The diet everyone is talking about

What you need to know!

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
@EmmaThornton
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23 December 2019

Every year we see diet trends that people go mad for! This year is no exception, as food experts have predicted that plant-based diets are going to become more popular in 2020. Today, I'm going to focus on some key information about plant-based diets, including:

  • What is a plant-based diet?
  • The health benefits of a plant-based diet
  • Possible health risks of a plant-based diet.

There are a few reasons behind the rise of plant-based diets. Firstly, IGD's ShopperVista research shows that 55% of UK shoppers are reducing their meat intake.1 Secondly, plant-based food is becoming more available in restaurants and takeaways. According to the British Takeaway Campaign, plant-based food was the fastest grown cuisine of takeaway orders between 2016 and 2018.2 Furthermore, over 90% of takeaway restaurants offer plant-based foods. So, the consumers have spoken and plant-based diets are becoming more popular!

1. What is a plant-based diet?

Of course, the hint is in the title - a plant-based diet consists of foods that are derived from plant sources. These include beans, nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes. Plant-based diets do not include fast food, processed meat, crisps, chocolate or sweets. Some people might be put off the idea of a plant-based diet because they think that it's the same as a vegan diet, however, there are a few different types of plant-based diets. These include:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian – This diet includes plant-based foods as well as dairy products and eggs but excludes meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Ovo-vegetarian – This diet includes plant-based foods as well as eggs but it excludes any other animal foods like meat and dairy.
  • Lacto-vegetarian – This diet includes plant-based foods and dairy but excludes eggs, meat, poultry and seafood.
  • Pescatarian – This diet includes plant-based foods as well as fish or shellfish but excludes meat or poultry.
  • Vegan – This diet includes plant-based foods but excludes all animal products including honey, dairy and eggs
  • Flexitarian - This diet includes an increased intake of plant-based foods, but still allows for the occasional meat dish. 

A plant-based diet is based on foods derived from plants, but can include small amounts of animal products. 

2. Health benefits of a plant based diet

There are several health benefits of plant-based diets!

Firstly, plant-based diets tend to be lower in saturated fat, or "the bad fats". Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products, but they can also be found in plant sources such as coconut oil. Saturated fats can raise low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) in the blood which may lead to atherosclerosis (a build-up of fatty deposits that clog the arteries).

As well as this, a diet that is high in saturated fats can also lead to weight gain.3 Being overweight or obese is a risk factor for atherosclerosis as well as other cardiovascular problems. As I mentioned in "5 food swaps for weight loss", heart health and weight go hand in hand, so consuming plant-based foods may help to keep your heart and weight healthy!

Speaking of heart health, plant-based diets have also been associated with reducing hypertension (high blood pressure). A large cohort study in China found that higher consumption of fruit was associated with low blood pressure and low glucose levels,4 which suggests that consuming fruit may help to reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome. This syndrome is characterised by raised blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. Having 3 or more of these risk factors puts you more at risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Secondly, plant-based diets tend to provide high amounts of dietary fibre. Foods that are high in fibre tend to have a low energy density (they provide fewer calories per gram), meaning that you can eat more whilst consuming fewer calories. Fibre also helps you to feel fuller for longer which may prevent you from snacking on high energy density foods.

Finally, plant-based diets can have a positive effect on your mood. Legumes contain plenty of fibre, protein and iron to support your energy levels, whilst also being rich in magnesium and folic acid. Magnesium is an important mineral for your mood and energy levels, as it can help to convert tryptophan into serotonin and is needed to maintain healthy GABA levels – if you want to learn more, have a look at my blog "Which hormones make you feel tired?".

3.Possible health risks of a plant-based diet

Although there are some health benefits of plant-based diets, there is some negativity associated with them. The biggest challenge of a plant-based diet is making sure that you get enough key nutrients, including:

Calcium

Calcium is essential for bone health and is found in large quantities in dairy products. If you do not eat dairy products you could be at risk of a calcium deficiency. Plant-based sources of calcium include dried apricots, kale and soya milk. If you're following a plant-based diet, add some of these into your daily routine.

Iron

Iron is essential since it helps to make red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. A lack of iron may lead to iron deficiency anaemia and this can be common when following a plant-based diet.5

Iron is found in several plant sources (non-haem iron), however, these aren't absorbed as well as iron from animal sources (haem iron). Good quality, organic red meat can be a good source of iron for those not following a strictly plant-based diet. If you are struggling to get enough iron in your diet or suspect that you have anaemia, speak to your doctor and ask for a ferritin test to determine if the levels of iron stored in your body are too low.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is essential for the body since it aids the production of red blood cells and helps to release energy from food. Vitamin B12 deficiency is common when following a plant-based diet since vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal sources. But, don't panic, there are some vegan sources of vitamin B12 - breakfast cereals and soya drinks are often fortified with vitamin B12.

Iodine

Iodine is required to make thyroid hormones that are essential for growth and development so, if you don't get enough in your diet, you may have low levels of thyroid hormone.

A lack of iodine over a long period of time can also cause the thyroid gland to swell and increase in size, which is known as a goitre. Iodine is found in fish and dairy products. If you are following a plant-based diet, consider including nuts in your diet to help avoid an iodine deficiency.

If you are following a plant-based diet, it's important to ensure that you are getting all of your key nutrients. If you suspect that you are lacking some of these key nutrients, up your intake of the foods I've mentioned above or speak to your doctor.


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So, what can you take away from this blog?

Plant-based diets are expected to become increasingly popular in 2020. These diets have several health benefits including weight loss and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. However, when following this diet, you may be at risk of nutrient deficiency. If you decide to follow this diet, make sure that you are including all of the key nutrients.

What you said!

We recently ran a poll to find out if you have ever tried a plant-based diet. We've crunched the numbers and here are the results.

Results: Have you ever tried a plant-based diet?

Plant-based diets are not only beneficial to health, they are also really tasty, and with 41.7% of you saying you have tried a plant-based diet and enjoyed it, you must agree!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

  1. https://shoppervista.igd.com/presentations/presentation-viewer/t/plant-based-diets-entering-the-mainstream-part-one/i/8859
  2. https://www.britishtakeawaycampaign.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/BTC-report_FINAL.pdf
  3. https://www.nature.com/articles/ijo2017169
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?Db=pubmed&Cmd=ShowDetailView&TermToSearch=27050205
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6367879/

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