Is a Plant-Based Diet Actually Good for Health, or Just Another Fad?

We deep dive into the common beliefs about a plant-based diet and the different supplements that can help to ensure a balanced nutritional intake.

An Asian woman laughs and holds fruits and vegetables in the kitchen

Every time you browse your newsfeeds, it seems like there’s yet another new plant-based diet that’s trending. Some say it’ll help you lose weight, and others say it’ll help you look younger in days. Some are world-famous, like veganism; others are a bit more obscure – lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, anyone? The rules of these diets range from abstaining from red meat only to outright banning anything animal-related.

Yet, there’s no denying that adopting a plant-based diet could be beneficial to your health and nutrition needs. These include reducing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers, and more. What’s important is separating fact from fads because what’s popular isn’t always necessarily perfect for you. Keep reading to hear from the experts. Learn how to craft a healthy plant-based diet plan that’ll complement your lifestyle as well as boost your overall wellness.

Plant-Based Diet at a Glance

Adopting a plant-based diet isn’t as restrictive or one-dimensional as many might assume. These diets have quite a lot of nuances to fit your preferences, health, and wellness goals. Here are the most common ones, and what they entail, in no particular order:  

  • Vegan: Doesn’t eat any animal meat, animal-derived product (e.g., honey or milk), or foods containing them. 
  • Flexitarian: Also known as “semi-vegetarian”, this is mainly a plant-based diet but includes animal foods occasionally. 
  • Pescatarian: Doesn’t eat any animal food or product – except fish. 
  • Ovo-vegetarian: Doesn’t eat any animal food or product – except eggs. 
  • Lacto-vegetarian: Doesn’t eat any animal food or product. However, dairy products such as milk, cheese, yoghurt are consumed. 
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: Doesn’t eat any animal meat but consumes dairy products and eggs. 

With such a wide variety of diet plans available, everybody can find one that suits them, their goals and their tastes. Also, it’s always a good idea to eat a variety of foods to achieve a well-balanced body, health and wellness.

The 5 Colours of Food in Traditional Chinese Medicine

“In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the rule of thumb is to eat a balanced diet, one that comprises the five colours of food. These five colours correlate with the five elements found in nature, with the five functional organs in our body, with the seasons, and with the natural colours of the foods themselves,” says Eu Yan Sang TCM Physician Kong Teck Chuan.

He refers to the Huang Di Nei Jing – the Yellow Emperor’s Medical Classic. It describes how the five colours and the five flavours correspond to the five depots:  

  • The white colour and spicy flavour correspond to the lungs.  
  • The red colour and bitter flavour correspond to the heart.  
  • The green colour and sour flavour correspond to the liver.  
  • The yellow colour and sweet flavour correspond to the spleen.  
  • The black colour and salty flavour correspond to the kidneys. 

“Food is linked with our health, mind, body, and vitality. What we eat can affect a lot of other things about ourselves. For example, those who eat a lot of meat are more explosive or powerful. However, they could be more restless and have low stamina. Those who eat live a vegetarian lifestyle tend to have a milder personality and have better endurance. So, these aspects of ourselves link to the different colours and elements of the food we eat,” he adds.

The Facts and Myths of Plant-Based Diet

A woman cooking organic vegetables at barbecue dinner outdoor
Choose a wide variety of types and colours of fruits and vegetables to create a delicious and healthy diet plan.

Thanks to the Internet, everybody and their aunty can shout about how so-and-so is the best thing since this-and-that. But when we cut through all the fat, we find research that shows adopting a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of hypertension, inflammation, high cholesterol, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables have also been shown to have anti-ageing properties. And because plant-based meals are high in fibre and lower in calories (compared to highly processed foods or animal-based meats), they’re easier to help you lose and manage weight

The most common myths about them are that they lack protein, and calcium – but this isn’t the case. Nuts, seeds, and broccoli are a few with high amounts of protein. Then, to consume sufficient calcium in a plant-based diet, potatoes, tahini, sesame seeds, kale, and fortified cereals are your go-to ingredients. However, if you’re worried that your calcium intake isn’t enough, you can also consume herbal drinks to complement your diet. 

Filling the Gap Left by a Plant-Based Diet

Another concern for vegetarians who eliminate meat is to have anaemia due to an iron deficiency. On average, an adult vegetarian woman needs around 32 milligrams of iron. On the other hand, an adult vegetarian man needs around 14 milligrams every day. You can get plenty of iron from plants, though they’re non-heme iron and not as easily absorbed compared to heme iron from animal products. Spinach, quinoa, raisins, and mushrooms are good sources of iron. When you pair food packed with Vitamin C (kiwis, tomatoes), you can get all the iron you need daily. A red dates drink could also be worth it, as it’ll help nourish the blood.

Other essential nutrients are admittedly a bit more difficult to come by in a plant-based diet, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, and iodine. Nutritional supplements and fortified pasta, cereals, or plant-based milk are good alternatives to ensure sufficient intake of these key nutrients. For example, consuming a powdered drink that gives you all the goodness of oatmeal, flaxseed, barley, black beans, lentils, and more. It’s high in protein, fibre, and plant-based omega-3 fatty acids.

Before You Jump into a Plant-Based Diet…

A mom and her daughter preparing food in a kitchen filled with fruits and vegetables
Preparing plant-based meals together with your loved ones can be a fun and meaningful experience!

Not all plant-based foods and beverages are necessarily healthy or good for you. If they’re over-processed or have too many additives, then they’re just as bad as eating junk food. So be wary of bars, powders, pills, capsules, and other consumables you see on social media, touting unbelievable benefits.

Set a clear health or weight goal

If you’re considering switching to a plant-based diet, it’s essential to ask yourself why you’re doing so, what your goals are, and what you’re trying to achieve for your health and wellness. For example, many people are switching to plant-based diets because they want to reduce distractions or annoyances. “Our minds are often full of thoughts or disturbances nowadays. So, a plant-based diet helps the heart feel calmer and cleanses the mind and body. Thus can focus better,” physician Kong explains. 

“Vegetarianism is more than avoiding eating meat. It entails careful meal planning, and a good understanding of nutrition. Also, I feel it requires a good understanding of personal body harmony or balance from a TCM standpoint,” says physician Kong. 

Scientifically, a plant-based lifestyle is beneficial for the people who decide to follow that path. However, jumping on the hashtag bandwagon without clear goals could make it difficult for you to stick to the nutritional and lifestyle changes. It could even be detrimental to your specific dietary needs and health condition.

Pay extra attention if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding

For pregnant or breastfeeding mothers, extra special attention and care are required when undertaking a plant-based diet. Pregnant mums will need a lot more iron than usual to facilitate the formation of their baby’s red blood cells and oxygen distribution. Meanwhile, a growing child’s dietary needs include iodine, which is crucial for brain and bone development. Consult your regular physician or nutritionist to ensure that you and your child are getting all the nutrition you need while consuming a plant-based diet. 

Far from being just another fad, plant-based foods are the real deal. They can provide a host of health benefits and boost your wellbeing, simply because you’d be eating low- or unprocessed low-calorie whole foods without nasty additives. Eating more fruits and vegetables and less animal products is good for the environment too. Now, this doesn’t mean you should throw away all your animal-sourced products from your kitchen, but it’s certainly worth considering adding a plant-based meal to your menu for the week.

 Slowly reduce your meat servings

Close-up of a green weight scale, next to a pair of dumbbells, and a bowl of fruits and veggies
Try going meatless for a few days and monitor the results.

You can start by giving up one type of meat at a time and increasing your fruits and vegetable intake in a meal or two. You can easily achieve this by drinking a vegetable juice, which combines five root vegetables and also helps to maintain healthy blood pressure. Then, try going meatless for an entire day or two. Don’t limit yourself to just two- or three-ingredient salads when there’s a plethora of fruits, veggies, nuts and grains to choose from. Preparing or cooking your meals would be a great way to save money and personalise the taste. Then, to relax, brew up a pot of ginseng tea, which can help lower blood glucose, fight against fatigue, and reduce excess heat. 

Ready to make the switch permanent? Cookbooks, online groups, and professional nutritionists, physicians and health experts are all great resources to aid you on your journey. A plant-based diet is not to be laughed at and could very well be the health and wellness boost you’ve needed all along!

References

  1. Mayo Clinic. 2020. Nutrition and healthy eating[Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  2. Health Essentials by Cleveland Clinic. 2020. What you should know about plant-based diets[Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  3. Boston University School of Medicine and Boston University School of Public Health. 2012. Vegetarianism. [Accessed 22 July 2021]  
  4. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Heart Disease: Boost Heart Health with a Plant-Based Diet. [Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  5. American Institute of Cancer Research. AICR’s Foods that Fight Cancer™ and Foods to Steer Clear Of, Explained. [Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  6. Hindawi 2018. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. Antioxidants from Plants Protect against Skin Photoaging[Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  7. The Permanente Journal. 2013. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets[Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  8. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source. [Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  9. Cleveland Clinic: Health Essentials. 2021. 13 of the Best Vegetarian and Vegan Protein Sources. [Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  10. American Heart Association. Plant-Based Protein Sources. [Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  11. The Scope Blog by Stanford Medicine. 2017. Ways to boost blood iron levels while eating a vegan or vegetarian diet[Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  12. NHS. 2018. The Vegetarian Diet. [Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  13. Better Health Channel; Victoria State Government Department of Health; Deakin University. 2020. Vegetarian and Vegan Eating[Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  14. My Nutrition; Nutrition Education Materials; Queensland Government. Healthy eating for vegetarian or vegan pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. [Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  15. NYC Health. Nutrition: Plant-Based Protein. [Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  16. Good Housekeeping. 2021. The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Going Vegetarian. [Accessed 22 July 2021] 
  17. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 2016. Iron Status of Vegetarian Adults: A Review of Literature. [Accessed 22 July 2021] 

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