When it comes to diets, a plant-based diet seems to be the “newest” kid on the block, trending after the likes of keto, raw food, paleo and flexitarian, just to name a few. But in actuality, plant-based diets have been around for quite some time, merging with philosophies behind vegetarianism and veganism and a love for all things living.
A plant-based diet has many different variations, based on a person’s goals. But the strictest definition comes down to eating fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, lentils and beans, nuts, and everything else that comes from the ground, explains Louis Chan, Master Trainer and Sports/Fitness Nutritionist, ISSA Academy Singapore.
It’s a good recourse from modern-day, meat-heavy diets, adds Jacyln Reutens, Clinical and sports dietitian and founder of Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants. “It is also lower in saturated fat, sodium, trans fat and added sugars, which are linked to lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart problems, stroke, cancer and gout, ” she says
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Plant-based diets de-emphasises the contribution of meat to our health and diet, so it differs from vegetarianism or veganism as it allows you to eat meat, poultry, fish, dairy and other animal products in small amounts.
That said, both Chan and Reutens insist it should be approached with full knowledge of the benefits and detriments in order to reap the full benefits. Here’s what you need to know.
Balance Your Diet
We are often flooded with social media posts of celebrities and athletes professing how cutting down on meat has not only helped with weight loss, but also increased their energy levels. On the same count, we have the meat lobbies preaching to us: no meat = no protein.
“There are many myths and half-truths circulating around on the Internet about plant-based diet, the biggest among them being that proteins contained in plants are ‘incomplete’. This is not true. A large variety of plants provide protein—from grains, nuts and legumes to leafy greens—and not just in tiny amounts,” says Chan.
That does not mean all vegetables are good either. An excessive and sudden intake of vegetables can cause stomach discomfort, shares Reutens. So it is important to ensure all meals are well-balanced with carbs, protein and fibre.
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Chan also emphasises another difference in plant-based protein—it lacks certain amino acids. “Our bodies require nine kinds of amino acids; this is aside from 11 that it is able to naturally produce. Most plant-based options do not include all nine, so it is necessary to mix foods in order to obtain the best plant protein make-up.
“For instance, beans are high in lysine, but are low in methionine. Rice, however, is low in lysine and high in methionine. Put these two ingredients together and you have a whole food, plant-based protein that covers all of your bases,” adds Chan.
Plants are rich in prebiotics, which is food for the good bacteria in our gut – probiotics. So a plant-based diet is good for growth of healthy gut bacteria, says Reutens. “A healthy gut also means that your immune system is optimal. A plant-based diet is low in sodium and high in potassium, which offer better blood glucose control.”
It is important, however, to start slow and build up. “If you have been eating animal protein seven days a week, cut back to five or six days for one to two weeks. Subsequently, drop it until you are eating it twice a week. Simultaneously, increase your fruits and vegetables intake to two servings each day. (One serving of vegetable is = ¾ cup. One serving of fruit is a medium-size apple or a wedge of papaya.) Increase the servings gradually till you meet your target,” adds Reutens.
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Rightsize Your Meals
“Plant-based does not mean all vegetarian foods are better. You still need to be mindful of cooking methods and types and amounts of sauces used. For instance, some Chinese vegetarian foods tend to be deep-fried and Indian vegetarian foods tend to be high in fat because of the ghee and butter that are frequently used,” says Reutens.
Moreover, not all plants are less dense in their calories than their meat counterparts, so you should be mindful of your intake—with some foods, you will need to consume more quantity to get the same number of calories, and others less, says Chan.
Whatever your reasons for opting for a plant-based diet, the foundation is to keep it healthy and balanced at all times.
A Whole Food, Plant-Based diet (WFPB) is the way to go, suggests Chan. This is a plant-based diet focused on unprocessed food. “The more important element in terms of overall health and wellness has less to do with animal or non-animal, and far more to do with the degree to which it’s processed, “ says Chan, so avoid it as much as possible. “Simply switching from a protein powder that includes animal products to one that doesn’t include animal products isn’t going to change a whole lot—you’re still consuming a processed food.” he adds.
Although the current meat-less alternatives make it less arduous for a meat-eater to change their eating habits, they are not the healthier alternative, just a tasty vegetarian option—“they are almost comparable to regular meat,” says Reutens.
End of the day, all of us are wired differently. Making healthy eating the main goal is the starting point. Pegging that with love for Mother Earth makes it that much more of a heart-warming goal—especially under the current circumstances.
This article first appeared on Singapore Women’s Weekly