- Clare Backhouse
So, you're thinking about plant-based eating
So, you’re thinking about plant-based eating. Or at least, eating more plant foods, and fewer animal products?
Perhaps you tried Veganuary, and you’re wondering what next.
Well, you’re certainly tracking with much research and widespread trends in eating.
There are many reasons one might reduce the amount of meat one eats, including:
- personal health
- to avoid animal cruelty
- to be environmentally responsible.
Many people assume that because I’m a nutritionist, I must be strictly vegan or vegetarian.
But it may surprise you that my entire Functional Medicine-based training has prepared me not to favour any one specific mode of eating.
Personally, too, I aim for a zero-judgement approach: I am not going to change my attitude to anyone based on what I see them eating, or not eating. (And once you’ve admitted ever to eating 100 grams of Dairy Milk in one day - as I did last month - you really can’t judge anybody!)
Caveats and cautions
As Jeeves might put it, diet is about the physiology, and the psychology, of the individual. For example, one person may be genetically well-disposed to break down nutrients from a mainly-vegetable diet, while another could wilt on the very same diet.
As anyone who knows me will know, the only kind of meat I ever advocate eating is high-welfare, pasture-raised, organic meat. And I do believe the environmental and humane aspects of animal farming entirely depends on what kind of farming is done. There is certainly a lot of very bad animal husbandry out there.
On the other hand, what you absolutely didn't hear me say, is ‘go vegan’. While I often encourage my clients to eat a lot of plant foods, and have a proportion of plant-based meals, as I said, my job is never to persuade everyone towards a particular diet.
However: if you are already thinking of reducing the amount of meat you eat, let me offer some general tips for consideration which DO apply to most people heading in this direction.
A fully plant-based diet requires care, if one is to avoid important deficiencies. Even a vegetarian diet requires a fair amount of thoughtfulness. The fewer animal foods in a diet, the more consciously one must navigate certain nutrients.
Some of the possible deficiencies on a plant-based diet can cause dizziness, anaemia, mental health problems, and even predispose to eating disorders. Fatigue is another very common symptom. How can we try to avoid all that?
Let’s look at some of the things we may need to think about afresh in a plant-based context.
First, we have the MACRO nutrients – that is, protein, fat, or carbohydrate. We’ll need to think carefully about protein, in particular, and fats – including omega three fatty acids.
For protein, the great thing to remember is the WHO guidelines of consuming 50g of protein per day. Vegan protein comes from beans, peas, other pulses, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and soy products (though I am cautious about soy owing to its estrogenic properties).
If you were to use a protein powder in smoothies, I’d suggest using a pea protein plus a hemp protein, to ensure that you eat all 20 of the essential amino acids, or protein blocks, at once.
50 grams is actually quite a lot of protein (consider that half a can of baked beans contains only 9 grams), so you may want to track your daily intake using a phone app like Chronometer or MyFitnessPal.
Fat is extremely important. If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ll know I am very much in favour of healthy amounts of fat. The fat we eat supports the fat found in the lining of every cell of our body, and it’s essential for brain health as well as building hormones. I generally suggest plenty of olive oil and avocado oil poured over salads and vegetables, and coconut oil for cooking.
For omega three fatty acids, the vegan society recommends eating a tablespoon of chia seeds or ground linseed, two tablespoons of hemp seeds or six walnut halves daily. My advice usually would be to increase this, though, because the conversion of vegan forms of omega three fats into the active / beneficial forms (we are talking ALA into EPA and DHA) isn’t often efficient in humans. Hence I often recommend a vegan omega 3 supplement here.
Then we have the MICRO nutrients – ie, vitamins and minerals. For plant-based eaters, the critical ones include: B12, Zinc, Iron, Iodine, Vitamin D, Selenium.
These nutrients are easily accessed and absorbed in high levels from animal foods, but less so in all respects from plant foods. Hence, they require care.
B12 is used in the body to break down food, produce DNA, make blood cells and form neurotransmitters. According to Dr James Greenblatt, who specialises in cognitive and behavioural disorders, B12 deficiency underlies most if not all psychiatric conditions. It can also be a factor in anaemia, dizziness, chronic fatigue, MS, autoimmune diseases, and cognitive impairment.
All vegans require B12 supplementation, because it is only found in animal-derived foods, but deficiency is often a risk for vegetarians too.
The irritant here, though, is that some people have a genetic polymorphism which means that they don’t USE the B12 they consume.
This means that one’s GP blood test could show plenty of B12, but one’s body isn’t actually implementing the stuff. (There are other markers which can be used to detect true B12 status, but sadly they’re usually not available on the NHS.) The great thing is to find a supplement that is widely well-absorbed, and I often suggest a hydroxy-type one.
Zinc is important for growth and development, immunity, neurotransmitters and sex hormones. (Interestingly, someone with a low sex drive may well be low in zinc.) Without meat, it’s fairly easy to become deficient in zinc, because many zinc-containing plant foods also contain phytates, which inhibit its absorption in the body.
Several key symptoms of zinc deficiency and of anorexia are the same, and this is no coincidence: in some cases, anorexia is caused by a dietary deficiency in zinc. These shared symptoms include: decreased appetite, nausea, decreased taste and smell, insomnia and depression.
Crucially for young people, zinc requirements are extra high in puberty. Becoming deficient in zinc is a genuine risk for pre-teen and teen-aged people, particularly because it can increase risk of eating disorders through a reduction in appetite. Girls have especially high zinc requirements before and during puberty, and if they adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet around this time, it’s crucial that zinc intake is monitored. Some young people benefit from supplementation for a period of time.
In a plant-based diet, zinc is available from beans, chickpeas, lentils, walnuts, chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, wholemeal bread and quinoa. BUT in order to ensure that the zinc is the most bioavailable possible, soaking and sprouting pulses, nuts and seeds helps to reduce the phytates that can interfere with absorption. Again, I will often recommend a zinc compound that’s easily used in the body (not all zinc supplements are well absorbed).
Iron is another very common deficiency, particularly because the type of iron found in plants is less absorbable than that from animal foods. The World Health Organisation estimated in 2011 that 43% of children and 38% of women globally were anaemic, of which 42-60% were anaemic specifically due to iron deficiency. Here again, soaking and sprouting pulses will be important, so that, for example, one absorbs maximum iron from one’s chickpeas. Caffeine must also be kept separate from iron foods, because this too can inhibit digestive uptake. On the other hand, ensuring that you eat plenty of vitamin C with iron-rich foods will help, since this has been shown to support iron absorption.
Iodine can be taken from seaweeds, and is crucial for thyroid health; selenium can be taken from organic brazil nuts, and is vital for thyroid hormones. And vitamin D, which we need for bone health among other things – well, if you aren’t getting much sun, and you’re a vegan, you may do well to find a lichen-based D3. But Vitamin D (which is in fact a hormone) can be toxic in large amounts, so I generally advise testing at the GP first.
Well! I hope this has been a useful overview of factors to consider when adopting or leaning towards a more plant-based diet. Do ask me any questions.
Next post, I’m going to pay attention to the environmental impact of our diets. The 2019 Eat-Lancet report strongly advocated a very low animal product diet in order to preserve the planet. But I’m going to argue that vegan or low-meat diets aren’t, by themselves, necessarily beneficial to the environment.
In environmental terms, I’m much more interested in HOW our food is produced, than WHAT we choose to eat.
And why this cavalier approach? Well, for me, it’s all about the future of soil fungus.
Indeed. Networks of mushrooms in the ground ... A matter I hope you will consider with me next time!
Until next month,
To your best of health, Clare
Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT, Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC
Consultations in London, in West Sussex, and online
Chandy, Joseph, 2019. Vitamin B12 Deficiency in Clinical Practice.
Greenblatt, James, 2010. Answers to Anorexia.
Oregon State University, 2019. Linus Pauling Insitute Micronutrient Information Center. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/
Vegan society https://www.vegansociety.com/
Wessells, K.R., Brown, K.H., 2012. Estimating the Global Prevalence of Zinc Deficiency: Results Based on Zinc Availability in National Food Supplies and the Prevalence of Stunting. PLoS One 7.
Willett, W., Rockström, J., Loken, B., Springmann, M., Lang, T., Vermeulen, S., Garnett, T., Tilman, D., DeClerck, F., Wood, A., Jonell, M., Clark, M., Gordon, L.J., Fanzo, J., Hawkes, C., Zurayk, R., Rivera, J.A., Vries, W.D., Sibanda, L.M., Afshin, A., Chaudhary, A., Herrero, M., Agustina, R., Branca, F., Lartey, A., Fan, S., Crona, B., Fox, E., Bignet, V., Troell, M., Lindahl, T., Singh, S., Cornell, S.E., Reddy, K.S., Narain, S., Nishtar, S., Murray, C.J.L., 2019. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet 393, 447–492.
World Health Organisation, 2015. The Global Presence of Anaemia in 2011.