guy has done just that and is set up for a lifelong love affair with veggies.
You may need a few exposures to certain foods to start liking them. This is completely normal. This repeated exposure technique is used with children all the time, but it actually still works in our favour in adulthood. So go ahead and try a new vegetable today, and then try them again tomorrow and the day after that… are you catching our drift?
How long will it take for me to adapt to enjoying the taste of vegetables?
Numerous studies show that our sense of taste is always evolving. It takes about 6 to 8 weeks for new taste buds to develop, before we can turn our noses up at the diet we were once having before, realising how awfully sweet or fatty or salty it was, and be truly happy with our new plant-based way of life. Over the 6-8 week period, while you’re still adapting, we suggest using strategies like practising mindfulness and reminding yourself of your ‘why’ for making the transition towards a plant-based diet, that is, all the reasons we’ve outlined in this article!
If taste is all that’s holding you back from adopting a plant-based diet, then why not challenge yourself – even if you only last a month or two on plant-based meals, you can always go back. Our thinking is that you won’t. You can absolutely gain control over your pallet and adapt your taste buds to enjoy a wholesome plant-based diet, and we think you will. We also guarantee that your waistline and overall health and well-being will thank you for it.
Plant-based meals can and do taste great. You just need a few exposures and some simple recipe ideas can help you with this. And guess what – we’ve got you covered! Visit https://food.com.au/recipes/ and browse through our healthy and delicious plant-based recipes – especially under the Mediterranean and Vegetarian categories.
Types of plant-based diets
There are a few different types of plant-based diets and the degree to which a person follows a vegetarian diet varies. Let’s explore some of the exciting, different options that can improve your health and reduce your carbon footprint below.
The table below lists some of the different ways you can take on a plant-based diet approach, and shows which foods each plant-based diet pattern includes.
This table summarises all the different types of plant-based diets.
A vegan diet is based completely on plant sources. That’s right – we’re all about eating plants and saving animals! Vegans do not consume any meat, seafood, poultry and animal-derived products, including dairy, eggs and honey. The majority of vegans also avoid using or buying animal-based products (e.g. leather or fur jackets).
Why go vegan?
Evidence repeatedly shows that vegans have the lowest incidence of chronic diseases, as animal products are cut out completely (Craig, 2009). Animal products, even dairy and eggs, are major sources of saturated fats and cholesterol ⎼ the main culprits of modern diseases (WCRF, 2007).
What about getting enough protein as a vegan?
It is easy to obtain adequate amounts of high-quality protein from plant foods. The key is to get your calories from a variety of plant food sources, to get all the different nutrients the human body requires. If you’re eating enough calories, you’re most likely getting enough protein.
Does the same apply to iron and calcium?
Sufficient iron can also be obtained from plant foods but you need to be more selective with which plant foods you opt for. Specifically, dried beans, nuts, dark green leafy vegetables like spinach, silver beet and broccoli and fortified cereals will get you meeting your iron requirements. If you’ve been experiencing any common symptoms of iron deficiency such as fatigue and poor concentration, or you’re concerned that your diet is lacking in iron sources, you can quickly rectify this by booking an appointment to see your GP or Dietitian. They can assess whether you’re including enough dietary sources and whether a supplement might be necessary and you can have a blood test to check your iron status. Iron infusions are not uncommon in those who follow even an omnivorous diet (containing meat).
Calcium requirements are reasonably met with a wide variety of plant foods and calcium-fortified soy and nut milks (Craig, 2009). Again, if you’re concerned about your calcium intake, please see your GP or Dietitian. The adequacy of your calcium intake can be assessed through a diet history, and if there is cause for concern, you can have a DEXA scan to assess your bone density to ensure you’re getting enough calcium.
Similarly, Vitamin D can be adequately obtained from plant sources, provided that you consume a variety of plant foods. Some of the plant sources of Vitamin D include mushrooms and fortified nut milks. An easier way is to just sit in the sun and let your body absorb the Vitamin D from sunlight. It takes between 5 to 30 minutes of sunlight exposure twice a week for your body to make enough Vitamin D. If you’re concerned about or want to find out your Vitamin D levels, you can always monitor these using a blood test.
Are there any nutrients that vegans are more commonly deficient in?
Although a vegan diet is proven to be very beneficial for health, animals and the planet, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on one particular nutrient that are only obtained in animal products and cannot be synthesised by the body. The main and classic example is vitamin B12. This B vitamin can only be obtained from animal products, so any vegan (or potential vegans) should make sure to particularly monitor their Vitamin B12 levels and take a supplement or get injections if required.
Monitor B12 levels
You can monitor your B12 levels by having bi-annual blood tests. Technically, everyone should take a test once every six months to check their health status, no matter what diet they’re following, because modern day diseases are usually preventable through early detection and implementing behaviour changes. Blood tests are a great way to really connect with your body, and find out a) if there’s anything that needs addressing or b) if that ‘health anxiety’ you have is actually just ‘anxiety’, and both of these are important aspects of overall well-being.
Vitamin B12 and other nutrients can be easily monitored with a blood test
I found out my B12 level is low, now what?
If you find out your B12 level is low, you probably did this through your GP. Ideally, you will receive advice around the next steps from them. If not, you should ask for a referral to a Dietitian, who will recommend dietary intervention or if that’s not adequate, either a supplement or a bi-annual injection.
Vitamin B12 supplements
B12 supplements come in two forms: methylcobalamin and cyanocobalamin. Although, it is often recommended that you take the methyl form because it is more easily absorbed and better retained in the body. You can take B12 supplements as tablets, oral spray or injections. Other than that, all the necessary nutrients can be easily and abundantly obtained from plants.
It is a common misconception that a vegan diet is incomplete and restrictive, in terms of both health and availability. The truth is – a vegan diet is considered to be one of the healthiest for you and the most sustainable diet for our planet! More importantly, vegan food options today are unbelievably diverse and tasty. And if you’re a fiend for the taste of meat, you can get almost anything you want converted to a vegan version these days.
Switching to a vegan diet requires some changes and careful planning, but it is absolutely doable! If you’re interested in taking on this approach, we’ve got some suggestions to get you started. Here are simple dietary swaps that can serve as a guide for you going forward.
|Dairy milk||Soy, almond, oat, rice, spelt milk|
|Cheese||Soy or cashew cheese|
|Yoghurt||Coconut or almond yoghurt|
|Scrambled egg||Silken tofu|
|Minced meat||Beans and legumes|
|Meat sausages||Veggie or soy sausages|
|Pulled pork||Jackfruit meat|
If you’re looking for these vegan alternatives, you can easily find them at big chain supermarkets such as Woolworths and Coles as well as specialty stores, including health food shops and Asian supermarkets.
Where to find vegan alternatives
Most supermarkets (particularly Woolworths and Coles) and health food stores have growing ranges of vegan foods to match the increasing demand. Examples of food products include Quorn soy nuggets, Daiya dairy-free cheese, Ipastai vegan ravioli, S&B Japanese curry mix, Pandaroo instant miso soup, dairy-free pure matcha powder, and almond milk to name a few. Most cafes around Australia have also joined the plant-based revolution by providing vegan options or vegan alternatives. What a great time to be alive!
These are just some of the vegan options available in the market today! If you’re afraid that you’re going to experience a fear of missing out on a vegan diet, you couldn’t be more wrong!
2. Lacto-ovo vegetarian
“Lacto” comes from the Latin for milk and “ovo” for egg. Simply put, lacto-ovo vegetarians are vegetarians who consume some animal products, including dairy and eggs. They, however, exclude any kind of meat, poultry, seafood and products containing these foods. This type of diet is also called ovo-lacto vegetarian.
The lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is one of the most popular ways to start your shift towards a more plant-based life. With this, you can still enjoy your favourite smoothies and eggs on toast in the morning, while significantly improve on your health by cutting out meat. Pretty easy, huh?
3. Lacto vegetarian
A lacto vegetarian diet is the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet without the eggs. In short, lacto vegetarians eat only plant foods and dairy products, including milk, cheese, butter, ghee, cream and kefir.
An example of a lacto-vegetarian diet, which features a variety of vegetables and a dairy-based dip.
A lacto vegetarian diet is popular among the followers of Eastern religious traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. People of these religious groups exclude eggs because they believe that eating eggs is a form of non-vegetarian diet.
If you find that you’re not particularly obsessed with eggs, then you might want to consider a lacto vegetarian diet.
4. Ovo vegetarian
In contrast to a lacto vegetarian diet, an ovo vegetarian diet is a type of vegetarian diet that includes eggs but not dairy. People often become ovo vegetarians because they are lactose-intolerant, meaning that they have a compromised ability to digest milk sugars (also known as lactose). As a result, they become vegetarians who also omit dairy and dairy products.
An example of an ovo-vegetarian diet, which excludes meat and dairy – perfect for anyone who is lactose intolerant!
“Pesce” is Italian for fish, so those who focus on fish and other seafood in their diets have come to be called pescetarians. My colleague prefers the term “vegequarian”, because she doesn’t like to be labelled pesky.
A pescatarian diet is a vegetarian diet that includes seafood, dairy and eggs. It’s a diet consisting mainly of plant sources such as whole grains, nuts and legumes, with seafood as the main protein source.
There’s no doubt that pescetarians can eat a great dose of healthy omega-3 fatty acids daily. However, you should also make sure that you’re getting enough of the B12 and not too much of iodine or mercury. Some of the seafood products (i.e. cod, shrimp and canned tuna) are very high in iodine, and excess iodine can interfere with your thyroid glands and lead to an increased production of thyroid hormones (Chung, 2014).
The good news is that you can easily measure your iodine level with a urine test and monitor your thyroid hormone levels by doing a blood test. Alternative to canned fish, you should opt for fresh salmon or snapper when possible as they are generally lower in iodine.
Another thing to consider is the levels of mercury – a toxic compound commonly found in seafood and shellfish. Fish (especially larger ones) concentrate mercury in their bodies, and excess mercury can negatively affect different systems in our body. Mercury poisoning can cause disturbances in vision, sensation, coordination, speech, muscle strength and mood (Better Health Channel, 2013).
Like everything in life, it’s all about balance! It is recommended that you only have 2-3 servings of fish a week (Better Health Channel, 2013). A serving looks something like your hand out flat or ¾ cup of cooked fish. It’s also worth noting that early symptoms of mercury poisoning include metallic taste in the mouth and numb or tingling sensation in the hands, feet and face.
This is a classic example of a pescatarian meal – salmon steak! This plate is packed with fibre, protein and the healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
If you don’t like to be labeled, then you definitely belong in this category – the flexitarians. Flexitarians are basically ‘casual vegetarians’ who are, you guessed it, flexible with their diet, occasionally having animal products in moderation. The flexitarian community has blown out in recent years.
More people are adopting this kind of diet to reduce their meat consumption and combat the environmental effects resulting from animal agriculture. If you look around, you’ll notice that meat-free meals and meat alternatives are more mainstream now than ever. So what are you waiting for? This could be your first (and maybe your last) step towards a plant-based diet!
Five steps for embracing a plant-based way of life
- Go meatless on Monday. There have been numerous campaigns and ideas to promote a plant-based diet. The most widely known and practised movement is Meatless Monday. This international campaign encourages people to not eat meat on Mondays for their health and the health of our planet. Meatless Monday has become a global movement since its activation in 2003!
- Go meatless for at least one meal per day. Another campaign called One Meal a Day for the Planet was created to encourage plant-based eating. The catch is simple – swap one meal a day with plant-based alternatives. The goal of this campaign is to educate and promote eating a healthy and environmentally friendly diet
- Change the way you think about meat and vegetables. Think of meat as more of a garnish, and vegetables as the star of the show at meal time. Fill half of your plate with vegetables and opt for at least 3 different colours (eg. red, green and orange) for your plate.
- Make the transition to a more plant-based diet a gradual one. One of the best ways to transition towards a plant-based diet is to start slow. Perhaps, start with a flexitarian or a pescetarian diet. Choose a few plant-based recipes from food.com.au/recipes or towards the bottom of this article and rotate them through the week. Better yet, start with your favourite meals that already happen to be plant-based! This could be anything from avo on toast to masala dahl. Just build up from there.
- Exposure is key. The more vegetables you expose your taste buds to, and the more frequently you do it, the more likely you are to adopt and fall in love with healthy eating. Remember, it takes 6-8 weeks to train your taste buds – just as it takes that amount of time to improve your fitness! You got this.
When a plant-based meal looks this good and wholesome, who needs meat in their diet?
So now what?
We are not expecting you to adopt a vegan diet today, but we are encouraging you to think about cutting back on your meat intake and opting for a more balanced and plant-based diet, for your health and for the environment. We understand that old habits and preferences are hard to break, but even a step towards a plant-based diet like the Meatless Monday can provide benefits to your health and the environment. It’s definitely worth it!
Some recipe swap ideas
We are grateful that you have remained open-minded and read this far! We are not expecting you to go vegan today or tomorrow, but we hope the information we collected will motivate you to take small steps towards a plant-based lifestyle. You can start simply by reducing your meat intake and swapping for plant-based alternatives. The results? Reduced risk of diseases, better energy levels, more lives saved, and reduced CO2 emissions.
|Breakfast||Eggs on toast||Scrambled tofu and kale on toast|
|Bircher muesli||Use plant milks instead of dairy|
|Lunch||Meat wrap||Falafel wrap|
|Chicken couscous salad||Pumpkin couscous salad (optional: add jackfruit meat)|
|Dinner||Lamb curry||Potato and chickpea curry|
|Pork sausage casserole||Mixed beans casserole|
|Snacks||Veggie sticks and tzatziki||Veggie sticks and hummus|
|Crackers & cheese||Corn chips & guacamole|
So there you have it, the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, different types of plant-based diets and some ideas of recipe swaps. Wishing you all the best on your journey to better health. Thanks for being a part of food.com.au.
Check out food.com.au/recipes for many more healthy, plant-based recipes.
Fayet-Moore, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5986479/
NHMRC, 2014. https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/dietary-fibre
WCRF, 2007. World Cancer Research Fund. Food, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer: a global perspective. Washington, DC: American Institute for Cancer Research, 2007
Liu RH.Potential synergy of phytochemicals in cancer prevention: mechanism of action. J Nutr 2004; 134(suppl):3479S – 85S.
AIRC, 2015. International Agency for Research on Cancer. Volume 114: Consumption of red meat and processed meat. IARC Working Group. Lyon; 6–13 September, 2015. IARC Monogr Eval Carcinog Risks Hum (in press)
DPIRD, 2018. https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/climate-change
Berners-Lee, 2018. https://www.elementascience.org/article/10.1525/elementa.310/
Remer T. Influence of diet on acid-base balance. Semin Dial. 2000;13(4):221-6.
Better Health Channel, 2013. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/mercury-in-fish