What is a Plant Based or Plant Forward Diet?
Although often confused with vegan or vegetarian diets, plant based or plant forward diets are simply a way of eating that puts a greater focus on foods from plants (such as wholegrains, vegetables, fruits, pulses, nuts, seeds and oils) complemented with small amounts of animal foods (meats, fish, seafoods, eggs and dairy).
What are the benefit of Plant Forward diets?
Rebalancing your diet to a more plant forward approach can help to boost your fibre, wholegrain and fruit and veg content all in one go.
Balanced plant forward diets tend to also be lower in saturated fat and higher in ‘good’ fats such as unsaturated fats from fish, nuts, seeds and plant oils.
This might be why diet rich in a diverse range of plants are associated with lower risks of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity, however what isn’t clear in the research is whether this is down to the diet alone or the typically associated healthier lifestyle choices that are often followed by those on plant forward diets (such as being more active, less sedentary time, not smoking).
Plant forward diets have become more popular due to the growing research linking their beneficial impact on health as well as reduced environmental impact.
Yes! Did you know plant forward diets have actually been around for a long time. The Mediterranean diet is one of the most well known versions as is the US DASH diet and UK Eat Well Guide.
Most plant based diets consist of the below principles:
- Plenty of wholegrains, starchy carbohydrates, vegetables and fruits.
- Moderate amount of low fat dairy foods, nuts, seeds and pulses (e.g. beans, peas and lentils)
- Small amounts of lean meat, fish, seafood and eggs
- Low amounts of refined grains, high fat meats, processed meats and sugar sweetened beverages
- Low amounts of foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat
Switching to a vegan diet can have the biggest reductions in greenhouse gas emissions however this type of diet is not always achievable for everyone, affordability is often lower and a number nutrients are harder to source (such as long chain omega 3 fats, iodine and vitamin B-12) without the use of supplements.
Considerable reductions in the environmental impacts of our diets can still be made just by including more plants and choosing less, but better, animal products. Take a look at the potential impacts below.
WHAT ARE THE BEST PLANT SWAPS?
Across our varying cuisines and dietary patterns, animal foods typically provide a number of important nutrients in our diets such as calcium, iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin B12 and riboflavin. So as we strive to include more plant based foods in our diets, including a diverse range of plant sources of these nutrients is the key to a healthy and a nutritionally complete plant based diet.
Take a look at the plant swaps page to find plant sources of these nutrients.
WHAT'S A HEALTH HALO?
Did you know chips are plant based?
Being plant based doesn’t mean something is automatically healthy too. This is often referred to as a ‘Health Halo’. The growth of ready made plant-based alternative foods has made this type of diet easier and more convenient to follow, however some of these prepared alternatives are not as healthy as they appear. To avoid this pitfall, when choosing prepared options, go for ones which include a good diversity of plants based foods (such as 2-3 of the examples listed below, as this will provide a balanced range of nutrients as well as improve the protein quality provided) with minimal added fats, salt or sugars.
DO PLANT FORWARD DIETS PROVIDE ENOUGH PROTEIN?
Our diets provide proteins that our bodies need for growth and repair. Proteins are made up of amino acids, also known as ‘building blocks’. There are 8 amino acids which our bodies can’t make so must be provided by our diets, these are known as essential amino acids.
Leucine, Isoleucine, Valine, Threonine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Tryptophan, Lysine
Animal based foods, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy, typically provide all 8 essential amino acids whereas most plant sources do not. However, this can be easily addressed by mixing different types plant sources together (e.g. lentil dahl with rice or pearl barley with chickpeas).
WHAT ARE ANTI-NUTRITIONAL COMPONENTS?
Plants have active defence system to protect themselves against insects or bacterial whilst growing, and these components, known as anti-nutrients, remain present when eaten. Examples include:
- Lectins: Found in beans, nuts and grains. Reduce absorption of calcium, iron, phosphorus and zinc.
- Oxalates: Found in green leafy vegetables and tea. Bind to calcium which prevents its absorption.
- Phytates: Found in grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Reduces absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium
- Tannins: Found in tea, coffee, legumes. Reduces iron absorption.
Anti-nutrients as their name suggests, don’t provide a nutritional benefit however they can reduce the absorption or digestion of other nutrients in the diet. However the normal processes of cooking and preparation reduces the anti-nutrient properties and by mixing varieties together and increases the diversity of plants in the diet the impact of these elements are minimised.
FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, (2020), The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020. Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets. Rome, FAO. https://doi.org/10.4060/ca9692en