When talking about diets in general, we often think about a specific intake of foods for weight-management reasons. Reduction, strict regimen, limited amounts and calorie counting are the commonly used methods when talking about diets because healthy nutrition hasn’t been the main principle for stipulating the quality and type of the food we eat, but rather it’s been the aim of reaching standardized body measurements and trending physical body performances imposed by many media and health institutes.
The term diet per se is used to describe the food and drink habitually consumed during the day or a person’s lifestyle habits regarding food. It encompasses the habit of being nurtured in order to live and function in an optimal manner and to give the body the nutrients it needs for its daily functioning. From a nutritional point of view, the goal is to improve our health and to teach us to adopt a healthier lifestyle to achieve it. Hippocrates was the first physician who concluded that “let food be our medicine and medicine our food”.
Healthy eating and benefitting from it may be best achieved with a plant-based diet, which we define as a systematic plan that encourages people to consume whole, plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, sprouts, herbs, spices, fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, homemade kefir and kombucha, among others), and cold pressed oils (flaxseed, avocado, black cumin seed, hemp, and walnut, among others). It limits the ingestion of eggs and fish; this part will be determined depending on each individual case, and discourages people from eating meats and dairy products, as well as added fats, oils, and all refined and processed foods.
The term plant-based is sometimes used interchangeably with vegetarian or vegan, causing some misunderstandings because in these two diets the basis lies on the foods you’re not allowed to eat rather than on those you should eat, and many times they may be or may not be healthy. Thus, it is important to ascertain the details of each person’s diet rather than making assumptions about how healthy and wholesome it is.
Assumptions on its deficiencies
Many questions surface regarding the adherence to a plant-based diet and the “right” amount of protein, calcium, essential fatty acids (Omega-3 and Omega-6), vitamin B12, iron, and vitamin D to have when suggesting that people begin to eat in this way. Rates and guidelines from many health institutes, as well as much scientific research, have standardized these amounts and made a general rule for every person regardless of their actual state of health. Still, they provide a good base to work from in order to know the parameters for the daily limits of each substance as a general guide. We will go, then, through each of these components explaining where people can find them in plant-based foods and how they should combine them in some cases for better absorption.
A plant-based diet does not put a person at risk for protein deficiency. Proteins are made up of amino acids, some of which, called essential amino acids, can’t be synthesized by the body and must be obtained from food. Essential amino acids are found in many plant-based foods, such as hemp seeds, buckwheat, pumpkin seeds, quinoa, chia seeds, among others. Essential amino acids can also be obtained by eating certain combinations of plant-based foods. Examples include: cereals with legumes; legumes with nuts; cereals with nuts (although there is a deficiency in lysine); spirulina with cereals, legumes or nuts; and in some cases, eggs with cereals, legumes or nuts. Therefore, a well-balanced, plant-based diet will provide adequate amounts of essential amino acids and prevent protein deficiency.
Calcium intake can be adequate in a well-balanced plant-based diet. Some significant sources include: beans in general, soybeans, tofu, figs, butternut squash, collards, sweet potato, mustard, broccoli, basil, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, sage, bok choy, and kale, among others. To make calcium absorption more optimal, we should combine these calcium rich foods with magnesium rich ones. Some significant sources of this mineral include: leafy greens, nuts, seeds, beans, avocados, bananas, dates, cacao, root vegetables, seaweed, winter squash, legumes, grains, broccoli, raisins, and brown rice, among others.
To allow for even better absorption of both minerals we need foods rich in vitamin C, like black currants, broccoli, grapefruit, strawberries, parsley, kiwifruit, kale, celery, vegetables from the cabbage family, papaya, and asparagus, among others. Also for better absorption, we need foods with vitamin A and beta-carotene, like carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, squash, red peppers, basil, oatmeal, cantaloupe, green peas, paprika, apricots, peaches, and oranges, among others.
Essential fatty acids are fatty acids that humans must ingest for good health because our bodies do not synthesize them. These are known as omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic) and omega-6 fatty acid (linolenic). They are vital because both are important in the normal functioning of all tissues of the body. Omega-3 specifically is used in the formation of cell membranes and aids in improving circulation and oxygen intake.
Plant versions of Omega-3 are chia seeds, flax seeds, edamame, pumpkin seeds, mustard oil, seaweed, pine nuts, flax oil, walnuts and walnut oil, hemp seeds and hemp oil, brassica vegetables, mung beans, winter squash, vegetables from the cabbage family, broccoli rabe, collards, kale, grape leaves, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, berries, wild rice, oregano, and marjoram, among others.
Plant versions of Omega-6 are found in leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains, and vegetable oils (safflower, sesame, sunflower), black currant, borage, and hemp oils. We only need to reduce, or better yet, not consume processed foods since the extremely high level of Omega-6 that we find in them causes an imbalance between the two Omegas and an inflammatory response in the body.
Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that’s essential for red blood cell production and healthy brain and nerve function. It also helps break down protein and fat so that our bodies can use these sources as energy, and it is produced by bacteria, not by plants and animals. Our microbiome produces it! Therefore, the amount of vitamin B12 that we find in animal products depends on the type of soil and grass that each animal ate. Plant-based sources include: edible algae like nori, spirulina and chlorella; fermented beans and vegetables like tempeh and kimchi; edible mushrooms like shiitake and Lion’s mane; nutritional yeast, and, depending on the levels in each person, a supplement is recommended.
Plant-based diets contain iron, but the iron in plants has a lower bioavailability than the iron in meat. Plant-based foods that are rich in iron include lentils, kidney beans, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, black beans, soybeans, spinach, dark chocolate, raisins, cashews, pistachios, oatmeal, cabbage, swiss chard, collards, beet greens, non-peeled potatoes, mushrooms, olives, kale, amaranth, spelt, oats, quinoa, thyme, coconut milk, and tomatoes, among others. Scientific research states that an iron-deficiency is very rare in individuals who follow this kind of diet.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble hormone that is produced and stored by our body (vitamin D1, D2, and D4 in the liver with help from the kidneys), and, in combination with vitamin D3, which we can only obtain from UV-sunrays absorbed through our skin, we can synthesize vitamin D in general. For these reasons it is essential that people expose themselves to sunlight for at least 20 minutes per day (light-skinned people) and 35 minutes (dark-skinned people), preferably naked, so that the absorption is impartial and full. Some plant-based foods that contain vitamin D2 are mushrooms in general.
A plant-based diet is one that wants to advocate that eating whole, organic, seasonal, regional and natural foods is a beneficial way of getting nourishing nutrition and improving individual health without necessarily having to depend on the consumption of supplements to cover the daily needs of our body. In fact, by keeping in mind how the body is structured and what whole, organic, seasonal, regional and natural foods are comprised of, we offer the human organism foods that have varied nutrient contents and, thus, we establish a solid and long-term foundation of active living and a way of eating to live a healthy lifestyle in a preventive way for the future.