There is no official definition of a plant-based diet. Generally, a plant-based diet is an eating pattern that consists of wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, dairy, pulses, lentils, nuts and seeds, with little or no animal-based foods.
Plant-based diets do not always mean plant-only diets, and there are many different plant-based eating patterns or ‘diets’, including:
Lacto-ovo vegetarians: People who eat dairy foods and eggs but not meat, poultry or seafood.
Ovo-vegetarians: People who eat eggs but avoid all other animal foods, including dairy.
Lacto-vegetarians: People who eat dairy foods but exclude eggs, meat, poultry and seafood.
Pesco-vegetarians: People who eat seafood, dairy foods and eggs but not meat or poultry.
Vegans: People who don’t eat any animal products at all, including honey, dairy and eggs.
Well-planned plant-based, vegetarian and vegan diets can be nutritious and healthy. They are also associated with lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. This may be because such diets often contain foods lower in saturated fat, fewer calories, more fibre and more plant-based chemicals (phytonutrients/phytochemicals that can have beneficial/protective health properties).
Interestingly, studies also show that people who follow plant-based diets for health reasons are also more likely to engage in other health behaviours, such as regular physical activity and not smoking.
They may also be from a higher socio-economic group, which potentially means easier access to plant-based foods (kim et al, 2018). This suggests that people who follow a plant-based diet might already be at a lower risk of developing health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease – a prime example of how nutrition and dietary advice is not always black and white!
Remember, you don't necessarily have to become vegetarian or vegan, but adding in more plant-based foods to your diet can help you gain some of the health benefits mentioned above. You can start by adding in plant-based foods to what you’re eating already or try one or two plant-based eating days per week.
Can plant-based diets provide you with all the nutrients you need for healthy living?
In one word: yes! In 2017, The British Dietetic Association (BDA) confirmed in a statement alongside The Vegan Society that “it is possible to follow well-planned, vegan-friendly diets that can support healthy living in people of all ages, and during pregnancy and breastfeeding.”
Remember that plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diets often exclude whole food groups, so good nutrition knowledge and planning is key to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need. Andy Burman, BDA Chief Executive, said, “It is important that people choosing to eat a vegan diet can get the right advice from the right sources, and know to visit a dietitian for advice on tailoring their nutrition and diet.”
How can a dietitian help with my plant-based diet?
There are certain nutrients to pay close attention to on a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet. Nutrition guidance and support from a dietitian can help ensure that you’re achieving a balance of key nutrients important for long-term health. These include iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, omega-3, iodine and selenium.
Iron and Zinc: These minerals are important for a healthy immune system, wound healing and cell growth. Iron deficiency is common in women and can result in tiredness and lack of energy, pale skin, headaches and hair loss. It’s important to eat a variety of iron & zinc rich foods, including wholegrains, nuts, leafy green vegetables, dried fruit, pulses, fortified cereals and seeds. Some people may need guidance from a dietitian and/or GP to consider a supplement or a general multivitamin if struggling with their iron levels.
Calcium: Calcium is a mineral important for healthy teeth, strong bones, nerves and muscle function, amongst several other things. Dairy foods are the best calcium sources, so if you eat a dairy-free or vegan diet, it’s important to have a regular intake of calcium-fortified foods like plant-based milks, plant-based yoghurts, calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified cereals and bread.
Vitamin D: This essential vitamin is needed along with calcium and phosphorus for healthy bones, teeth and muscles. You can’t get enough vitamin D from food alone, so everybody, regardless of what diet you follow, is recommended to supplement with 10 micrograms (mcg) of vitamin D daily during autumn and winter as a minimum. Vegan supplement options include 10mcg vitamin D3 derived from lichen or vitamin D2 daily.
Vitamin B12: B12 is important for making red blood cells and maintaining a healthy nervous system. Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to tiredness, anaemia, nerve damage and higher homocysteine levels, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. This vitamin is mostly found in animal-based foods, so vitamin B12-fortified foods are important to ensure you’re getting enough every day. These include vitamin B12-fortified marmite, nutritional yeast flakes (often known as ‘nooch’), breakfast cereals, non-dairy milks, non-dairy yoghurts and spreads. Aim for 3 micrograms (mcg) per day from these foods/drinks. Supplements may also be an option – speak to your dietitian and/or GP for further advice.
Omega-3: Omega-3s are unsaturated fats important for heart-health, brain development and growth. Fish, especially oily fish, are a rich source of omega-3. If you don’t eat fish, plant-based sources include vegetable (rapeseed) oil, walnuts, ground flaxseed, hemp seeds and chia seeds. About 1 tablespoon of chia seeds or ground flaxseed, or about 6 walnut halves per day should help meet your requirements. Supplement options include omega-3 microalgae supplements, which may be particularly important in children or if pregnant/breastfeeding, due to the role of omega-3 fats in brain health.
Iodine: A mineral important for thyroid function and regulating metabolism, iodine-rich foods include dairy and fish. Plant-based sources such as seaweed and seaweed supplements aren’t reliable as iodine content can vary widely, and iodised salt isn’t ideal as generally a lower salt intake is recommended for heart health. Iodine-fortified plant-based milks are an option but check the label as iodine fortification isn’t very common yet. A supplement should be considered with guidance from your dietitian or GP.
Selenium: Selenium is an antioxidant mineral that helps prevent cell damage and is required for normal immune system and thyroid function. Fish is a good source of selenium, and plant-based sources include grains (e.g. brown rice, pasta and seeded bread), green and brown lentils, chia seeds, flax seeds and nuts (e.g. Brazil nuts, cashews and pecans). All these foods contain a varying amount of selenium so aren’t always reliable. Again, you could consider taking a supplement to ensure you’re covered.
Disclaimer: please discuss supplements with a registered dietitian or GP before use. The above information are general adult nutrition guidelines for plant-based diets.
The bottom line
It’s definitely possible to achieve a healthy balanced diet to support your long-term health whilst following a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet. This requires nutrition knowledge and planning ahead, and a dietitian can provide you with individualised advice and guidance for planning a healthful diet that meets your nutrient needs. Learn more about our dietitian services for vegetarians and vegans.