The benefits of a plant-based diet for beginners, for weight loss, during pregnancy, breastfeeding and beyond. Bust through the myths & find out the facts, and why so many are interested in a vegetarian & vegan lifestyle these days, including top athletes.
I’ve been vegetarian for around 10 years and, personally I feel so much healthier without meat. Not to mention how much better it feels in my soul. I truly believe it would be impossible for me to eat meat now, even if it was a question of survival because it doesn’t feel right ( and hasn’t since I was a child).
I pushed those feelings away for many years, thinking I ‘needed’ red meat and advocating a ‘paleo’ &/or ‘Keto’ based diet in my naturopathic practice until I found that actually, I was healthier without it.
Even my iron levels went up when I switched to plant-based sources of iron instead of meat. And I’m an ‘O’ blood type, the type that apparently ‘needs’ meat more than other types, to be healthy!
Having said that, I’m not here to convert anyone to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, but simply to dispell some of the myths and clarify some of the facts.
And to perhaps inspire you more towards a predominantly plant-based diet for the health benefits, not to mention the benefits to the environment.
The world health organization confirms that over 90% of human exposure to POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) exist mainly through eating meat, dairy, fish, and shellfish. These are chemical compounds that are prevalent in our environment and accumulate in the animals fatty tissue. Yuk!
So what about protein?
Protein forms the basis of essential body tissues like skin, muscle, bone matrix and marrow. They provide structure, function, and regulation for tissues and organs. Pretty important stuff!
High quality, clean-burning and bio-available plant protein doesn’t have the same toxicity risk associated with a meat-based diet. Not to mention the added bonuses of saturated fats (the bad cholesterol), hormones and antibiotics.
Unfortunately, most people think that the only way (or perhaps the best way) to get plenty of protein is to eat a meat-based diet. This belief is actually quite flawed.
It’s SO easy to get all the protein and other nutrients you need on a plant-based diet.
ALL PLANT FOODS CONTAIN PROTEIN!
Complete protein sources are hemp seeds, sprouted grain bread like Ezekial bread, chia, tofu, tempeh, quinoa, spirulina, sacha inchi seed and pea protein.
Other sources of plant proteins may lack 1 or 2 of the 9 essential amino acids, and there’s a theory that vegans need to combine sources of protein to ensure they get enough of the 9 essentials in one sitting.
This theory has recently been questioned and revised and is no longer considered accurate.
I was actually taught this while studying nutrition, but now it seems a little crazy to me that the perfect wisdom of the body isn’t able to combine all these building blocks on its own, with the food provided by our creator.
So please, let’s THROW THIS MYTH OUT THE WINDOW!
Honestly, if you’re consuming a quality, diverse plant-based diet you are going to get enough protein, and the body knows what to do with it. Period!
Let’s keep it simple & stop making a natural plant-based diet seem hard or unnatural. It’s not! 😀
So most of us know that saturated fats and trans fats are the bad guys, causing heart clogging, & high cholesterol, and are found in dairy, beef, and bacon, as well as in processed and fast food.
The good guys are your mono-saturated fatty acids – the Omega family (3,6 &9). And no you don’t have to eat fish to get Omega 3.
Here’s how to get plenty of the good stuff:
- Eat lots of seeds – saviseeds are actually the highest source of omega-3 on the planet, followed closely by hemp seeds and chia seeds. Sunflower seeds are also good
- Eat lots of nuts – especially walnuts, almonds and brazil nuts. They are an extremely healthy snack if you buy them raw and salt them yourself with sea salt.
Better still, soak them overnight, strain, salt and dehydrated overnight. This neutralizes the phytic acid and other enzymes, making them easier to digest.
- Cook with coconut oil, and use it in raw desserts
- Eat lots of avocados. This is easy to do since they’re so versatile. You can even use them in raw desserts and chocolate mousse. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it – delicious!
In the west, we’ve been programmed to look to dairy products to provide calcium, but actually, the calcium in plants is far more bio-available and doesn’t come with the same inflammatory effects as dairy.
Sesame seeds & tahini are top of the list. There are many other rich sources like lentils, kale, figs, sweet potatoes, hemp milk, tempeh, almonds.
Many are told that if they don’t eat meat, they won’t get enough iron but this is just not true.
Iron-rich plant foods are black beans, kidney beans, lentils, blackstrap molasses, dark leafy greens (especially kale), dried apricots, very ripe bananas (indicated by the blackening skin), quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, nuts & seeds, spirulina, chlorella.
And actually, the iron in these foods is far more absorbable since it exists with its co-factors in it’s natural form, like Vitamin C, and this enhances absorption.
You can combine these foods with vitamin c rich foods (which your greens have naturally), for example, grate lemon peel into a stir fry with lentils or beans. This is delicious and has many health benefits. Another way is a green smoothie as a way of getting in plenty of dark green leafies.
A blood test taken to check iron levels actually doesn’t give you the level of bio-available iron, and therefore is not a clear indication of how the body is able to assimilate it into body tissue where it’s needed.
Most people are not actually iron deficient, but iron co-factor deficient (vitamin c, magnesium, manganese, copper).
Vitamin B12 can be found attached to the proteins in many foods, but it’s not absorbable this way.
It’s the role of the proteases (enzymes which aid protein digestion) and hydrochloric acid found in the stomach, to separate the B12 from these foods, breaking them down into a form which can be easily absorbed.
As much as 5mg can be stored in the liver at one time, which may not sound like a lot, but this reserve can be stored for up to five years, and the body only needs around 0.2% of this to be released every day in order to function efficiently.
So even if someone is not obtaining enough through their diet, their past reserves may be able to sustain them for a decent period of time, so symptoms of eventual deficiency may take years to manifest.
I get my B12 from eating good quality local free-range eggs and putting nutritional yeast(fortified with B 12) on just about everything savory!
Vegans will find that many foods such as certain non-dairy milks, cereals & spreads, and nutritional yeast flakes are naturally fortified with B12.
Another vegan source is chlorella, but make sure it’s a good source with measurable levels. Dulce flakes and sushi nori have been known to contain it but may not be a reliable source.
At present, the Vegan Society doesn’t consider algae such as these to be a reliable B12 source and instead advises taking vitamin B12 supplements which contain vitamin B12 in its natural form (methylcobalamin).
Plant & fortified sources of B12 are not bound to protein, so have a greater bio-availability (increased and easier rate of absorption through the gut lining), unlike animal-based versions which rely more on the efficiency of digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid in the stomach to break it down.
However, vegans have been known to suffer B 12 deficiencies for various reasons, and in some cases, it is necessary to supplement – I recommend a Sublingual Vitamin B12 as it absorbs easily under the tongue, dosage minimum of 250 mcg.
So is a plant-based diet really good for weight loss?
A recent study cited veganism as the most effective weight loss diet. This is likely due to the removal of inflammatory foods – meat and dairy – since so many weight issues are due to inflammatory problems which mess with the metabolism.
- Try substituting meat for legumes – have a look at the endless & delicious ways you can prepare the many different legumes. They fill us up and give you that satisfied carb feeling.
- Try nut cheese to replace cheese, sour cream & dairy-based dips. Simple and far cheaper to make your own. Google cashew cheese for a recipe.
- Try coconut yogurt instead of dairy yogurt – Nudie is the best brand by far (especially the vanilla)! We go through so much of that stuff! Clean, sugar-free, and delicious!
- Try oat or almond milk instead of cows milk (sorry but it really was intended for baby cows, not humans 😉 )
- Try raw vegan desserts instead of dairy, gluten & sugar filled sweets.
- Have a daily healing green smoothie!
… and watch your body transform!
What about during Pregnancy?
I often hear mums tell me they were vegetarian or vegan before they became pregnant then started eating meat &/or dairy again, fearing they weren’t getting enough nutrients for their babies.
You might say ‘pregnant women need more folate, calcium, vitamin D, and protein. Don’t you need animal products to meet these requirements?’
The short answer is no 😀
You can easily get all of these nutrients more than adequately, through a plant-based diet.
There’s 40 mcg of folate in a cup of tempeh, and 379 mcg in ½ cup navy beans, compared to 11 mcg in a 3 oz piece of steak.
A cup of almond milk actually contains more calcium than a cup of cows milk!
Personally, I maintained a vegetarian diet right through pregnancy & breastfeeding. Eggs (occasionally) were the only non-plant food I ate during pregnancy and I felt great!
When I started breastfeeding I began to crave butter & cheese, as my essential fatty acid deficiency was highlighted. When I increase my plant oil intake, usually by having a regular teaspoon of unrefined coconut oil, the cravings go.
While the average healthy woman should be taking in roughly 46 grams of protein per day, you really need to be getting 70 or so per day during your pregnancy.
But check out these figures:
– 3 oz grass-fed strip steak = 19.6 g protein compared to 1 cup tempeh = 30.78 g or ½ cup navy beans = 23.2 g protein!
– Or 1 oz cheddar cheese = 6.8 g protein compared to 1 cup cooked quinoa = 8.1 g protein!
You’ll get your 70 g easily on a quality, diverse, plant-based diet!
One of the reasons that many western women tend to gain too much weight during pregnancy & experience complications like gestational diabetes & preeclampsia is because they think they need to eat more protein so load up on the meat & dairy.
Our digestive system is already compromised during pregnancy so foods that are hard to digest add further pressure.
Plus you have the food poisoning risk that comes with meat & dairy, which you don’t want during pregnancy.
Dark leafy greens are nature’s gift to pregnant women. Folic acid is one of the most important nutrients for developing your baby’s skeletal and nervous system, and leafy greens are loaded with it!
It’s simple – plants provide us with the most abundant source of nutrients. In my view, you can’t beat a diverse, organic (or pesticide-free) plant-based diet whilst pregnant.
My favorite nutritional pregnancy tip by far is treating yourself to a Green Smoothie every day
There are many benefits whilst breastfeeding as well.
I highly recommend increasing the following foods to support & boost your milk supply:
- Freshly ground flaxseed
- Nutritional yeast
- Hemp seeds
- Nuts and nut butters
- Also be sure to drink plenty of water
Other general eating tips:
- Fill your plate with as much color as you can, and make sure to eat a good variety of every grain, bean, vegetable, fruit, and nut that you can get your hands on. Nature has provided a plethora of foods packed full of every vitamin and mineral you could ever need,
- Try to get as much of a variety of legumes & beans as you can throughout the week. Each bean and legume has its own particular health benefits, so you do yourself a huge favor by selecting a few different kinds to eat. On a daily basis, if you eat two different types of beans, you are doing well.
- Quality always takes precedence over quantity – the nutritional density, NOT the calories of foods
- Fruit makes the perfect snack as it’s actually best for digestion if it’s eaten on its own
- For treats: try blending a cup of hemp, almond or oat milk with a fresh Medjool date and a teaspoon of carob or raw cacao, or if you’re feeling a bit more creative, a raw dessert or two 🙂
I hope you enjoy being ‘Plant-Powered’. Feel free to share your experiences and what works for you 🙂
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