A year ago I committed to an experiment of going vegetarian, as part of Vegan month in November. It did not go well.
The reason it was a disaster was that I had not considered everything I needed to, especially in relation to my iron deficiency. A plant-based diet has become popular for various reasons, like health, anti-cruelty to animals or environmental consciousness. While we support the diet and its benefits, we also need to highlight some of the risk factors associated with it. When it comes to health issues there is no one size fits all.
For a long-term plant-based diet, here are the things to consider:
Fruits and vegetables
This obvious food group is usually top-of-mind when we talk about a plant-based diet. What is tricky is knowing how to consume it. For example, spinach is packed with iron, but it also contains a natural element that blocks some of the iron absorption by your body. Hence it is recommended that you consume Vitamin C-rich foods like strawberries, oranges or red peppers to boost iron absorption. Same with fruits: some contain lots of sugar and, while it may all be natural, too much of anything is never a good idea. So understanding daily intake limits, complimentary combinations and seasonal eating is important.
Vitamin-rich and a good source of carbohydrates, root vegetables are often overlooked as we’ve been told that carbs are bad. According to Harvard Medical School, when you limit carbohydrates, you deprive your body of a main source of fuel and many essential nutrients that you need to stay healthy. What is vital with carbohydrates is to know the different types and how to consume them. For example, roast potatoes may be better than fried potatoes. Root vegetables include beetroot, potatoes and sweet potatoes.
The ongoing debate about animal milk vs plant milk is an interesting one. If you are trying to cut down or moo-ve away from dairy milk, there are a lot of milk substitutes now available in supermarkets. What many food activists highlight about plant-based milk is the addition of substances like synthetic vitamins, natural flavours or sugar to try to thicken the milk. This is caused most often by manufacturers trying to save money by using minimal quantities of the base products. You can imagine how many almonds go into a carton of milk, for example. You can always try and make your own plant-based milk at home.
Sometimes called pulses, legumes are a primary part of many healthy eating forms such as Mediterranean and vegetarian diets. This highly nutritious food group provides protein, fibre, B vitamins, iron and carbohydrates among other nutrients – essential in a plant-based diet. Legumes are also reported to be highly effective in the prevention and management of various health conditions.
High in protein, nuts are a healthy snack and a good hunger buster, especially in the late afternoon. Besides their health benefits, ranging from lowering cholesterol to anti-inflammatory properties, nuts are also great additions to desserts. Almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, macadamias and walnuts are ranked as the top five healthiest nuts. Try to buy these in bulk to save on costs.
Wholegrains and seeds
Essential for overall health, wholegrains and seeds are the prime source of complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats, yet are often overlooked. These hearty alternatives are linked to a lowered risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and other health problems. Grains which are sometimes referred to as cereals are best when consumed as wholegrains, e.g. the indigenous South African grains like gluten-free amaranth, sorghum, Bambara groundnut and pearl millet. They can be consumed as porridge or cereal, rice, flour, leafy green veggies, snacks, malt and beer. Pumpkins seeds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds and others are easily consumed with salads, cereals, snacks and smoothies.
There is a lot of information available about a plant-based diet, and it is very critical to find out what works for you. If you are on medication, a consultation with your doctor is important so as to not compromise your health while trying to improve it. Learning and knowing about supplements and various nutrient replacements and substitutes is a good place to start. If it all seems too overwhelming, invest in nutrition therapy and remember that small changes lead to a whole lifestyle transformation.