Plant-Based Diets – Types, Benefits, Nutrients at Risk
March 23, 2022
Plant-based diets emphasise eating mostly plant foods and plant-based proteins, while minimising or avoiding animal products such as meat, seafood, dairy and eggs. Plant-based diets have been shown to have many health benefits.
There are some nutrients to be aware of when following a plant-based diet, as these nutrients can be harder to get from plants alone.
A well-planned plant-based diet is healthy for all stages of life, including pregnancy and breastfeeding, and for babies and children.
This article will explore different types of plant-based diets and their benefits, nutrients at risk, core food group requirements, plant-based eating across the life stages, and includes a sample meal plan.
What foods are limited on a plant-based diet?
Plant-based diets generally minimise animal-based foods such as meat and seafood, however, it is up to you whether you wish to keep these foods in your diet in moderation and incorporate more plant-based options alongside these.
Some people following this way of eating may choose to exclude animal products entirely, including meat, seafood, dairy products, eggs and honey.
Plant-based diets emphasise incorporating more plant foods and plant-based proteins, and therefore how much you wish to include or exclude certain animal products is up to you!
Types of plant-based diets
There are many different types of plant-based diets. People may choose to eat this way for a variety of reasons, such as health, religious, ethical, economic or environmental reasons (1).
Vegetarian diets do not include meat or seafood. There are also a variety of vegetarian diets that choose to either include or exclude various animal-based foods (1).
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian diets include dairy products and eggs, and exclude meat and seafood
- Lacto-vegetarian diets include dairy, and exclude meat, seafood and eggs
- Ovo-vegetarian diets include eggs, and exclude meat, seafood and dairy
Flexitarian diets emphasise eating mostly plant-based foods, but may incorporate meat, seafood, eggs and dairy in moderation.
Pescatarian diets exclude meat, while including fish and other seafood.
Vegan diets exclude all animal products. This includes meat, seafood, dairy products, eggs, and sometimes honey.
For those following a vegan diet, ethical considerations are often a major reason for choosing this eating pattern. Those following a vegan diet may also extend these values to other aspects of their lifestyle – such as only using cruelty-free products and avoiding animal-derived materials such as leather, wool, and silk.
Benefits of plant-based diets
As the popularity of plant-based eating rises, there has been a substantial increase in the amount of evidence supporting the benefits. Some of these benefits include:
- Heart health: research has shown that following this eating pattern may lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, and dying from cardiovascular disease (2).
- Improved gut health: People following plant-based diets have been shown to have a more favourable diversity of gut bacteria (3). While much more research is needed in this area, favourable gut bacteria has been linked to many health benefits such as increased immunity and lower risk of anxiety and depression (4).
- Healthier cholesterol levels: Research suggests that those following this style of eating have lower amounts of LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol and total cholesterol, and higher amounts of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol than those following an omnivorous diet (5).
- Reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes: Following a plant-based diet may lower the risk of insulin resistance, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes mellitus (6).
- Reduced risk of hypertension: Those who follow this dietary pattern appear to have a lower incidence of hypertension when compared to an omnivorous diet (7).
- Environmental benefits: Global livestock production has been shown to be greatly damaging to the environment. This damage is concerned with the inefficient use of resources such as land, energy and water, and the significant contribution of global greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, global livestock production is estimated to be responsible for approximately 18% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. This amount is even greater than all global transport, which is responsible for approximately 14% (8).
Disadvantages of plant-based diets
While there are many benefits, there are some potential disadvantages to be aware of:
- There are some nutrients you need to be more aware of, such as iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iodine, and omega-3s
- You may find it harder to get enough protein
- It may require more meal planning and preparation, especially when first transitioning to this way of eating
Whole-food plant-based diet vs. a vegan diet
While some may consider whole-food plant-based diets and vegan diets to be similar, they can potentially be quite different from each other.
A whole-food plant-based (WFPB) diet is one that is made up predominantly of whole, minimally processed plant foods such as:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Legumes such as lentils, beans and chickpeas
- Nuts and seeds
A WFPB diet also minimises processed foods, oils and animal products (9). People generally choose to follow a WFPB diet to improve their health and potentially reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases.
While a vegan diet similarly avoids animal products, the key reasons for doing so are generally related to ethical concerns. Because of this, people following a vegan lifestyle further avoid all forms of animal exploitation such as products tested on animals, and materials such as leather and wool (1).
A vegan diet may potentially also be less restrictive with the foods that are eaten, as they may incorporate oils and processed foods that are otherwise minimised in the WFPB diet.
Should I switch to a vegan diet?
If you are looking to transition to more of a plant-based diet, it’s important to reflect on the main reasons you would like to do so. This is because it is important to make sure that the way you eat is achievable and enjoyable for you!
For many people, transitioning to an exclusively plant-based or vegan diet may feel too restrictive, and this is okay!
At Plant Nutrition and Wellness, we are passionate about showing you how you can incorporate more plants in your diet to help you live a healthier life – whatever this looks like for you!
Nutrients to consider on plant-based diets
It is important to be aware of nutrients that are more difficult to get from plant foods. This is to ensure you do not develop any nutrient deficiencies.
Vitamin B12 is an important vitamin that is essential for maintaining a healthy nervous system.
Unfortunately, plant-based sources of vitamin B12 are extremely limited. Therefore, vitamin B12 supplementation is essential when following this way of eating to avoid deficiency complications such as anaemia and nervous system damage (10).
Vitamin D is an important nutrient for many roles in the body, including maintaining healthy bones, muscles, and overall health and wellbeing. Vitamin D is a unique nutrient as not only can it be found in food, it can also be produced when our skin is exposed to sunlight (11).
Unfortunately, there are few sources of plant-based vitamin D. Sources include:
- Fortified plant milks, such as So Good regular soy and Vitasoy Calci-plus soy milk
- Fortified cereals
- Mushrooms that have been exposed to ultra-violet (UV) light
Calcium plays an essential role in muscle contraction and maintaining healthy teeth and bones.
People who follow a plant-based diet may choose to avoid dairy products. In this case, it is important that dairy foods are appropriately swapped with other calcium-rich foods and drinks. Some examples of these are:
- Calcium-fortified plant milks
- Calcium-fortified cheeses, such as the Made by Plants cheese varieties from Woolworths
- Calcium-fortified yoghurts, such the Cocobella coconut yoghurt pouches
- Calcium-set tofu
- Dark leafy green and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, bok choy and cabbage. However, some of these vegetables contain high amounts of oxalate. Oxalate is considered an ‘anti-nutrient’ as it can inhibit the absorption of calcium. Boiling vegetables that are high in oxalates, such as spinach and chard, can help reduce oxalates and improve calcium absorption (12)
Not sure what milk to go for? Check out our blog post on how to choose the best plant-based milk!
Iodine is an essential mineral that plays an important role in healthy thyroid function. The thyroid helps with regulating metabolism, including growth and how much energy we use. Iodine is also needed to support brain and bone development during pregnancy and infancy (13).
Plant sources of iodine are limited, however, sources that are appropriate for those following a plant-based diet include:
- Iodised table salt
- Fortified bread
One of the most efficient and cost-effective ways to make sure you’re getting enough iodine is to simply swap your salt for iodised salt!
Omega-3s are a type of essential fatty acid – this means we need to get it through our diet. Omega-3s are important for heart and brain health.
Plant-based omega-3s predominantly contain the form of omega-3 called ALA. ALA must first be converted in the body to DHA and EHA (other forms of omega-3) to be most beneficial to health. EHA and DHA are the forms of omega-3 predominantly found in fatty fish, but they can also be found in algae supplements (14).
Plant sources of omega-3 include:
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Soybean oil
Iron plays an essential role in helping carry oxygen around the body and making red blood cells.
If you are following a plant-based diet, you may need ~1.8 times as much iron as the general population. This is because plant sources of iron (non-haem) are not as easily absorbed as animal sources of iron (haem) (15, 16).
Plant sources of iron include:
- Dark leafy vegetables
To help absorb iron, try pairing a source of vitamin C such as berries, kiwi fruit, citrus fruits, or red capsicum with your iron-rich meal.
Tea and coffee can inhibit the absorption of iron, so aim to drink these at least 30 minutes before and after your meals.
Protein makes up the structural component of our muscles and many other body tissues. It is important for many functions in the body, such as the production of hormones, growth and repair of cells, maintaining a healthy nervous system and immunity.
One of the most common myths surrounding plant-based diets is whether they are able to provide enough protein. Contrary to this popular belief, there are many plant foods that are a great source of protein. These include:
- Soy foods such as tofu, tempeh and textured vegetable protein
- Nuts and seeds
An important note about plant-based proteins is that many are considered ‘lower quality’ than animal proteins. The quality of a protein refers to the amount of amino acids in the protein, as well as its digestibility. Most plant proteins, with some exceptions such as soy, do not contain all amino acids and the protein may be slightly more difficult to digest and use.
A diet that combines a variety of different plant proteins can easily ensure you are able to get enough good quality protein to meet your needs (17). A helpful rule of thumb is to aim for at least one legume-based meal and one soy protein-based meal per day.
If you have certain health goals that require more protein such as gaining muscle, check out our Plant-Based Muscle Building Blueprint e-guide!
Meeting nutrition needs on a plant-based diet
It is completely achievable to meet your nutritional needs at all stages of life with plant-based eating (18).
However, it is important to note that some nutrients can be more difficult to obtain. For this reason, it can be beneficial to work with a dietitian who specialises in this area, such as the dietitians here at PNW!
When people first transition to a more plant-based diet, they may exclude some food groups such as meat and dairy without replacing these appropriately with nutritionally similar foods. This can be concerning as cutting out entire food groups can lead to nutritional deficiencies.
It is important to make sure you are eating a variety of foods from each of the six core food groups each day. Swapping animal-based foods with nutritionally similar plant foods is essential in making sure you are meeting your nutritional needs. For example:
- Swap meat for other protein sources such as tofu, legumes such as beans, lentils and chickpeas, and nuts and seeds
- Swap dairy products for other calcium-rich foods such as fortified plant milks, cheeses and yoghurts, and calcium-set tofu
The six core food groups
To make sure you are meeting your nutritional requirements, it is essential to eat a variety of foods from each of the six food groups daily.
Vegetables and legumes
Vegetables are nutrient-dense, low in energy (calories), and are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Aim to incorporate all colours of the rainbow to make sure you are getting a variety of different nutrients!
It is recommended we eat at least 5 serves of vegetables per day (19). One serve of vegetables looks like:
- 1/2 cup cooked green or orange vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, carrot or pumpkin
- 1/2 cup cooked dried or canned legumes such as beans or lentils
- 1 cup green leafy or salad vegetables
- 1/2 medium starchy vegetable such as potato or sweet potato
Fruit is a great source of vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Like vegetables, aim to incorporate a variety of different fruits in all colours of the rainbow.
It is recommended we eat 2 serves of fruit per day (20). One serve of fruit looks like:
- 1 medium fruit, such as an apply, banana or orange
- 2 small pieces of fruit, such as apricots or plums
- 1 cup diced or canned fruit (no added sugar)
Grain foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high cereal fibre varieties
Grain foods are an excellent source of carbohydrates, energy (calories), protein, fibre and a range of vitamins and minerals.
Grain foods include wheat, rice, oats, rye, millet, barley, corn and quinoa. It is important to aim for wholegrain varieties, as these contain important nutrients such as iron and zinc which can be more difficult to get on a plant-based diet.
It is recommended we eat 4-6 serves of grain foods per day. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, it is recommended you have 8-9 serves per day (21). One serve of grain foods looks like:
- 1 slice of bread
- 1/2 cup cooked rice, pasta, noodle or quinoa
- 1/2 cup cooked porridge
- 1/4 cup muesli
Meat and alternatives
This food group aims to provide protein, as well as a variety of other important nutrients such as iron, zinc, iodine, vitamin B12, and essential fatty acids such as omega 3s.
For those avoiding animal products, it is essential to make sure you are choosing appropriate alternatives to avoid deficiencies. Appropriate sources of meat alternatives include:
- Nuts and seeds
It is recommended we eat 1-3 serves of meat or meat alternatives each day, depending on your personal needs. During pregnancy, this is increased to 3-4 serves (22). One serve of meat alternatives looks like:
- 1 cup cooked or canned legumes such as lentils or beans
- 170g tofu
- 30g nuts, seeds, nut or seed butter including peanut butter and tahini
Dairy and calcium-rich alternatives
If you choose to avoid dairy products in your diet, it is essential you make sure to substitute these foods with nutritionally similar alternatives. This can be done by simply opting for calcium-fortified plant milks, yoghurts and cheeses. Bonus points if they are also fortified with vitamin B12 and vitamin D!
It is recommended we eat at least 2-3 serves of dairy and/or alternatives each day, though this can vary depending on age, sex and life stage (23). One serve of dairy or alternatives looks like:
- 1 cup (250mL) milk or calcium-fortified plant milk
- 2 slices (40g) cheddar cheese
- 100g almonds with the skin
- 100g tofu (choose calcium-set varieties)
Nourishing fats play many important roles in the body, such as helping the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and hormone production. Nourishing fats should be eaten every day in small amounts.
Plant sources of nourishing fats include:
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Nuts such as almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts
- Seeds such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds and sunflower seeds
- Nut butters such as peanut butter and almond butter
For those following a plant-based diet, it is especially important to make sure omega-3s are regularly included in the diet. Omega-3s are an essential fatty acid, which means they cannot be made by our body and need to come from our diet. Sources include walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds and flaxseeds.
Check out our Ultimate Vegan Shopping List here for a comprehensive 50-page guide containing all the popular plant-based items found in Australian grocery stores!
Plant-based diets through the life stages
Plant-based diets, including vegetarian and vegan diets, are completely safe during pregnancy if planned appropriately (24).
It is recommended you work with a plant-based pregnancy dietitian to ensure all nutrient requirements are met during pregnancy. This is important as there are some nutrients that are essential for a healthy pregnancy that can be harder to obtain. These include:
If you are eating plant-based, taking a vitamin B12 supplement is essential. Other supplements, such as prenatal supplements, may also be needed.
A well-planned plant-based diet is also safe during breastfeeding. It is very important to make sure that you are eating a variety of different foods from each of the six food groups to make sure you are getting all the nutrients for yourself and your baby.
As mentioned above, taking a vitamin B12 supplement is essential. Deficiency in the mother can lead to deficiency in the baby if the milk does not contain enough vitamin B12. This can lead to impaired development of the baby’s nervous system if not supplemented correctly (25).
Plant-based eating for babies and young children
Babies are often ready for the introduction of solids at around 6 months old. If you are wanting to raise your baby plant-based, this does require some extra caution to make sure their nutritional needs are met (26).
It is important that baby’s first foods are iron-rich, as iron stores will begin to deplete from around 6 months of age. Plant-based iron foods that are appropriate for babies include:
- Fortified baby cereal
- Cooked tofu, pulses and legumes (such as baked beans, lentils, chickpeas, red kidney beans, butter beans, cannellini beans). Cook pulses thoroughly to help digestion as undercooked pulses can cause vomiting and diarrhoea in young children
- Dark green vegetables (such as spinach, broccoli, green peas, and kale)
- Ground seeds and nuts (such as almond meal or smooth nut butters. Do not feed whole nuts as these are a choking hazard)
In young children, it is essential to make sure the child is getting enough energy (calories) and quality protein to support optimal growth and development (26).
Other key nutrients that are important to be aware of include iron, zinc, vitamin D, iodine, calcium, and vitamin B12. In children, as with all stages of life when following a plant-based diet, vitamin B12 supplementation is essential as deficiency can lead to severe and sometimes irreversible developmental disorders (27).
Working with a dietitian who is experienced in the area of plant-based eating for babies and children will help ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need to support their growth and development.
Plant-based meal plan
½ cup rolled oats, 1 cup calcium-fortified soy milk, 1 tbsp chia seeds
Serve with 1 tbsp peanut butter and mixed berries
Morning tea: Small handful of trail mix with plant-based yoghurt and a piece of fruit
(apple, banana, pear, etc.)
Lunch: Black bean burrito bowl
½ cup black beans, ½ avocado, 1 cup brown rice, 2 cups salad vegetables
Afternoon tea: Smoothie
1 banana, ¼ cup rolled oats, ½ cup fruit of choice (berries, mango, pineapple, etc.), handful of spinach, 1 tbsp ground flaxseeds, 1 cup calcium-fortified soy milk
Dinner: Tofu stir fry
150g calcium-set tofu, 2 cups mixed vegetables (broccoli, zucchini, carrot, capsicum, etc.), ½ cup soba noodles, sauce of your choice
Snack: 2 squares of dark chocolate with fresh strawberries
Want more ideas for meals? Why not try our 7 day Vegan Meal Plan for Women created by an expert dietitian nutritionist!
Plant-based diets emphasise eating a variety of foods such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds. Animal-based foods such as meat, seafood, dairy and eggs are usually minimised or avoided altogether.
There are many health benefits to following a plant-based diet, such as improved heart health, gut health and reduced risk of chronic health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension.
While there are health benefits, there are some nutrients that are more difficult to get on a plant-based diet. This is because the food sources containing these nutrients are either limited or there are factors reducing absorption. These nutrients include vitamin B12, iron, iodine, omega 3s, vitamin D, calcium and protein.
When following a plant-based diet, it is important to make sure you are eating a variety of foods from each of the six core food groups each day. Make sure you are swapping animal-based foods with nutritionally similar plant-based foods within the same food groups to decrease the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies.
A well-planned plant-based diet is appropriate for all life stages. If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or raising plant-based children, it is strongly recommended that you work with an experienced plant-based dietitian to ensure all nutrient requirements are being met.
Our dietitians at Plant Nutrition and Wellness are experts in plant-based eating across the life cycle. If you’re transitioning to plant-based eating or want to optimise your current diet, book in for free discovery call today.
This article was written by dietitian-in-training and PNW receptionist Jade Wrigley.