Celebrate Earth Day by Eating More Plants!
Life can get rather hectic and it can be hard to know where to begin when trying to do your part for the planet. But if you’re looking to make a difference this Earth Day, eating more plants could be a great place to start.
As a nutritionist, I believe the world (and everyone on it) would thrive if we ate more plants. Considering that the global food system is responsible for around 25% of human-generated greenhouse gases - which includes raising and harvesting all the plants, animals and animal products that we eat, it’s time we take action for the sake of the health of our planet.
Most interestingly, the meat and dairy industry contributes a staggering 14-18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions - that’s more than the emissions from all the trucks, cars, aeroplanes and ships combined in the world!
It’s safe to say that the food that we eat has a clear impact on our carbon footprint. And eating more plants is one of the many actions that we can take to fight climate change.
So whether you’re already fully plant-powered, considering going plant-based, or looking to take little steps towards eating more plants, we’ve put together some quick tips to help you get started!
So, what are the benefits of eating more plant-based?
You might be familiar with an apple a day keeps a doctor away, but why are plant-based foods such as apples so good for us and what exactly are the benefits of eating them? Well, their healthful benefits are likely due to a range of factors, including a lower energy density, high amounts of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre (best known for keeping the digestion system moving and preventing constipation) and phytochemicals (naturally occurring chemicals that work collectively to promote wellness); basically all the good stuff!
Kitchen essentials for your plant-based meals…
As more and more people are discovering the various environmental, health and ethical benefits of a plant-based diet, supermarkets, health food stores and restaurants are stocking more vegan options than ever before to keep up with increased demand. So during your weekly shopping trip, you should be able to find plenty of plant-based essentials to keep stocked at home.
When putting together your shopping list, I would suggest planning your meals in advance to help you keep your meal choices varied and nutritionally sound! Your grocery list might contain the following:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Some carbohydrate sources including oats, rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta and noodles
- Some protein sources such as kidney beans, white beans, black-eyed peas and lentils
- Healthy fat sources including nuts and chia seeds, avocados and nut butters
- Refrigerated foods including tofu, tempeh, seitan, plant-based milks
- Sauces and condiments including tomato sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, mustard and chilli sauce
- Cupboard staples including coconut milk, coconut flour, cocoa powder, dark chocolate, nutritional yeast, herbs and spices
Nutrients to look out for when eating plant-based…
When managed correctly, a plant-based diet can offer a plethora of health benefits for all stages of life thanks to the revitalising nutrients found in plant-based foods. You do however need to make sure you get plenty of the following nutrients when eating more plants:
Proteins are made up of chains of different amino acids, which our bodies need in certain proportions to utilize the protein. Our bodies naturally produce 13 amino acids, but there are 9 other amino acids that need to be sourced through the diet since our bodies are unable to make them (essential amino acids). It is well-known that animal proteins are the richest food source for complete proteins- many plant-based proteins on the other hand are considered “incomplete” as they are low in one or more essential amino acids.
However, when following a varied, healthful plant-based diet, you can easily get all the amino acids by eating plenty of plant foods, such as: beans, soya, chickpeas, quinoa, peas, edamame, beans, tofu, tempeh, whole grains and even hemp. As long as you’re getting plenty of these plant-powered foods in your diet, it’s going to be pretty hard to fall short of your daily protein requirement!
Plant-based foods are naturally void of vitamin B12 since this vitamin is made by microorganisms (not by plants). To ensure you get at least the recommended allowance of 1.5 micrograms per day, increase your intake of vitamin B12 fortified foods such as cereals, vegan spreads, nutritional yeast flakes, and fortified plant-based milks! It's important to note that if you are unable to meet the requirements through consuming fortified foods, you will need to include a vitamin B12 supplement in your diet. Supplementation is a convenient way to ensure that you're getting your full vitamin B12 requirement.
DHA, short for docosahexaenoic acid, is a type of omega-3 fatty acid that plays an important role in cellular function and helps support brain health, heart health, eye health, and assists in maintaining normal levels of inflammation across the body. The most well-known sources of DHA include fish oil and oily fish like salmon and tuna. Plant-based foods such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts and leafy vegetables, on the other hand, contain the less potent omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA can be converted into DHA, but the conversion isn't always very efficient especially if ALA intake is too low. To help boost your DHA intake, seaweed and aquatic plants known as algae are the best plant-based sources and can be easily sourced through supplementation.
Interestingly, it’s a common misconception that fish are the original source of omega 3 fatty acids! Fish actually get their omega-3s from algae, so why not go straight to the source?
Because the body cannot produce its own iron, it needs to be supplied from the food that we eat. Iron can be found in lots of different foods, but the rate it’s absorbed in our bodies can vary. Iron can be found in two different forms: heme and non-heme. Heme is found in animal products and is typically absorbed better than the non-heme version found in plant-based foods. This means that iron levels should be closely monitored when eating vegan to prevent any deficiencies and anemia. This is simple to do when you include foods that are especially high in iron such as fortified breakfast cereals, white beans, lentils and dark chocolate. It’s also helpful to eat these foods with vitamin C rich foods such as citrus fruits, peppers, broccoli and strawberries since pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C rich foods can increase the absorption of iron in the body by almost six times!
In the body, vitamin D helps keep your bones and teeth healthy and strong, supports the immune system by triggering the body’s immune cells to produce infection-fighting antibodies and also helps to maintain joint and muscle strength. It can be challenging to get enough vitamin D when eating vegan since many of the foods containing the highest amounts of vitamin D are far from plant-based! The good news is that you can get your daily dose of vitamin D through sun exposure, fortified foods and plant-based milks. You could also consider taking a vitamin D supplement to ensure you are getting at least the recommended 10 micrograms per day (400 IU).
Riya Lakhani ANutr is a registered nutritionist and health writer with a special interest in plant-based nutrition. She has completed a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Human Nutrition, and has developed a passion for writing about all things plant-based.