Following a plant-based diet can most certainly carry health benefits, but it is important to be mindful of your nutritional needs and which foods will be providing for those needs should you make a radical dietary change.
It is equally important to understand where possible deficiencies may lie when choosing a different lifestyle.
Plant based foods are naturally high in fiber, and low in saturated fats, and provide a range of phytochemicals which can prevent chronic disease which makes them an attractive and healthy option for improved wellbeing.
As discussed a couple of weeks ago, proteins are essential for optimal health and are necessary for multiple functions in our bodies. Proteins are important for many cellular functions and processes; however, meat is not the only dietary source of protein.
Proteins can be complete or incomplete according to their amino acid profile. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and while some can be made by the body, many must be supplied through our diets. Amino acids can be provided from a variety of sources in a plant-based diet, such as lentils, beans, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, soy products, and whole grains, but they are seldom found in single foods, therefore must be combined to avoid deficiencies.
Besides amino acids, the most common nutritional deficiencies for people following a plant-based diet include:
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D3
- Omega 3 Fatty essential fatty acids
Vitamin B12 is created by bacterium and found primarily in animal products such as dairy, meat, and eggs. It is an easy vitamin to supplement and many foods, such as nut milks and nutritional yeast are often fortified with b12.
Symptoms of a Vitamin B12 deficiency include anemia, depression, fatigue, weakness, increased cardiovascular problems, impaired brain function, and neurological disorders
Vitamin D, which is often referred to as the sunshine vitamin is especially important, along with magnesium and Vitamin K for maintaining bone health. Exposure to sunshine helps for the production of Vitamin D, but in certain individual’s their genetics prevent them from adequately absorbing Vitamin D from the sun so they would need to supplement as well should their levels drop below what’s optimal.
Symptoms of Vitamin D deficiency include osteoporosis, lowered immune function, inflammatory disorders, and depression.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
EPA and DHA are essential Omega 3 fatty acids which are vital for the maintenance of cardiovascular health. While fish and eggs provide the richest sources, chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts and hempseeds also contain Omega-3’s.
Deficiencies in these fatty acids can result in dry skin, achy joints, allergies, and inflammatory conditions. DHA deficiencies specifically can result in cognitive as well as mental health issues. It is also vital for the brain development of a growing fetus.
The iron from plants is less easily absorbed by our bodies but eating a varied diet rich in whole plant foods should ensure enough iron for the average person. Leafy green vegetables, whole grains, lentils, peas, and dried fruits are all good sources of iron and eating them with foods that are rich in vitamin C will also help iron absorption.
Symptoms related to iron deficiency include anemia, fatigue, weakness, hair loss, and brittle nails.
Many beans, legumes, and whole grains are a good source of zinc, but the phytic acid which is a protective substance made by the plant can block the absorption of zinc and other minerals. However, soaking or sprouting grains and beans before cooking reduces the phytic acid.
Zinc deficiencies include weakened immunity, poor wound healing, and a lack of sense of smell/taste.
Whichever lifestyle you choose, balance is always key. When eliminating major food groups, we can’t afford to be too picky though if we want to make sure that all our nutritional needs are being met. Some people may need to make supplements part of their daily regime. There are many blood tests available that can check your nutritional status, so it is possible to keep an eye on those before reaching for the supplements.
Listen to my interview with Brad Kirsten from Radio Cape Pulpit on 29 July 2021 to learn more. Listen to my next interview on Thursday at 7.45am