Plant-based Diets: Tried & tested or just trendy?
Plant-based was one of the trendiest terms of 2020 with plant-based diets being promoted for their perceived health benefits, sustainability and positive environmental impacts. Dietitian Suzanna gives us the low down on what exactly a "plant-based diet" is - and whether this diet is all it's made out to be.
Because there is no one precise definition of what "plant-based" means, this term is interpreted in a variety of ways. For some, "plant-based" implies veganism - where absolutely no animal products are allowed. For others, it might simply mean eating more plant foods than usual.
The true meaning of this term is all in the name - "plant" and "based". Any eating style that is based primarily around plant foods, and therefore with limited foods from animal sources, can be considered "plant-based".
In the context of scientific research, plant-based diets are eating patterns emphasising legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and discouraging - but not necessarily excluding entirely - animal products such as meat, seafood, eggs and dairy.
Plant foods such as those described above tend to be higher in fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, and lower in calories, fat, saturated fat and sodium than animal foods. It is well known that fibre helps us feel fuller for longer, helping us reduce our calorie intake, in turn assisting with weight management. Fibre also works to slow down the release of sugars into our bloodstream, and reduces the absorption of cholesterol from our intestinal tract.
It's no wonder then that plant-based diets are associated with improvements in weight and metabolic health, including the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes and the reduction of key diabetes-related complications. A 2017 systematic review of 96 scientific studies found that individuals following vegetarian or vegan diets had reduced levels of BMI, glucose, total cholesterol and LDL ("bad") cholesterol. However there were no significant differences in 10 other health outcomes including all-cause mortality, heart disease, stroke and several types of cancer.
It is important to note however that individuals who adhere to vegetarian or vegan diets are predominantly young, physically-active non-smokers with greater nutrition knowledge and more balanced diets. These variables tend not to be controlled for by many scientific studies. As it is not possible to disentangle the effect of these health-promoting behaviours from the effect of a plant-based diet, it is important not to attribute the health benefits seen solely to "going plant-based".
The evidence is strong in its support for including more plant foods in our diets. This doesn't mean we have to cut out animal foods entirely; rather we can aim to make plant foods - not animal foods - the main feature. To get you started, here are my 3 steps towards a plant-based diet:
#1 Plate It Up
Instantly get more plant foods into your day by filling half your plate at each meal with low-carb vegetables or salad. This helps reduce meat portions, fills us up with fibre, and also gives our bodies a nutrient boost. Using a Portion Plate, especially to begin with, is an easy way to get those portions right every time.
#2 One Day At A Time
Once you have the hang of that try going fully meatless one day a week. Personally, I love the idea of "meat-free Mondays"! On these days plan meals around protein-rich plant foods such as legumes or tofu. If you're feeling stuck for ideas you can also use plant-based convenience foods such as Sanitarium's Vegie Delight range which includes meatless meatballs, schnitzels, burgers and more. Once you're in the habit of a weekly meat-free meal, you might want to work towards going plant-based several times a week.
#3 Beans Instead of Beef
For meals where it's hard to go fully meatless try substituting half of the meat in the recipe with plant-based alternatives. For example, in a bolognese recipe you could replace part of the beef with beans such lentils or kidney beans. Firm tofu works well as a chicken replacement in stir fries and curries. Over time you may want to gradually decrease the meat while adding more legumes or tofu. Some meals may become entirely meatless while others may remain mixed - and that's ok.
Clark, C. (2020). What is a plant-based diet? Diabetes NSW & ACT.
Dinu, M, et al. (2017). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical Review in Food Science and Nutrition. 57(17):3640-3649.
McMacken, M, and Shah, S. (2017). A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. Journal of Geriatric Cardiology, 14(5): 342-354.