Plant-based nutrition is gaining popularity, but dietitian Susan Bowerman says that you don’t need to become a vegan to benefit…
Plant-based diets and plant-based nutrition are both terms that we’re hearing more and more these days. And while the terms may be new to you, the concept of plant-based nutrition is not really a new one – plant-based diets are, for the most part, vegetarian in nature. But the definition isn’t a strict one, however – a plant-based diet really describes your approach to eating, rather than applying a label to you as a vegetarian or a vegan.
Simply put, a plant-based diet is just that – a way of eating in which there is an emphasis on plant foods in the diet.
Adopting a plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to declare yourself a vegetarian or a vegan. But it does mean that your diet will include plenty of nature’s bounty – in the form of colourful fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
Plant-based nutrition benefits
The benefits of eating more plant foods are well-known and numerous.
Plant foods are nutrient-dense, which means that they provide an abundance of nutrients relative to their calorie cost. Fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains are terrific sources of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, and they’re naturally cholesterol-free.
Most plant foods contribute a fair amount of fibre, too, so they help to fill you up and keep your digestive tract running smoothly. And, when you include plenty of these nutritious, filling foods in your diet, it leaves less room in your stomach for less than healthy fare.
Plant-based proteins, carbohydrates and fats
Protein, carbohydrate and fat are the “big three” nutrients – which is why they’re called the “macronutrients”. You need all three, in the right balance, in order for your body to function properly, and you also need “micronutrients” in the form of vitamins and minerals.
Different plant foods can provide these nutrients to the body, along with phytonutrients, which are naturally existing compounds in plant foods that are believed to contribute to health.
Most foods – plant or animal – are not strictly “proteins” or “carbs” or “fats” although we tend to think of them that way. For instance, the bulk of the kilojoules in whole grains are supplied by carbohydrate – which is why you probably think of brown rice as a “carb” – but whole grains are also a source of protein, and they contain small amounts of fat, too. Some people think of nuts as a protein source (which they are), but they contain a significant amount of fat, as well as dietary fibre, too.
If you’re thinking about incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, here are the main sources of protein, carbohydrate and fat in the plant world. Since some foods provide more than one macronutrient, some of them are mentioned in more than one category.
The major sources of plant-based protein include beans, peas and lentils, but whole grains also make a contribution.
While you may think of whole grains as more of a “carb” than a protein (and that’s true – most grains have more carbohydrate kilojoules than protein kilojoules), I include them here because whole grains contribute important essential amino acids to the diet.
Most vegans know that in order to obtain the full complement of essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins in the body), it’s important to consume both legumes (beans, peas, lentils) as well as whole grains.
While most plant-based diets place an emphasis on whole foods, I see no reason not to include other plant-based foods that are derived from these whole foods. So, in addition to legumes (beans, dried peas, lentils) and whole grains (brown or wild rice, oats, quinoa, millet and the like) other sources of plant-based protein include soy milk, soy cheese and soy yogurt, tofu, tempeh and protein powders made from plant sources such as soy, pea, rice, hemp, oats or quinoa.
These include fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains.
Beans, peas and lentils also contain carbohydrate, but are primarily a protein source, which is why I listed them above. These whole foods contribute not only carbohydrate – your body’s preferred source of fuel – but they are also great sources of filling fibre. (In case you are wondering, the only natural animal source of carbohydrate is milk. Milk naturally contains the sugar, lactose, which is a carbohydrate).
These include nuts and coconut, seeds, avocado and olives – as well as other foods made from these foods such as nut- and seed butters, nut- and seed oils, avocado oil and olive oil.
With the exception of coconut, plant-based fats are primarily unsaturated fats and are generally considered to be better for your health than highly saturated fats found in animal foods.
When you think of a plant-based diet, you might be thinking only of fruits and vegetables, but beans and grains count too, of course. And don’t forget those herbs and spices that you use to season your foods – they’re plants, too! Add up all the plant foods you eat in a day, and it’s possible you’re already consuming more of a plant-based diet than you thought.
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