Last week I was grateful to be asked to speak at a local Yoga Retreat run by my friend and yoga teacher, Alexa Nether. The retreat was held at the beautiful Clarendon Forest Retreat just a 30 minute drive inland from Forster. There was a big focus on relaxation and restoring energy levels and aside from two daily yoga sessions and a nightly yoga nidra, there was the most delicious vegetarian fare prepared by a local legend.
I decided to give my talk on the health benefits of a plant-based diet and the environmental benefits this has. I wanted to have a focus on how following a plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean giving up eggs, dairy, meat or fish but rather being more conscious about our intake and working on reducing it. Aside from discussing how to ensure nutritional adequacy on a plant-based diet we also talked about how small changes can have a big effect on our carbon footprint. A version of our discussion is outlined below.
Health Benefits of a Plant Based Diet
Vegetarians have been known to have one of the longest life expectancies, and a balanced plant-based diet can offer many health benefits including protection against;
- Heart disease,
- Many types of cancer,
- Hypertension (high blood pressure) and stroke,
- Overweight and obesity,
- Type 2 diabetes,
- Diverticular disease,
The health benefits may not only be due to the absence of meat, but also the increased consumption of plant foods. A plant-based diet is generally low in saturated fat, higher in dietary fibre, low in cholesterol, contains more fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes and is higher in antioxidants and phytochemicals.
Phytochemicals are not essential to survival but provide numerous health benefits including reducing the risk of chronic disease and fighting existing disease. Plants produce phytochemicals for their own survival and protection which leads us to think that organic foods are richer in phytochemicals. There may be as many as 100, 000 different kinds of phytochemicals, and often a hundred or more in a single plant.
Vegetarians often have a high intake of beans which are high in polyphenols and saponins, and whole grains, which are high in phenols. This high intake of phytochemical may attribute to why vegetarians enjoy a lower risk of certain diseases. Dark green vegetables (such as collards, kale, and spinach), cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cabbage), purple/blue fruits (such as blueberries and blackberries), tomatoes, citrus fruits, garlic, flaxseeds, and soybeans are also among the superstars of phytochemical-rich foods and are often rich in vegetarian based diets.
Obtaining Nutritional Adequacy
The following nutrients, vitamins, and minerals should be considered if following a vegetarian diet;
- Protein-Important for growth and repair. A well-balanced plant-based diet with adequate calories will contain a sufficient amount of protein. Good protein sources include legumes, nuts, quinoa, nuts/nut butters, seeds, whole-grains, and tofu. Eggs and dairy are also good protein sources.
- Iron – Transports oxygen around the body. Plant-based sources of iron include legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and green leafy vegetables; they contain non-haem iron which is absorbed much less by the body compared to haem iron from animals. To enhanced absorption;
- Add a source of vitamin C to a meal,
- Be mindful of iron inhibitors; phytates in legumes (better to soak them!) and unprocessed bran, tannins in tea and coffee and calcium in dairy and calcium supplements can interfere with absorption.
- Vitamin B-12 – Important for the formation of red blood cells and maintenance of the nervous system. Animal products are the only reliable source of B-12. If you are excluding eggs and dairy, the best sources may be B-12 fortified milk alternative or other fortified foods.
- Tempeh, miso and sea vegetables do not have reliable sources and often contain an inactive form of B-12 which can interfere with the absorption of active B-12.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids –DHA and EPA provide numerous health benefits and come from the omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood. Vegetarian sources of omega-3’s only contain ALA which can be converted to EPA and DHA but at a low conversion rate (~10%) and there are numerous inhibitory factors. Vegetarian sources of ALA include flaxseed seeds (and oil), chia seed, walnuts, canola oil, soy products and DHA-enriched eggs. To increase the conversion of ALA to DHA and EPA;
- Limit intake of omega-6 fatty acids (sunflower, safflower, corn, soybean oil), trans fatty acids, and alcohol,
- Supplement with DHA microalgea supplements if you are pregnant or lactating.
- Calcium – It is a common misconception that calcium comes only from cows. The recommendations are set at 3-4 serves of dairy products per day to meet the RDI for calcium. There are other sources of calcium including Asian greens such as guy choy and choy sum, kale and to a lesser extent broccoli and bok choy. Calcium-fortified milk alternatives are also available. To ensure adequate calcium;
- Minimise your intake of calcium inhibitors with your calcium-rich foods which include foods high in iron or phytates (in bran and un-soaked legumes),
- Ensure adequate vitamin D,
- Limit salt and caffeine intake as they increase excretion.
- Vitamin D – Important for bone health and is sourced from the sun and diet. The only vegetarian sources are eggs (minimal) and fortified foods. Risk of deficiency increases with age due to reduced skin thickness.
- Zinc – The availability of zinc in plant foods tends to be lower than in animal foods. Zinc is important for numerous functions including growth and development, reproduction, night vision, appetite, taste sensation, immune function healthy skin and would healing. Have foods high in zinc including legumes, whole grains, soy, nuts, seeds, eggs and cheese. To increase absorption;
- Have citrus with meals,
- Soak legumes before cooking to removed phytates,
- Sprout grains, nuts and seeds
Environmental Impacts of Exess Meat
- The production of meat has the environmental costs of both meat and plant food production. Most animals are fed on grains and legumes- approximately 40% of the world’s grain harvest is currently fed to animals (GMO corn/soy/grains fed to animals= environmental impacts),
- Food production is the second highest contributor to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions; 70% of these emissions come from animal production,
- In Australia, hard-hoofed animals are responsible for erosion, damage to waterways, damage to ecosystems, deforestation, depletion of non-renewable aquifers (underground water), contamination of streams and lakes, and pollution through pesticide dipping, hormone and antibiotic treatments and other medications,
- A 500g steak needs 4660 liters of water, mainly through the production of feed and pasture irrigation,
- In Australia, the water used for the pastures of grazing animals is more than the water used in the production of vegetables, fruit, sugar and rice combined.
Environmental Benefits of a Plant Based Diet
- On average plant protein production requires 10 times less land that the production of meat protein,
- Plant production uses much less phosphate fertilizers that meat production- The world’s supply of phosphate fertilizers is depleting and the price are increasing. Phosphate emissions can pollute non-agriculture soil and waterways,
- Production of plant food uses 2-5 times less water that animal foods,
- Depending on the type of farming, plant food production can use 6-20 times less fossil fuels than animal food production.
Steps to a Healthier You and Healthier Environment
A worldwide campaign to reduce chronic disease risk associated with over-consumption of meat. See my previous blog post here for more information.
If you eat fish, ask about how it was caught and the sustainability of the species. If you love red meat, think about more sustainably species such as kangaroo. Form your own opinion on if you want Genetically Modified foods in your household.
Everyone needs to set goals, but we rarely sit down and write them down. If you want to adopt a more plant-based diet, aim small and write your goals down. Try starting with one new legume recipe a week and pretty soon you will have a great repertoire of healthy legume recipes that are not only healthy and delicious but also cost-effective.
Website: Alexa Nether- Yogic
Website:Dietitians Association of Australia
Website:Livable Future Blog
Book:Ethical Eating – Angela Crocombe
Book:The Choice Guide to Food – Rosemary Stanton
Book:The Conscious Cook – Giselle Wilkinson
Rachel Dickens, The Conscious Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on plant-based nutrition, and share some of her favourite seasonal recipes and sustainable eating tips.