Plant based diets and specifically vegan diets are all the rage right now. In fact, vegan foods were one of the fastest growing supermarket categories of the last few years.
It appears the promotion of plant-based lifestyles in mainstream media and among celebrity circles — think Ellen and Portia, Alicia Silverstone and Ariana Grande — is continuing to gain momentum, both for the associated health benefits as well as environmental concern and to support animal rights.
But adopting a vegan lifestyle isn't easy. There's a lot more planning, and you'll need to really think how you can keep up nutrients such as protein.
Unlike a vegetarian approach which generally excludes meat, chicken and seafood, vegan diets eliminate all animal foods — including eggs and dairy. All meals are based around fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and dairy alternatives such as soy and rice milk. As such vegan diets are relatively high in carbohydrate, high in fibre, relatively low in protein and exceptionally low in saturated fat.
There are numerous health benefits associated with plant based diets — lower body weights, reduced risk of developing some types of cancer, reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes and a longer lifespan.
Generally speaking the choice to follow a 100 per cent plant-based lifestyle is personal — while it may be motivated by the associated health benefits for many, the decision results from factors including environmental concern, animal rights, religious belief and personal experience.
For whatever reason the decision to become vegan in the short or long term is made, the key thing to be aware of is that completely eliminating entire food groups has implications for our overall nutritional intake.
The key nutrients impacted when meat, fish, dairy and eggs are eliminated include protein, iron, Vitamin B12, zinc and calcium, and as such specific meal planning is required to ensure that nutritional adequacy is reached when your diet becomes 100 per cent plant based.
If you are thinking about, or already following a vegan diet, it's crucial that you include a lot of nutrient dense legumes such as kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils.
You'll also need to stock up on fortified products such as soy milk, whole grain breads and cereals which often have added nutrients such as iron.
Additionally, there's a big market for specifically formulated vegan foods such as bounce snack balls which include mixes of rice and pea protein to give a similar nutritional profile to animal-based proteins, which the body is more readily able to assimilate.
A simple rule of thumb is to ensure that every meal and snack consumed on a vegan diet includes at least one of these foods, for example wholegrain breakfast cereal and soy milk for breakfast, or a salad with lentils or chickpeas for lunch.
For those trying a vegan diet for the first time, it is also important to remember that not all processed vegan foods are healthy. A quick perusal of the health food aisle can see a number of vegan cakes, biscuits and pastries which can be just as unhealthy as regular processed food. The below is a vegan cake from My Little Panda Kitchen. While it might not have any animal products in it, it's clearly not a health food.
The health benefits associated with a vegan diet comes from a diet based largely on natural, unprocessed foods.
For those individuals with especially high energy demands, such as individuals exercising regularly; pregnant women or those with low iron levels (25 per cent of adult women), it is also important to remember that it can be challenging to get the amounts of iron, zinc and Vitamin B12 on a 100 per cent vegan diet.
For this reason if your personal choice is to be vegan, a consultation with a dietitian will ensure you are ticking the boxes on all of your essential nutrients within your vegan regimen.
The majority of us will benefit from diets that contain a higher proportion of plant based foods. While you do not need to be 100 per cent vegan to reap these benefits, adopting a plant-based diet at least some of the time will only have benefits for your health, as long as you do it the right way.