How To Optimize Your Plant-Based Diet
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
If you are interested in health and wellness, you likely hear a lot about plant-based diets. While some are staunch advocates of eating plant-based, you’ll hear others criticize the approach for various reasons.
The truth is that there is no one-size-fits-all dietary strategy that serves everyone. Even within plant-based diets, there are different interpretations and executions of the diet.
A plant-based diet carries with it the benefits of eating many plant foods; however, it does take some careful planning to cover your nutrition needs. Today’s article will dive into just how to do this.
Keep reading to learn more about:
- Plant-based diets, including the vegan diet and vegetarian options
- Health benefits of eating more plants
- Nutrients that require special attention (along with food sources)
- Tips for optimizing a plant-based (or any) diet
- Key supplements to consider
Let’s get started!
What is a Plant-Based Diet? Vegan vs. Vegetarian
You likely see the term “plant-based” everywhere, from health marketing to food labels to nutrition articles, but what does plant-based mean? Plant-based is synonymous with a vegan diet in some circles, but other interpretations take a wider view. Even in the scientific literature, there isn’t a consensus on the definition.
For this article, let’s take an expansive view of the term. Plant-based may include:
- Vegan diet – The vegan diet includes only plant foods. It eliminates all animal foods, including meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey.
- Vegetarian diet – A vegetarian diet centers around plant foods and may include dairy products and eggs but avoids animal meat. If a vegetarian diet includes fish and seafood, it’s called a pescatarian diet.
- Plant-forward diet – This may be an omnivore diet, including plant and animal foods, but is heavily focused on plants.
As with any diet strategy, there are wide variations in what people may eat within the same label. One person following a plant-based diet may rely heavily on processed meat alternatives and processed vegan snacks, while another may cook most of their vegetarian meals from scratch.
It’s important to note that if something is labeled plant-based or vegan, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a healthy and nourishing choice. Being a food detective by reading ingredient labels helps you make informed decisions about packaged items.
Health Benefits of Plant Foods
Whole plant foods include:
- Whole grains
- Sea vegetables
- Herbs and spices
These foods are rich in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), antioxidants, and other plant compounds that support human health. Eating more plants is associated with maintaining a healthy weight, a robust microbiome, and reduced risk of chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease.
Plant-Based Diet Nutrients of Concern
While there are many benefits to increasing whole plant foods, those following vegan and vegetarian diets may have an increased risk for nutrient deficiencies.
Nutrients to pay particular attention to on plant-based diets include:
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin B12
- Omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA)
Let’s look at each of these, along with specific foods to include in the diet.
Eating enough protein can be challenging for many people but may be especially challenging on a plant-based diet. Plant proteins are lower in protein per serving than animal sources and less bioavailable. (Check out this article to learn more about how much protein to eat each day).
Plant-based protein sources include:
- Nuts and seeds
- Nut and seed butters
- Peanut butter
- Nutritional yeast
- Vegan protein powder
Vegetarian protein sources also include dairy products, eggs, and possibly fish.
Calcium may be a challenging nutrient to eat enough of for those following a vegan diet or anyone who doesn’t eat dairy products.
Good non-dairy calcium sources include:
- Collard greens, turnip greens, kale, broccoli
- Almonds and almond butter
- Tempeh and tofu
- Vegan substitutes such as non-dairy milk or yogurt fortified with calcium
- Mineral broth
- Blackstrap molasses
- Kelp and other seaweed
Vitamin D is a nutrient everyone needs to have on their radar, especially if you live at higher latitudes and spend a lot of time indoors. Most people can’t meet their vitamin D needs through food alone.
Vitamin D-fortified foods, supplements, and sunlight exposure on the skin are the most useful vegan-friendly source of vitamin D3, the form that increases blood levels. Vegetarian sources may include egg yolks, fortified milk, and fatty fish.
Pro tip: Ask your doctor to check your vitamin D levels the next time you have blood work done. Adjust supplementation to maintain optimal blood levels.
Vitamin B12 is a challenging micronutrient because only animal foods contain this vitamin. Those following a plant-based diet, especially those who don’t eat any animal foods, will benefit from including vitamin B12-fortified foods like nutritional yeast and supplementation.
You can supplement vitamin B12 on its own or as part of a B-complex, quality multivitamin, or prenatal.
Pro tip: Choose supplements that contain methylcobalamin, the active form of vitamin B12.
Iron is found in plant and animal foods, although iron in animal foods (heme iron) is more absorbable. Those following vegan and vegetarian diets need to be mindful of getting enough iron; this is especially true for women.
Vegan options include:
- Lentils and beans
- Spinach, chard, and other leafy greens
- Soybeans, tempeh, and tofu
- Raisins, prunes, and other dried fruit
- Dark chocolate
Pro tip: Pair plant sources of iron with vitamin C for improved absorption. Examples include adding lemon juice to leafy greens and tomatoes to bean dishes. Many vegetarian recipes lend themselves to this nutrient pairing.
Zinc is another mineral found in plant and animal foods, with oysters and red meat being some of the richest sources.
Plant sources of zinc include:
- Sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
- Cashews, almonds, pecans
- Garbanzo beans, lentils, kidney beans
- Tofu and tempeh
Pro Tip: Soaking or sprouting grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes increases the bioavailability of zinc and other minerals.
The primary dietary sources of iodine are fish, seafood, sea vegetables, and iodized salt. Although salt intake in the standard American diet is considered high, it largely comes from processed foods that don’t contain added iodine.
If you aren’t consuming dairy (especially grass-fed dairy) and seafood, consider adding seaweed to the diet in the form of powdered kelp or other seaweed. If you have a thyroid condition, iodine can be tricky. Please discuss iodine with your provider before adding seaweed or any iodine-containing supplement to your diet.
The essential omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is found exclusively in plant foods, including:
- Chia seeds
- Flax seeds
- Hemp seeds
The longer-chain omega-3 fats, EPA and DHA, which provide anti-inflammatory and brain benefits, are found in animal foods, primarily cold-water fish.
The body has some capacity to turn ALA into EPA and DHA, but conversion is marginal. Therefore, those following a plant-based diet may benefit from a quality fish oil supplement. For those who don’t eat fish, consider an option derived from algae.
How to Optimize Your Plant-Based Diet
Here are some tips for carefully crafting your diet to get all the benefits of a plant-based or plant-forward approach while still meeting your nutrient needs.
- Eat a variety of foods each day, including from the lists above.
- Choose whole foods most of the time. Whole foods are more nutrient-rich than processed items.
- Pay extra attention to nutrition during pregnancy and breastfeeding when nutrient needs are higher.
- Work with a dietitian for a detailed review of your diet and personalized guidance.
- Tune into your body and be open to making adjustments that help you feel your best. The diet that works for you right now may change over time.
- Fill in any nutrient gaps with quality supplements such as a multivitamin, omega-3 oil, and vegan protein powder.
Twenty2 Nutrition Vegan Protein is thoughtfully designed (and recently reformulated) to provide all nine essential amino acids from a mixture of great-tasting pea and almond protein. Each serving contains 30 grams of protein to help you meet your daily needs, along with prebiotics, probiotics, and digestive enzymes for optimal digestive health. Best of all, Twenty2 Nutrition Vegan Protein is vegan-friendly and great for anyone working to increase plant foods in their diet.
There is no doubt that eating more plant foods is good for your health, no matter what dietary strategy you follow.
This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider before beginning a new supplement.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a Registered Dietitian, functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Ryah helps clients use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, pregnancy, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah and her private practice at econutrition.co.