By Claire Baseley, Registered Nutritionist
Plant-based eating is on the rise, with over 3.5 million people in the UK claiming to be vegan in 2018, compared with only 540,000 in 2016. One in eight Britons now claim to be either vegetarian or vegan, with a further 21% adopting a flexitarian lifestyle, typified by a largely plant-based diet, supplemented by small amount of animal-derived products like meat, fish, dairy or eggs. This means that a third of UK consumers are eating less or no meat and animal products.
What actually is a plant-based diet? What are the benefits to you and the planet? Can you eat plant-based and still make the most out of your training? And are there any nutritional considerations you need to bear in mind? Read on to learn more.
What is plant-based eating?
The British Dietetic Association defines a plant-based diet as being based on foods derived from plants, including vegetables, wholegrains, legumes (beans and pulses), nuts, seeds and fruits, with few or no animal products. It is not by definition a vegan or vegetarian diet. You can still eat small amounts of meat, fish, dairy or eggs but your diet will be predominantly plants.
Plant-based diets might be vegan or vegetarian but they could also be pescetarian (vegetarian plus fish) or flexitarian (omnivorous but including meat only in small amounts).
Why eat plant-based?
Plant-based diets, if they are well planned, are naturally rich in vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and pulses so are often high in fibre, vitamins and minerals. Being low in animal products and often many sources of sugar, plant-based diets may also be low in saturated fat and sugar. For these reasons, plant-based diets can help to manage weight and reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
However, bear in mind that there can be healthy diets that include some animal products and unhealthy vegan diets. It all depends upon how well planned the diet is and on the balance and type of foods being eaten.
Another reason for choosing a plant-based lifestyle is for ethical and environmental concerns. If the diet is well-planned, it is estimated that completely plant-based, or vegan, diets need just one third of the fertile land, fresh water and energy of the typical British mixed diet that includes meat and dairy. Rearing and keeping cattle for meat and dairy production is a large contributor to greenhouse gas emissions so reducing our consumption of animal products can reduce the environmental impact of our diet. In addition, if any animal products are consumed, it’s ethically better to ensure that they conform to high standards of welfare and to reduce the amounts eaten.
Plant-based diets for active individuals
There is no reason why a well-planned plant-based or vegan diet cannot support a highly active lifestyle. The principles remain the same, as laid out in 5 Top Nutrition Tips for Cycling Success but substituting some of the sources of protein and fat:
- Aim to consume most of your carbohydrates from wholegrain and lower GI sources such as oats, brown rice and bread and other whole grains, starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, swede or squash, and keep the more sugary carbs for training and treats.
- Replace animal protein for plant based protein: pulses like lentils, cannellini beans, kidney beans can replace meat and fish in dishes or you can use tofu or Quorn as a meat substitute in bolognese or chilli; swap your whey for soy or a blend of other plant based powders if you choose to use a supplement.
- Nutritious dairy substitutes can be challenging to find: make sure that your milk substitutes are fortified with calcium, vitamin D and ideally vitamin B12 and iodine too.
- If you’re still eating a little meat, you can make it go further in dishes like chilli, bolognese and potato topped pies by replacing some of the meat for lentils or Quorn. This reduces the saturated fat content but still provides protein and also adds fibre too.
- Aim to get fat from nuts, nut butters and seeds plus avocadoes and olive oil rather than relying too heavily on fats like coconut oil which are high in saturated fat.
Nutrients to watch out for in a plant-based diet
While well-planned plant-based diets can be highly nutritious, if based around vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, pulses, nuts, seeds and soy-based meat alternatives, there are some nutrients that may be lacking if you avoid all animal products or dramatically reduce your intake. Check out the following plant-based sources of nutrients to ensure you are getting a balanced diet:
- Calcium is important for maintaining bones and muscle function. It is mostly found in dairy products and fish with edible bones like mackerel or sardines. Plant-based sources include dried fruit, nuts like almonds, sesame seeds, leafy green vegetables like kale, red kidney beans, and milk alternatives or tofu with added calcium.
- Vitamin D also supports bones, teeth and muscles and is found in only a few foods like eggs and some oily fish. It is also present in mushrooms that have been exposed to the sun. Most people are unable to get the vitamin D solely from the food they eat, whether their diet is plant-based or otherwise, so everyone is advised to take a supplement of 10 micrograms vitamin D a day or to consume vitamin D-fortified foods like breakfast cereals, non-dairy milk or spreads. Make sure that, if you are vegan, that the vitamin D is from a plant-based source. In the summer, we make vitamin D in the skin when it is exposed to sunlight, so try to spend some time outdoors, which won’t be a problem when you’re in the saddle!
- Vitamin B12 is mainly found in animal products and plays an important role in many metabolic processes in the body. Too little can result in fatigue, anaemia, nerve damage and high levels of a compound in the blood called homocysteine, which can lead to cardiovascular disease. The only reliable vegan source of vitamin B12 is a supplement or fortified foods like breakfast cereals, yeast extract and non-dairy milks.
- Iron is important for reducing fatigue, avoiding anaemia and supporting normal immune function. It is found in its most bioavailable form in red meat but can also be found in dried fruit, some wholegrains, leafy green vegetables, seeds and pulses. Try to combine these plant-based sources with foods rich in vitamin C (like citrus fruit, berries, peppers, green vegetables or fruit juice) to improve iron absorption.
- Zinc is important for skin and immune health as well as wound healing. While there are plant-based sources of zinc in the diet, such as wholegrains, beans, nuts, seeds, fermented soy products like tempeh and miso or fortified foods, some compounds known as phytates in pulses and wholegrains can reduce the absorption of zinc. Make sure you get a variety of zinc sources in the diet and consider adding some zinc fortified foods.
- Iodine is an overlooked micronutrient yet is very important for maintaining thyroid function. It is mainly found in dairy foods and fish but nuts, bread and some fruit and vegetables can provide small amounts of iodine. Try to use a non-dairy milk substitute that’s fortified with iodine if you can find one. If you do take a supplement, only take 150 micrograms a day as too much iodine can also affect the thyroid.
- Finally, omega 3 fatty acids, commonly found in oily fish, have been linked to heart and brain health. Plant-based sources include walnuts, flax, hemp and chia seeds as well as their oils. You can also buy omega 3 supplements derived from marine algae that provide a plant-based source of the longer chain omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.
It’s clear that well-planned and varied plant-based diets can be healthy, environmentally sustainable and can support an active lifestyle. Try to eat a balance of foods to ensure you are getting all the nutrients you need.
This article references:
British Dietetic Association Factsheets on Plant-based diets and Iodine
For further information, check out The Vegetarian Athlete’s Cookbook by Anita Bean.