In the last several years, plant-based and vegan diets have become mainstream. They have even been featured in popular documentaries.
While for some, there are certain health benefits to reducing your consumption of animal products, how do you know if this type of diet is right for you? It’s important to know that there are a few risks you may want to consider before going plant-based that can help you ensure you’re getting all your essential nutrients.
If you‘re starting with “meatless Mondays“ or exploring vegan food for the first time, we’ll take you through the beginner’s guide to switching to plant-based eating.
What is a Plant-Based Diet?
So what’s the difference between a plant-based and vegan diet? While some consider these two terms synonymous, it’s important to note that they are not necessarily the same thing.
A vegan diet restricts the consumption of any animal products, including meat, dairy products, and fish. While veganism is a form of plant-based eating, other less restrictive diets such as the vegetarian and flexitarian diets can also fall under the umbrella of plant-based eating.
The whole-food plant-based diet is another derivation of plant-based eating, which may permit the consumption of animal protein, but places emphasis on eating whole foods rather than processed and refined products such as oils and white flour.
Potential Health Benefits of Plant-Based Eating
There are many reasons you might be considering switching to a plant-based diet.
Some research has shown that reducing your consumption of animal protein (sources like processed meat and poultry) may help lower cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and the risk of heart disease.
There is also evidence to indicate that plant-based diets may support weight loss and lower the risk of obesity in some individuals. One study found that people following this diet generally consumed less fat (and fewer calories).
Another study found that the risk of developing type 2 diabetes was lower among individuals following a plant-based diet while also lowering their risk of all-cause mortality, certain cancers, and cardiovascular disease.
Risks of Plant-Based Diets to Consider
It appears that plant-based diets may have many benefits for your overall health. So, are there any downsides?
Overall, there isn’t much research to support the negative health effects of plant-based diets. Some studies suggest that vegans and vegetarians may be more prone to lower bone density. However, more research is still needed to link this to plant-based diets.
For some people, it can be helpful to monitor protein intake when cutting out meat and dairy products—but remember not to simply add or eliminate foods without speaking with a healthcare professional. While plant-based restaurants become more popular and make vegan options such as veggie burgers or vegan tacos more accessible, many swap out the meat for mushrooms or cauliflower, which don‘t contain protein.
Some plant-based individuals may consume more than the recommended daily intake of fiber as they consume more legumes, vegetables, and whole grains. While fiber is important for a healthy gut and optimal blood sugar, increasing fiber intake too quickly can lead to bloating and other digestive distress.
Removing animal products from your diet can drastically affect your intake of core macro- and micronutrients. You may need to create a meal plan to help you reap these health benefits.
6 Tips to Getting Started with a Plant-Based Diet
Ready to start a plant-based diet? Here are our top tips to help you start on the right foot.
1) Consult a Dietitian Before Beginning
If you‘re someone who has experienced any medical condition that may be impacted by dietary changes, you should consult a dietitian or doctor before switching to a plant-based diet.
Some conditions, such as IBS, may make it harder to maintain a vegan or vegetarian diet due to higher fiber intake.
2) Start Slow
Eliminating all animal-based foods “cold turkey” and switching to a plant-based diet can be hard to sustain and lead to cravings, so start slow.
To reap the health benefits from this diet, you’ll want to ensure you can keep it up for the long term (if you choose to do so).
Start by reducing your consumption of meat in certain meals, then move to full meatless days, and then experiment with cutting out dairy products and replacing them with plant-based alternatives if you’re opting to go fully vegan.
3) Consider Supplements
In some variations of plant-based diets (especially vegan), it can be hard to consume sufficient vitamin B12 and omega-3 through whole food sources. Other nutrients such as vitamin D, iron, zinc, and calcium can also be hard to come by when you don‘t include animal products in your diet.
While it's generally better to consume these vitamins and minerals through whole foods rather than relying on supplements, taking a vegan multivitamin can help you keep your levels in healthy ranges and prevent any side effects that may arise from low levels.
You can also include foods such as nutritional yeast (fortified with vitamin B12), plant-based milks and yogurts (fortified with calcium), and even add algae and nuts to your diet to boost omega-3. Remember to consult with a healthcare professional to see if supplements are the right choice for you.
4) Pay Attention to Protein
Protein is an essential macronutrient that plays a vital role in many bodily functions. Because plant-based diets limit or restrict the consumption of animal products, it can be hard to ensure you’re eating enough protein.
Most adults are recommended to consume at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Making sure to space out your protein intake throughout the day can also help you feel fuller, reduce snacking, and help regulate your blood sugar.
Popular options for plant protein include tofu, tempeh, seitan, texturized soy (TVP), meat substitutes like Impossible or Beyond meat, chickpeas, black beans, nuts, and dairy-free yogurt. You may include Greek yogurt and eggs to boost your protein if you're on a vegetarian diet.
5) Don’t Over-Consume Fiber
Carbohydrates are another important element of a plant-based diet. However, it can be easy for some individuals to over-consume carbs, especially fiber, when they switch to eating plant-based.
Remember that the dietary fiber recommendation from the CDC is between 22 and 34 grams daily. Increasing your fiber intake too quickly can lead to bloating, and other adverse side effects, which is why making a slow transition to this diet is beneficial.
Complex carbs like brown rice, quinoa, legumes, lentils, and whole grains are all rich in fiber and other nutrients and are glucose-friendly options.
6) Use a Nutrition-Tracking App
To ensure you’re consuming healthy amounts of fiber, protein, and other food groups, you may consider using a diet-tracking app for the first few weeks of your new diet to better understand your nutrition.
The Nutrisense app is a great option, as it allows you to measure the levels of nutrients you’re consuming in addition to your calorie count. however there are many other apps on the market that can also help.
Will Eating Slowly Help with Weight Loss?
We’ll take you through the benefits of mindful eating and then conduct an experiment with the help of a CGM to see how eating speed can impact your blood sugar.
Plant-Based Diet and Blood Sugar: Insights from a CGM
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) has shown support for the benefits that can come from vegetarian diets, emphasizing that well-planned vegetarian diets can be beneficial for individuals with diabetes.
So, our Content Writer Natalie Krafft decided to conduct some experiments on vegan protein sources while wearing a CGM to see how a plant-based diet impacted her blood sugar response.
Her dietitian, Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN, guided her through important considerations for keeping her protein intake high.
She focused on including protein sources like tofu, tempeh, edamame, and vegan protein powder in her meals, and was surprised at the differences in blood sugar response when she ate different variations of the same tofu bowl.
Meal Sequencing Experiment
To test out how protein affected her blood sugar, she ate the following meal:
- 75 grams basmati rice (uncooked)
- 100 grams extra firm tofu
- ⅓ cup sliced zucchini
- ¼ onion (diced)
- 5 cherry tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon of olive oil
In this meal, she ate the rice before the tofu and vegetables. The carbohydrates in her dish from the white rice were quickly digested and lead to a sharp glucose spike.
Below, you can see that her blood sugar peaked at 145 mg/dL in the two hours after eating, which exceeds the cap of 140 that experts recommend staying under.
Natalie ate the same meal the following day, but this time she consumed the tofu and vegetables before the white rice.
In the graphs below, you can see how her blood sugar peaked at 115 mg/dL. Her glucose score was 10, indicating that her body had an optimal blood sugar response to this meal when protein and fiber were consumed before carbohydrates.
Meal sequencing is just one consideration to take into account on a plant-based diet when aiming to optimize your blood sugar, and these responses indicate just how important it can be to prioritize both plant protein and fiber when switching to a new diet.
Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense
Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.
With Nutrisense, you’ll be able to track your blood glucose levels over time using a CGM, so you can make lifestyle choices that support healthy living.
When you join the program, our team of credentialed dietitians and nutritionists are available for additional support and guidance to help you reach your goals.
Ready to take the first step? Start with our quiz to see how Nutrisense can support your health.