“You can’t make gains on a vegan diet bro, you’ve gotta get your steak and eggs in!”
Hold your horses, cowboy.
Vegan and Vegetarian diets have become more and more popular in the last few years (maybe even decades, but certainly since the advent of more and more social media platforms). It’s certainly a way of eating I’ve become more aware of and personally I think the movement has done some really good things for raising awareness and mindfulness about where we get our food from. It’s something I’ve been wanting to write about more, so this is planned to be the first of many blogs on plant based nutrition.
Before I get going, I have to mention the place that sparked my interest to look deeper into some practical and theoretical aspects of plant based diets. I’ve been a member of lift the bar for coming up to 9 months, and Danny Lennon’s Course on there has been a really good place to get a much better understanding of some of the nuances of eating a plant based diet. You should all go and follow both lift the bar (@liftthebar) and Danny (@dannylennon_sigma or at sigma nutrition/sigma nutrition radio).
Both my mum and brother have also been vegetarian for coming up to a year now too, so we’ve all been cooking a lot more plant based food together and I’ve got to say…it’s been delicious and really exciting to try something new.
Let’s get down to it then….
What I want to cover here is an overview of some considerations for plant based eating. This of course changes depending on which variation you personally choose to follow, whether thats pescatarian (plant based+fish) lacto-ovo vegetarian (plant based+eggs+dairy), lacto-vegetarian (plant based+dairy), vegetarian, vegan or even just being more mindful about where you get the animal products you eat from. There is so much to talk about when it comes to plant based eating, which is something I will definitely be expanding on more in time, but we will start with the big picture and get deeper into other aspects in time.
What we’ll get into is an overview of what fundamental principles we need to look at to make any changes with nutrition, the quality of food and how that impacts our health, protein
First off, the same fundamental principles apply to plant based diets as would with any kind of diet. We are still looking at the same set of priorities as we would with an omnivorous diet:
So when it comes to making decisions on what sort of result you want to achieve the same fundamental variables will be what we are changing through practical changes to the way you eat, regardless of the kind of plant based diet you are following.
When it comes to some practical considerations, this is where it starts to get more exciting.
To begin with, it’s worth considering the question on everyones lips: is it healthier than an omnivores diet? Well, it’s hard to say.
When it comes to looking at studies, there are some conflicting conclusions. On the one hand there are studies which conclude a higher risk of heart disease and some cancers with a diet including processed and red meat. On the other, different papers concluded there was no change in all cause mortality regardless of diet (Dinu et, al. 2017). Perhaps this suggests there is something more to it than just the kind of foods we eat?
If we take the two opposing examples of someone who buys butchers best quality, local reared meat, eggs and dairy as well as fish from the local fishmonger, compared to cheap supermarket value meat, dairy and fish products including lots of processed meats like bacon and salami…we are going to see a difference in the nutrient profiles of each diet.
Further, it is still possible to eat a completely plant based diet with no animal products that is still high in processed, high energy, nutrient poor foods. It’s important then to consider the quality of the food we are consuming regardless of whether we are looking at animal or plant based diets.
It’s a minefield out there when it comes to answering this question, so let’s draw the obvious conclusions that the following things will lead to a better quality diet:
1. A diet higher in unprocessed foods
2. A diet higher in fruits and vegetables
3. A diet higher in whole grains and legumes
4. A diet that includes a range of omega fatty acids from whole food sources (oils, nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocados)
5. A diet which takes energy balance into account in some form (tracking, portion control, an understanding of energy balance essentially)
Perhaps it’s not necessarily the inclusion of animal products, but rather the increase in everything else that leads to all of these health benefits. I don’t say this to try and ‘disprove’ any arguments (like some mad Instagram zealot), but rather to try and look at this objectively. It’s more than likely going to do good things for your health to include more plant based food in your diet. However, there is more to it that saying ‘meat is the enemy’. Rather, we should look to a focus of whole foods that are highly nutritious, minimally processed and provide us a balance of what we need for both health outcomes and personal outcomes (e.g. gain muscle, lose body fat, improve performance)
Let’s talk protein
It’s a subject that gets brought up pretty much every time someone mentions a plant based diet and there are some worthwhile considerations for anyone either following or considering following a plant based diet.
Unlike animal products, it’s a little more challenging to get protein and a full spectrum of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in your diet. Challenging, NOT, impossible. Essentially what we have to look to do here is include a variety of protein sources across the day. What a lot of people find useful here is a protein supplement to make meeting ideal targets a little easier.
The reason variety is important here is because of the fact that plant based sources aren’t as well balanced when it comes to amino acids. Lysine is commonly absent, particularly from grains but it does have some methionine. Legumes are typically higher in methionine, but low in lysine…you get the picture? We need to consume a variety and range, not necessarily at each meal as long as it is across the day (Melina, et. al., 2016).
In general they are all a little lower in leucine, which is considered to be the most important amino acid for muscle protein synthesis. This is probably more of a consideration for those looking to build muscle tissue, but even if you’re not a ‘big body builder’ and just want to have a more toned looking figure it’s worth bearing in mind…but we’ll get to this a little later on down the line.
We’re aiming to get 20-40g per meal and around the same in a snack. To make life even easier for you, here is a table of some examples of protein in plant based sources to allow you to see what a serving of protein per 100g would look like across a variety of foods and how you can combine a few over the day to meet that.
As you can see, there are some vast differences in there if we take peanut butter and egg whites with calories per 100g as a comparison for example. Of course, it depends on if you eat dairy and eggs too here. But hopefully this gives some more information from which you can make a choice from with regards to putting together a serving of protein at your meals.
It could be 100g Tofu, with 100g peas and 100g black beans and 50g edamame beans and all of a sudden you’re looking at around 35g of protein (granted, you may need to add some seasoning to all of that first!).
The main thing I wanted to illustrate here is that all it takes is a little forward thinking and all of a sudden it doesn’t become too difficult to eat a fair bit of protein on a plant based diet. From here you can alter the choices you make for lower or higher calorie options depending on your goal. Which brings me on to my next point…
Aside from the personal reasons some people may want to change to a more plant based diet, there are practicalities to talk about when it comes to physical changes
As I said before the same principles apply as normal (see pyramid above), however, there are a few things worth going into a little more depth in here.
When it comes to fat sources, plant based diets are usually pretty good at including a host of nutrient dense fats- oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives etc. but they can miss out on some omega 3 fatty acids. In that regard it may well be worth looking into a fish oil or algae based omega 3 supplement to make sure these needs are fulfilled, going off the given RDI (recommended daily intake).
Of course, if you want any more detailed information the best person to go to look in to this would be your GP if they provide such a service, or more likely a private medical service like thriva or medichecks, where you can get blood panels done and get some detailed feedback on what you may or may not be deficient in. A registered dietician could be a good route to go down here too.
The tip of the pyramid: Supplements
I’m a big proponent on taking care of the big picture first, a firm believer in food first…supplements late. I’ve mentioned an omega 3 supplement because it’s something that is just difficult to get on a plant based diet, as well as a protein supplement to simply make life easier. Creatine may well be a worthwhile supplement for those looking to increase strength and muscle mass, but that would be the case regardless. However, as plant based diets are generally less rich in creatine, stores may well be lower in those following a plant based diet and therefore may experience some benefits.
There may be a few more that could be worth considering but to be honest the only way to really know would be to consult someone with medical qualifications who could look at bloods for you. You can cover a lot of your bases by just looking at your food first, but for the finer tweaks this could be worthwhile.
I could keep going, but I’ll spare the micro-nutrient talk for another time…
What can we take from all of this?
Food quality still matters- I’m not sure a lot of the studies that get shown in mainstream news give the full story. Food quality, lifestyle, BMI, stress, sleep, energy balance are all things that may well contribute towards chronic disease and so I think it is more complex than one type of food being the cause all. However, its pretty widely agreed at this point that more plant based foods in your diet is not a bad thing.
Be smart with your protein choices- a little bit of planning goes a long way and it’s pretty simple to be able to hit protein targets for each meal and over the day once you know what sort of quantities contain a serving of 20-40g. Protein supplements like rice+pea protein or vegan blends can also make life easy.
When you’re eating for a specific goal- the same things apply as they normally do. You still need to be able to stick to the damn plan. Calories still need to be balanced correctly for the outcome. And it should still provide a balance of nutrients with carbs, fats, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Supplements- should be considered last once food is taken care of. The way to know if you sure fire need to take something is see a qualified professional to have your bloods taken and analysed.
“Personally, I think it’s great that more and more people are eating more of a plant based diet, even if that means only buying really good quality meat and fish or just eating it out at restaurants”
After talking to a few people, I think the biggest obstacle is not knowing how to cook plant based food because meat has been at the centre of meal times for so long. There are plenty of good cook books out there, but a few of my favourites are: thug kitchen, mob kitchen (their plant based recipes) and bish, bash, bosh. Once you’ve got a few under your belt you’ll realise it isn’t as hard as it first might seem.
If you are considering making the switch, I hope this has provided a little more clarity on some of the considerations you may well need to bear in mind in doing so. I do have a bias towards helping people achieve certain goals with their training and nutrition, but really health is still at the heart of it all….pun intended.