Time To Switch To Plant-Based Diet? Legumes To Nuts – Foods To Include, Pros & Cons: Nutritionist Speaks

A plant-based diet has created a lot of buzz in recent times and while it’s still not as big in India as in the West, the trend is gradually gaining grounds.While many dieticians hail plant-based for being heart-healthy and good for overall health, there are several doubts regarding its sustainibility and long-term impact. Dr Meghana Pasi, Nutrition Consultant, MyThali Program, ArogyaWorld, shares with Zee News Digital what plant diet is all about, the different types of plant-based diets, pros and cons, food to include in the diet and more. 

Q. What is a plant-based diet?  

Dr Meghana Pasi: A plant-based diet is a dietary pattern that emphasises foods derived from plants, while minimising or entirely excluding animal products. It promotes consuming a lot of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, peas, lentils, seeds, and nuts and plant oils as well as foods that are typically low in fat. There are different types of plant-based diets based on their composition. Vegetarians avoid meat but consume animal-derived products like dairy (lacto-vegetarian) or eggs (ovo-vegetarian). Flexitarians primarily follow a vegetarian diet but occasionally include small amounts of animal products in their meals. Vegans exclude all animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, and even honey. They rely entirely on plant-based sources for their nutrition. Pescatarians exclude meat and poultry but include fish and other seafood in their diet.

Q. Which foods can become part of this diet?

Dr Meghana Pasi: To ensure that you get all the necessary vitamins, minerals, fibre and macronutrients, you need a well-balanced diet. Hence, if you are following a plant-based diet then include these in your meals everyday:

Whole grains: Opt for whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, oats, whole wheat, and millets for fiber, complex carbohydrates, and various vitamins and minerals.

Vegetables: Include all veggies available in the season and in your local market like leafy greens (spinach, coriander, fenugreek leaves, mustard greens, drumstick leaves), root vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, beets), and other veggies (cauliflower, gourds, beans, capsicum, brinjal, okra) to get all the essential vitamins, fiber, and phytonutrients.

Fruits: Incorporate a wide range of fresh fruits like apples, bananas, berries, oranges, mangoes, watermelon, guava, for vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Pulses and legumes: Have beans, chickpeas, all dals and peas for protein, fiber, and minerals like iron and potassium.

Nuts and seeds: Include almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds for healthy fats, protein, and essential nutrients.

Non-dairy alternatives: Choose fortified alternatives like almond milk, soy milk, for calcium and vitamin D.

Herbs and spices: Use herbs and spices like basil, turmeric, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cloves for flavor and additional health benefits.

Healthy fats: Avocados, olive oil, mustard and peanut oil contain good amount of MUFA which are heart healthy.

Q. What are the consequences of a plant-based diet?

Dr Meghana Pasi: A plant-based diet can have both positive and negative consequences depending on how it’s implemented and individual factors. There are various questions regarding the nutritional sufficiency of plant-based diets as they restrict animal foods.

Positive consequences:

1. Weight management: Plant foods are low in calories and saturated fats. This can help in weight loss and managing weight.

2. Reduces risk of chronic diseases: A lot of research has revealed improved health outcomes with a well-balanced plant-based diet. It’s associated with a reduced risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Plant foods do not contain trans fats and have been linked to lower bad cholesterol (LDL) levels thereby decreasing risk of heart disease. Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables fight off free radicals which can damage cells in the body and lead to the development of tumors. Eating a variety of phytochemical-rich plants ensures that you get a broad selection of antioxidants which may help guard against cancer.

3. High in fiber: Fiber aids in digestion, helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels, and promotes a feeling of fullness.

4. Benefits the environment: Plant-based diets generally have a lower carbon footprint compared to animal-based diets as they require fewer resources like water and land and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Negative consequences:

1. Deficiency of some essential nutrients: A plant-based diet may lead to deficiencies of certain vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. They can also be low in protein and fat. It is hence important to monitor and supplement as needed.

2. Indigestion: A sudden shift to a high-fiber plant-based diet can cause digestive discomfort like bloating and gas.

Q. How to tackle the inadequacy if any?

Dr Meghana Pasi: One can overcome the potential inadequacies by being mindful and planning the transition to a complete plant-based diet carefully. It is important to learn about the essential nutrients we need such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids which might be deficient on a plant-based diet. We can incorporate a variety of plant-based protein sources, such as legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, to ensure we get a sufficient amount of protein. We can learn about different food options to make our meals balanced. For example, have fruits and whole grains in your breakfast or have a salad bowl with beans and greens for a meal. Choosing fortified plant-based foods like plant milk (with vitamin B12 and vitamin D) and nutritional yeast (a source of vitamin B12) can be valuable additions. Supplements of Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, iron and omega-3 after consulting a registered dietitian will help overcome deficiencies if any. Go for regular health checks to monitor your health and nutrient levels.

It’s important to note that a plant-based diet can be healthy and nutritionally complete when well-planned. Overall, the benefits of a plant-based diet can outweigh the potential drawbacks for many people, especially when it is approached thoughtfully and sustainably.

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