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How to Craft a Nutrionally Balanced Plant-based Diet

As more and more of us transition to a plant-based lifestyles for health, environmental and ethical reasons it is important to eat a balanced diet and ensure we replace nutrients found in meat and dairy.


Also, just because it's plant-based doesn't mean it's healthy. Plant-based foods like frozen meals can have high amounts of sugar, fat and salt. Reading labels is very important.


If you are thinking of reducing your intake, or cutting meat from your diet, or are already vegan or vegetarian, here are our top tips to ensure you get all the nutrients you need:


ACHIEVING A BALANCED DIET


Fruit & Vegetables


Around 35% of all foods eaten should come from fruit and vegetables. This includes all fresh, frozen, dried (no added sugars) and canned (not in brine or syrup). If you are drinking fruit juices dilute the serving with water. Bottled juices can have has much as 26% of your daily suggested intake of sugar.


If you include a vegetable or fruit at every meal, including snacks - 1 or 2 a day you will have enjoyed the daily recommendation of 5 servings.



Starchy Carbohydrates


Around 35% of all foods eaten should come from starchy carbohydrates. These include black rice, brown rice, oats, red or sweet potato (with skin on), quinoa, farro and brown bread.



Protein


Around 15% of all foods eaten should come from protein sources. These include all types of beans and legumes as well as tofu, tempeh, seitan, nuts (and nut butters), seeds, nutritional yeast and eggs for vegetarians.



Dairy Alternatives


Around 10% of all foods eaten should come from dairy or dairy alternatives. This includes milk, cheese and yoghurt for vegetarians. Vegans should choose plant alternatives such as tofu, flax, hemp or oat milk that are fortified with calcium and other vitamins.



Oils and Spreads


A very little portion of all foods eaten should come from oils and spreads that are ideally high in unsaturated fats which provide heart health benefits. These include olive oil, sunflower oil, grapeseed oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, avocado oil and dairy-free spreads.


Oils are high in fat so use sparingly. Fats such as coconut oil and palm oil are high in saturated fat and should be limited.



MEETING NUTRIENT REQUIREMENTS

When transitioning to a no or low meat diet, it is important to replace the nutrients that had previously been provided by animal products with appropriate alternatives. Let’s take a look at these key nutrients.


Vitamin B12


This vitamin is essential in the production of red blood cells, metabolism of food and normal growth and development. B12 is derived naturally from only animal products, therefore it is best for vegans to choose fortified foods such as plant milks, cereals, vegan spreads, yeast extract and meat substitutes or alternatively take a vitamin supplement. If you are vegan the recommended daily amount is 250mg per day for both women and men.


Check food labels for levels of B12 and aim to have fortified foods 2-3 times per day to meet the daily requirement.


Protein


Protein is essential in many bodily functions including the building and repair of cells, tissues and muscles. Formed of amino acids, there are 8 essential amino acids which the body cannot synthesise and can only be obtained from food. Good plant sources include all types of beans, chickpeas (and hummus), peas, soy beans (tofu, edamame, tempeh), nuts (nut butters) and seeds.


To read more about protein and a plant-based lifestyle read my Strong Vegans blog post. Did you know the strongest man in the world does not eat meat or dairy?


Iron


Iron is a mineral essential for transporting blood around the body. Good plant sources include lentils, beans, chickpeas, tofu, cashews, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried fruit and quinoa. Vegans and vegetarians should aim to consume over the daily recommended amount, at 14.8mg for women and 8.7mg for men, as plant sources contain non-heme iron which is not as readily absorbed by the body.


During meals, avoid tea/coffee which inhibit iron absorption, and include sources of Vitamin A and C which promote iron absorption such as carrots, broccoli, bell peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, citrus fruits and berries.


Calcium


Calcium is a mineral essential for healthy bones. Good plant sources include tofu, leafy greens, almonds, sesame seeds/tahini, dried fruit, lentils and plant milks, cheese, yogurt and ice-cream.. The recommended daily amount for both women and men is between 1000 and 1300mg per day.



Omega 3


Omega 3 is a type of fat and is vital for the functioning of cardiovascular, reproductive, immune and nervous systems. Oily fish is usually the main food source. Good plant sources include kelp/algae/seaweed, flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds and soy. Vegetarians can also get a good source from eggs.


Iodine


Iodine is a mineral required to synthesise thyroid hormones. The main sources are from fish, dairy and eggs. Although grains, fruits and vegetables do contain iodine, levels tend to be very low and vegans could be at risk of deficiency. Good plant sources include seaweed and fortified table salts, alternatively, a supplement may be suitable. The recommended daily amount is 140mcg per day for women and men.


Seaweed can contain excessive amounts of iodine so enjoy sparingly.


Selenium


Selenium is an antioxidant mainly found in eggs, meat and fish. Good plant sources include brazil nuts, cashew nuts, sunflower seeds, couscous and whole wheat pasta. The recommended daily amount is 60mcg for women and 75mcg for men per day.


Broccoli, peas, spinach and potatoes are also great sources of Selenium.


Vitamin D


Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health by increasing calcium absorption. The best source of vitamin D is sunshine. Good plant sources include fortified plant milk, cereals, dairy-free yogurt such as coconut yogurt and vegan spreads.


How you choose to craft your plant-based diet and lifestyle is totally designed for your tastes and preferences. Eating more vegetables and less meat is not how most of us have lived and enjoyed our favorite foods. Transitioning to a plant-based diet requires an open mind, a curious palate and the desire to choose plant-based to achieve your healthy goals.


Sherimane Johnson is a Vegan Chef & Transition Guide with a focus on giving personalized one-to-one coaching to help you achieve your health goals. Whether it’s to lower the dependence on medication, improve cholestrol, reduce high blood pressure or lose body fat, Sherimane's mission is to help you get there. Sherimane specializes in Plant-based Transition, Plant-based Diet and Mindfulness.

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