What is a Well-planned Plant-based Diet?

All diets, not just plant-based diets, require planning. Whether you've committed to Keto, Paleo, Atkins, or a plant-based diet, you'll want to ensure you're getting ample nutrients. This is easy to do with whole, plant foods.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) states in its position paper on vegetarian diets that “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.” So, where does the planning come in?

The key to a well-planned, plant-based diet is knowing how to incorporate a wide variety of plants from different food groups into your diet, including whole grains, legumes, tubers, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. This section explores the essential nutrients to consider when eating plant-based.

Eat More Than You Think You Need

 

Yes, you read that right. You get to eat more food on a plant-based diet. And who doesn’t like to eat MORE food?​

Plant foods are less calorically dense than animal-based foods. As a result, you can eat a larger volume of food and still lose weight. This concept has been scientifically proven in randomized control studies: individuals on a plant-based diet ate more food and lost more weight than individuals on an omnivorous diet, while also reporting adequate satiety and satisfaction.​

It's hard to imagine getting full on fruits and vegetables alone. This is where the more hardy plants come in. Foods like beans, lentils, whole grains and starchy vegetables are more calorie-dense and extremely high in fiber, so we feel full for longer periods.

Some Foods Still Require Portion Control

Plant-based diets effectively manage chronic disease because they are naturally low in saturated fat. But there are a few plant-based foods that do contain a moderate amount of saturated fat and should be portioned accordingly. Here is a list of foods rich in saturated fat:

  • ​Nut butters and nuts

  • Seeds

  • Coconut

  • Faux meat products

  • Tahini

  • Dark chocolate
     

These foods can still be included in a healthy plant-based diet; they just require some mindfulness and self-control. Consider sticking to one serving size as stated in the nutrition label. If you feel that you can't control yourself around these foods yet, leave them out of your kitchen.

 

The Basic Framework of a Plant-based Meal

 

This is an easy method to prepare a healthy, balanced plant-based meals. Of course, you can make your meals a bit more complex, but it's also okay to eat simply. This method is cost-effective and time efficient.

 

Here is the framework: 

  

Vegetable + Green + Starch +  Plant-based Protein

Step 1: Choose one or more non-starchy vegetables plus a leafy green; leafy greens provide the best bang for your buck nutritionally. Vegetables should take up 1/2 of your plate.

 

Step 2: Choose a starchy vegetable or whole grain. This section should fill 1/4 of your plate.

 

Step 3: Choose a plant-based protein. This section should fill 1/4 of your plate.

 

Step 4: Choose a low fat sauce, dressing, or condiment to put on top. 

How Many Servings Should I Get?

Vegetables, all types, inlcuding starchy

Consume 5+ servings of vegetables a day. Choose a variety of colorful vegetables, including at least 1 serving of dark leafy green vegetables. 

Fruits

Consume 3+ Servings per day. Choose a variety of fruits, including 1 serving of berries per day. 

Whole Grains

Consume 3+ Servings per day. Choose unrefined, whole grains. Intact whole grains are healthier than processed whole grain products, such as bread and pasta. 

Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)

Consume 2+ servings per day. Aim for variety. When buying canned legumes, avoid added salt and other ingredients. 

Nuts, Nut Butters, and Seeds

Consume 1-3 servings per day. Use a measuring utensil such as a tablespoon when measuring nut butter. Add flax, chia or hemp seeds to a smoothie, yogurt or oatmeal for omega-3 fatty acids. 

Healthy Fats

Consume 1-3 servings per day. Healthy plant-based fats include avocados, nuts, seeds, olives, coconut and tahini. 

Fortified Plant Milks (Optional)

Consume 0-3 servings per day

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Where To Get Your protein, Vitamins and Minerals

 

Plant foods are the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet; they’re rich in fiber, potassium, magnesium, iron, folate, and vitamins A and C — almost all the nutrients that tend to run low in the SAD. Developing nutrient deficiencies on a plant-based diet is rare, but it’s important to intentionally incorporate some foods that are rich in specific nutrients.  With a small amount of planning, it’s easy to consume the adequate nutrients on a plant-based diet.

Getting enough protein on a plant-based diet is a common concern because protein is usually associated with foods derived from animals. The good news is that protein is widely available in plants. In fact, all plants contain protein! Even plants that would normally be considered a carbohydrate, such as quinoa, has 8 grams of protein per serving. 

​On average, men need 54 grams of protein per day and women need 46 grams of protein per day. These protein goals are easy to reach as long as enough calories from vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are consumed. 

Some plant-based foods are richer in protein than others. Take tempeh for example: tempeh has a whopping 19 grams of protein per serving. Legumes, such as beans and lentils, have, on average, 8 grams per serving. Including tempeh, tofu or legumes with lunch and dinner is a good way to ensure ample protein consumption. ​

There are many reasons to choose plant-based protein over animal-based protein. Plant-based sources of protein often contain fewer calories and  harmful effects than animal products. Animal-based protein is packaged with cholesterol, antibiotics, hormones and cancer-causing compounds, none of which are in plant-based protein. In  addition, plant sources of protein have the added bonus of fiber and phytonutrients, which help prevent heart disease and diabetes. 

Vitamin B12 is produced from microbes that live in the earth’s soil. Humans used to get Vitamin B12 from untreated water and bacteria-laden manure but, because we now drink treated water and eat sanitized produce, these are no longer reliable ways to get vitamin B12. Luckily, we can get vitamin B12 from alternate sources. 

​Many people think animals produce vitamin B12, but this is not true. The flesh of  animals contain vitamin B12 due to the supplementation of vitamin B12 in animal feed. In addition, animals are given vitamin B12 shots. There are some downsides to obtaining vitamin B12 from animal-based food. Animal products are packaged with saturated fat, cholesterol, cancer-causing molecules and other toxins. Getting vitamin B12 from animal products is like trying to inhale oxygen through cigarettes - it’s not worth the negative health effects.  

 

While there are some fortified plant foods that contain vitamin B12, the most reliable source is a supplement. Supplements are shown to be safe and effective. The recommended daily amount of vitamin B12 is 2.4 micrograms (mcg), but you can safely take higher doses. Your body absorbs only as much as it needs, and any excess passes through your urine. 

Vitamin B12 recommendations do not differ for those following a plant-based diet vs. an omnivorous diet. However, one study suggests that doses up to 6 mcgs of vitamin B12 per day may be appropriate for vegans.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in both animal and plant sources. You may choose to get omega-3 from fish and seafood. However, our oceans and waterways have become heavily polluted, which makes fish and fish oil supplements a highly contaminated source of industrial pollutants. 

Meeting the daily recommendations for omega-3 fatty acids with plants is easy. One tablespoon of chia seeds or two tablespoons of hemp seeds or six walnuts do the trick. You can also supplement with omega-3 algae supplements. Studies find that algae-based, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplements have all the benefits of fish oil without the potential risk of contamination. 

Dairy products represent a substantial source of calcium for Americans, but dairy comes with a lot of baggage. Dairy is packaged with artery-clogging saturated fat, cholesterol, antibiotics, hormones, pus and pesticides.​ And remember those Got Milk ads that claim dairy builds strong bones? Well, dairy may not build strong bones after all. Large scale studies suggest that drinking more milk is associated with greater risk of developing bone fractures. Cow’s milk may be ideal for baby cows, but it’s far from a perfect food for humans.​ Luckily, plants are rich sources of calcium. Plant foods such as leafy greens, tofu, tahini, dried figs, nuts and seeds are all rich sources of calcium - plus they’re packed with fiber, vitamin K, folate, iron and antioxidants.

There’s a common misconception that people who don’t eat animal products are at risk for anemia, but they’re no more likely to be anemic than anyone else. Those who are anemic should consider getting iron from plants instead of animal-based foods.

Heme iron, found in animal-based foods,  is associated with higher risk of developing heart disease due to iron’s pro-oxidant behavior. When too much heme iron is absorbed, iron can act as a free radical, oxidizing cholesterol and contributing to atherosclerosis.  

The healthiest source of iron appears to be from plants, which has non-heme iron. Iron is widely abundant in whole grains, lentils, beans, dark leafy greens, dried fruits, nuts and seeds; to facilitate iron absorption, consume foods rich in Vitamin C such as oranges, spinach, and bell peppers. Avoid tea or coffee with meals and cook in a cast iron skillet.

Only those diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia should consider taking an iron supplement and, even then, it could be risky; supplementation of iron has been shown to significantly increase oxidative stress and DNA damage. Our body cannot regulate the absorption of heme-iron found in animal foods, leading to a host of health problems. Consult your doctor or dietitian about treating anemia with diet alone.

Sun exposure is the best way to get adequate vitamin D. But let’s face it: most of the US population doesn’t live in sunny, Southern California so we need to get our vitamin D elsewhere.

  

We must be deliberate about where to acquire ample Vitamin D, as it’s not abundantly found in food.  Sometimes foods like cereal, orange juice and plant-based milks are fortified with vitamin D, but the best way to boost your vitamin D levels quickly is through supplementation.

The optimal serum vitamin D level is about 75 nanomoles per liter [nmol/L]. To raise our vitamin D levels that high, it’s necessary to supplement with 2000 IU of vitamin D per day. If you’re overweight or elderly, consider taking 3,000 IU vitamin D per day.

The Bottom Line
 

Meeting your nutrient needs on a plant-based diet is easy as long as you're consuming a variety of plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.

 

​There are two vitamins that both plant eaters and omnivores should take on a regular basis: Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D3. That's it. Either take an algae-based omega-3 supplement, or a vegan multivitamin if you want to be extra confident that you're meeting your needs. ​​

Remember, supplements have their place; they’re meant to supplement a diet rich in a variety of whole, plant foods. The nutrient benefits of plants cannot be replicated in a supplement.

Next: A Typical Day of Plant-based Eating

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Iraina Rosenthal-Tawil, RD

Founder, Your Life on the Veg

Iraina is a registered dietitian based in New York City. She specializes in plant-based diets for the prevention and management of chronic disease. She offers virtual nutrition counseling via a HIPPA-secured online platform. 

Image by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis

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