A whole plant-based whole food diet emphasizes on food sources that include all fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and herbs. It excludes all animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products as well as refined and processed foods. A healthy, plant-based diet’s goal is to maximize the consumption of all nutrient-dense plant foods. Over past several decades, plant-based nutrition has fulminated in popularity and benefits have been documented.
A whole food, plant-based diet is enriched with wide range of vitamins and minerals that meets your daily requirement of calories and considered as essential nutrients. Low-fat or balanced protein diet helps in weight management and provides positive health benefits.
As per US Department of Agriculture, American Cancer Society and American Heart Association, half of your plate should consist of fruits and vegetables. This is because the fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber, potassium, magnesium, iron, foliate, vitamin A, C and almost all essential nutrients that are usually deficit in case of unhealthy diet.
Proteins and amino acids:
Proteins are made up of one or more chains of essential amino acids, which is an integral part of a healthy diet. Proteins play a major role in every biological process. It helps in the structure, function, and regulation of body’s tissues and organs. A common misconception among people is that meat, dairy products and eggs are the only source of all essential amino acids. In fact, whole food plant-based diet provides adequate level of all essential amino acids. Protein-rich plant-based diet includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, quinoa, wheat, rice, and soy beans.
Intake of certain plant-based foods like legumes and beans in combination with grains forms a complete and balanced protein diet. Example of brown rice with legumes is considered as a well-balanced diet with adequate amounts of essential amino acids.
Generally, people who follow plant-based diet are not at risk of developing deficiency of protein. A variety in the combination of plant-based foods can prevent protein deficiency without any additional supplements.
The essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated that include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats are found in their shorter chain form as alpha linolenic acid and are used as energy. In plant-based foods, alpha linolenic acid is found in flax seeds, hemp-seeds, chia seeds, leafy green vegetables (both terrestrial and marine), soy beans, soy products, walnuts, wheat germ and their respective oils.
Plant-based foods are found healthier in comparison to fish (a good source of omega-3 fatty acid). This is because, unlike plant-based food, fish contains contaminants like heavy metals such as mercury, lead, cadmium and industrial pollutants etc.
The deficiency of these essential fatty acids may lead to skin, hair and nail abnormalities. Adequate intake of fatty acids is associated with a decreased incidence of heart diseases and strokes. People, who rely on plant-based diet for a longer period of time, may need to take supplements for omega-3 fatty acids. However, supplementation is more important for children or teenagers and pregnant or nursing women.
It is the most abundant element found in our body including bones, teeth, blood plasma and tissues. It helps in muscle contractions, transmission of nerve impulse, and blood coagulation. Daily intake of calcium should be around 800mg. Individuals who follow well-balanced plant-based diets are not at risk of developing deficiency of calcium. Dairy products are not the only source of calcium. Plant-based sources of calcium includes fruits and vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, collard green, spinach, kale, turnip, water cress, oranges, kiwi, and sweet potatoes. Well-balanced whole plant-based diet can decrease the risk of calcium deficiency in humans.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common types of nutritional deficiency. Many researchers have found that iron deficiency is rare in the individuals who follow a good plant-based diet. Usually, 18mg of iron each day is needed for adults. Infants and toddlers may need more. It is the most abundantly found metal on earth. Iron in plants have low bioavailability than the iron in meat but iron-rich foods such as pumpkin, spinach, lentils, kidney beans, cereals, and peas contain heme which is equal to iron present in red meat . No extra supplement is required for iron among normal individuals who follow a well-balanced plant-based diet.
It is a trace element found naturally in some foods. Certain plants found in sea, like sea weeds are rich in iodine content. Iodine plays an important role in growth, metabolism, production of thyroid hormones, reproduction, nerve and muscle function. Iodine is essential for cells in converting the food into energy. The average intake of iodine should be 150 micrograms per day. Iodized salt is readily available in market. If the individual does not prefer iodized salt, then he/ she should incorporate sea vegetables like kelp and dulse. One teaspoon of dulse flakes supplies adequate amount of iodine for a day.
Vitamin B12 plays a major role in blood formation and cell division. Vitamin B12 deficiency leads to irreversible nerve damage and macrocytic anemia. Individuals who follow only plant-based diet are at the risk of developing Vitamin B12 deficiency. A supplement of Vitamin B12 is required to overcome its deficiency. Recommended intake of vitamin B12 is 2.6mcg per day. Plant-based foods such as soy and cereals help in absorption of Vitamin B12 in the intestine.
Vitamin D deficiency is becoming prevalent in the general population. Vitamin D helps in calcium absorption and promotes bone health and growth. The deficiency of
Vitamin D results in impaired bone formation and low bone mineral density however the main source of Vitamin D is sunlight. Plant-based sources of Vitamin D include soy milk and cereal grains. Direct sunshine on skin for at-least 20-30mins can provide adequate Vitamin D.
A well-balanced and planned plant-based diet should be able to provide all the essential nutrients to the body. The individuals following such diet may not need to take any supplements or may require very few supplements for a healthy living.
Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT. Plant-Based Diets: A Physician’s Guide. Perm J. 2016 Summer; 20(3): 93–101.
Philip J Tuso, MD.Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. Perm J. 2013 Spring; 17(2): 61–66.