How to stay healthy when switching to a plant-based diet

More Australians are adopting vegetarian and plant-based diets, with many choosing to cut their intake of meat – and even fish, dairy, and eggs – to improve their health.

While making such changes can be beneficial to health, a doctor warns that it could lead to poorer health outcomes if not done properly and urges Australians to consider diet and lifestyle changes more closely before making the switch.

Dr Andrew Thompson is a registered doctor at InstantScripts, an online prescription and telehealth service. He says switching to a plant-based diet risks lower nutrients and a higher intake of processed alternatives.

In fact, despite the rising popularity of plant-based and vegetarian diets, obesity continues to be a growing problem among the population: 32 per cent of Australians are considered to be overweight, while 28 per cent are classified as obese – an increase on the previous year.

Read: How the DASH diet can lower your blood pressure

“If Australians make poor choices when switching to a plant-based diet, they can risk becoming deficient in vital vitamins and nutrients, such as protein, B12, iron, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and calcium,” Dr Thompson says.

“Vegans and vegetarians can be at a higher risk of developing anaemia, while low omega-3 fatty acid intake can lead to numerous serious health conditions, including heart problems, fatigue, poor memory, and even mental health issues, such as depression. B12, in particular, can only be sourced from meat and seafood, such as beef, liver, salmon and chicken and other animal products such as eggs, milk and yoghurt.

“Seafood such as salmon, sardines and oysters are also rich in omega-3 fatty acid, however, there are some excellent plant-based substitutes, including chia seeds, walnuts, beetroot and flaxseed.

“Adopting a new lifestyle such as this isn’t as simple as eradicating meat and animal products. It’s important to ensure that any foods or food groups are being replaced with an equally nutritious alternative.”

Dr Thompson reveals five common mistakes to avoid when switching to a plant-based diet.

1. Failing to seek regular blood nutrition tests. A plant-based diet requires extra care to ensure individuals are getting all the right vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy.

Blood nutrition tests can assess levels of iron, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, magnesium and phosphate as well as an individual’s full blood count. I recommend Australians get a blood test through their regular doctor or a telehealth service.

After making the switch they will need another blood test three to six months later to see how they’re tracking.

It would also be wise to speak to a doctor about how often you should continue to get tested. The frequency depends on a variety of other factors including age, weight and any chronic health conditions.

Read: How to avoid kidney stones by adding calcium to your diet

2. Avoid eating processed animal product substitutes. Plant-based meat and alternative by-products are marketed as a healthier substitute, but they may be inadequate diet replacements.

Any diet high in processed foods and low in whole foods, such as vegetables and fruits, is considered unhealthy. Studies have found that plant-based meat generally contains less energy and saturated fat, but more carbohydrates and sugars than meat. The overall nutritional value (or Nutri-Score) of plant-based meat was also found to be lower than animal products.

3. Avoid loading up on vegan junk food. The idea of a vegan diet that comprises grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and vegetable fats and oils is not always sustainable or realistic.

Many junk foods such as hot chips are naturally vegan and there are countless vegan substitutes for those that are not. Sometimes vegan junk food is the easiest readily available snack, and it is important to be wary of loading up on these foods.

Vegan substitutes such as dairy-free ice-cream or gelatine-free lollies are often marketed as a healthy snack but should still be avoided in high quantities.

4. Don’t cut out key nutrients without replacing them. Vegan diets can be associated with low levels of vitamins and minerals. Studies show that vitamin B12 levels are significantly lower among vegans, while calcium intake among the majority of vegans is below healthcare recommendations.

Regularly consuming foods that are rich in these vitamins and minerals such as beetroot, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, avocados and mushrooms, are important to maintaining good health. To boost vitamin intake, supplements can be used in conjunction with a healthy diet for optimum intake.

Read: Can you be overweight and healthy

5. Eating the wrong portion sizes. Transitioning to a new diet can cause confusion over portion sizes. Concerns about being hungry or fears of missing key nutrients may cause some people to overeat unnecessarily. However, it is also possible to under-eat by misinterpreting levels of energy found in vegan meals – a plate of plain steamed vegetables may not completely satisfy one’s hunger. There are several tools available online that can calculate ideal portion sizes.

Many experts have also argued that, despite environmental impact being a popular reason to switch to a plant-based lifestyle, certain vegan-friendly foods such as avocados, blueberries and strawberries contribute greatly to the climate crisis through international imports or excessive water use.

For instance, 9.5 billion litres of water is used daily to grow avocados. Milk alternatives, such as almond milk, require an excessive amount of water in its product – just one almond amasses a water footprint of 12 litres.

Environmental impacts are also predicted to have serious effects on health in the long term, including an increase in food- and water-borne illnesses, infectious diseases, increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and mental health issues.

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