Is your plant-based diet healthy?
Dr. Jessica Eastman, ND
People across the globe are shifting towards more plants in their diets. Many are taking that one step further and eliminating animal products all together! Nearly 10% of all Canadians are following a vegetarian or vegan diet. Numbers are also rising in Europe and the US (1). With that said, how easy is it to maintain a healthy plant-based diet? The “vegan” label is commonly used as if it’s synonymous with “healthy”. We often discuss Vegan diets as if they are the magic pill for optimal health, but this is unfortunately not always true. There are some common mistakes in vegan diets, and a few important things to consider when it comes to maintaining a healthy plant-based diet.
How healthy is your “health food”?
What percentage of your food is coming from whole foods sources, and what percentage is processed? Processed food is not great for us for many reasons, whether it’s vegan or not. Because so many people mistakenly equate “vegan” with “healthy”, vegan processed foods are often treated differently than their conventional equivalents. This becomes especially important to consider with the advent of all the new vegan meat products: Tofurkey, Beyond Meat Burgers, plant-based chicken nuggets, etc. These meat replacement products are all highly processed, far removed from their original whole foods sources. They also contain preservatives and other chemicals that are a necessary component of the processing. These foods should all be eaten only in moderation, and should not be thought of as healthy, good sources of vegetables and other plant-based nutrients.
Do I really need to worry about protein?
There are a few questions to ask yourself when thinking about your protein intake, whether you’re on a vegan diet or not.
1. What are your sources of protein?
Animal protein is significantly more bioavailable than plant-based protein. This means that humans can absorb much more of the protein contained in animal protein than in plant-based protein, for a variety of reasons (2). Humans can absorb almost 100% of the protein contained within animal products, and only 25-75% of the protein contained within plant-based protein (3). This doesn’t mean that plant-based protein is bad for you, but it does mean that you need to consume more of it to get the same amount of protein that animal products would provide.
2. Are you getting enough protein?
The average recommendation for protein intake is a minimum of 1 g of protein per kg of body weight per day. However, the study that determined that number was using 100% animal protein. Taking into account the lower bioavailability of plant-based protein sources, that means that folks on vegan diets have an average protein requirement of 1.5 g of protein per kg of body weight per day. That number further increases if an individual is doing a lot of weight training or exercise in general, or is trying to actively heal from serious illness or injury (4).
3. Are you getting the right types of protein?Protein consumption is so vital to health because it provides the amino acids needed to build almost everything in our bodies - skin, organs, immune cells, sex cells, many of the hormones, etc. There are 20 amino acids, and nine of them are considered “essential”, which means that we must consume them in our diets in order for our bodies to function. The other 11 amino acids can be made from the essential ones by our body cells, if enough protein is available. All sources of animal protein are what we call “complete proteins”, which contain all nine of the essential amino acids. However, very few of the plant-based protein sources are complete proteins. To ensure you get all of the essential amino acids from your vegan diet:
- Include soy and hemp, which are both complete proteins.
- Regularly rotate through a variety of other plant-based protein sources, like lentils, beans, chickpeas, nuts and seeds.
- Combine plant-based proteins together to provide a full amino acid profile, like we commonly see in vegan protein powders. (E.g. pea, cranberry and hemp protein, etc).
How will I know if I’m not getting enough?Not getting enough total protein, or not getting enough of the essential amino acids in the diet can result in protein deficiency. Protein deficiency is very common, and symptoms can include:
- Food cravings and binging or overeating tendencies;
- fatigue, anxiety or brain fog;
- muscle and strength loss;
- high blood pressure;
- hair loss or unhealthy hair, nails and skin;
- menstrual irregularities or infertility;
- low immunity or frequent colds and flus;
- slow recovery or healing time from workouts or injury.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, get assessed by a naturopathic doctor or nutritionist to make sure you are getting enough of the nutrients your body needs.
What about supplements?
Even a well-balanced, whole foods-based, healthy plant-based diet will be deficient in some nutrients. This is due to some nutrients' low availability in sources other than animal products. Carefully chosen supplements are necessary to ensure optimal health on a vegan diet. Some individuals will need specific nutrients more than others. It’s important to check with your naturopathic doctor or nutritionist to determine which supplements would best serve you. The most common nutrient deficiencies in individuals on vegan diets are iron and B12. That is because they are found primarily in animal products. Also, the few plant-based sources that exist have very poor bioavailability. Blood levels of these two nutrients can be easily tested to determine what dose of supplement you require. Iron and B12 supplements should be taken ongoing. The omega 3s EPA and DHA are also a common deficiency in vegan diets, because they are found primarily in fish. Supplementation of these fatty acids should therefore be seriously considered. Other nutrients that are commonly deficient in vegan diets are zinc, calcium, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin D.
The bottom line
Want to save those furry little creatures, or just decrease your grocery bill, while still maintaining your health? It’s possible for most people, but it does require a little bit of extra work. But if you’re willing to put in that extra work, a healthy plant-based diet can actually be the magic diet for health that many people are looking for. Just make sure it contains a large amount of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats and plant-based protein, small amounts of processed foods, and the appropriate supplements.
- Charlebois, S., Somogyi, S., Music, J. Plant-based dieting and meat attachment: protein wars and the changing Canadian consumer (preliminary results). Dalhousie University. Retrieved on Nov 5, 2019.
- Akande, K., Doma, U., Agu, H., Adamu, H. Major antinutrients found in plant protein sources: their effect on nutrition. (2010). Pakistan Journal of Nutrition, 9(8): 827-832.
- Marinangeli, C., House, J. Potential impact of the digestible indispensable amino acid score as a measure of protein quality on dietary regulations and health. (2017). Nutrition Reviews, 75(8): 658-667.
- Rogers, D. (2017). Vegan diets: practice advice for athletes and exercisers. Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(36).
- Hoffman, J., Falvo, M. Protein - which is best? (2004) Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 3, 118-130.