The Plant Based Diet
A plant based diet is essentially a vegetarian diet. This means replacing animal meats with plant based foods instead.
Many people who follow such a diet do so based on ethical, environmental, religious, health or economic concerns. As a result, there are a number of plant based diets, some of which may include animal produce.
As nutrition coaches it can be a challenge when we are faced with a plant based eater.
Our typical ‘go to’ resources, templates and advice will probably change, as the removal of meat from the diet means these clients will have very different nutritional requirements and demands.
It can be difficult to accommodate their nutritional requirements to ensure they are hitting their macronutrient needs and micronutrient needs while still supporting their goals.
This article will show you the requirements and considerations for plant based diets and how to tailor your coaching and guidance for this type of person.
Understanding Plant Based Diets
Around 2-3% of the population follow a plant based diet, so it will not be uncommon to work with such a client.
A good and well planned plant based diet can provide higher amount of certain vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and essential fatty acids when compared to a meat based diet.
It is therefore important to respect a client’s wishes in following such a diet, so you need to find out the reasons why they do so. For many, a plant based diet is a lifestyle choice, and it’s important to establish why this choice came about. By understanding your client’s beliefs and lifestyle choices, you will be in a better position to tailor the advice you give them.
As a result, you may find that with some clients you are able to reintroduce certain foods, or some people may be seeking to give up vegetarianism all together.
From experience, vegetarians tend to fall into two different categories: –
1. A ‘junk food’ vegetarian, meaning they avoid meats yet do not substitute it with other proteins or good foods, so they resort to poor food choices.
This type of plant based dieter has usually ‘fallen’ into vegetarianism, perhaps as a student when they couldn’t afford meat. Here you will also find people who are following such a diet based on their religious or ethical beliefs. They are following a low to no meat diet because they have to, not because they have decided to do it for body composition or health benefits.
2. A plant based vegetarian, meaning they remove meat from their diet and replace the lost macro and micronutrients via plants.
Those who fall in this group, we see various forms of ‘vegetarianism’, not only in their beliefs and reasons for avoiding meat, but how far they actually go with it.
Some plant based eaters will still consume some meats in their diet. Perhaps not daily, perhaps not very often at all, but they will. Others may still regularly permit fish, dairy and eggs.
We know that a diet with adequate protein intake will lead to better and improved body composition and health. Therefore, depending on how much meat is excluded from the diet, following a high protein diet can be difficult.
As nutrition coaches, getting some people to adhere to a high protein diet can be difficult from eating plant based foods only. On top of this, many of the typical high protein plant foods are also accompanied by the two other macronutrients – fats and carbohydrates.
This can make nutrition programming for a plant based fat loss client difficult, as we know we want a high protein serving with each meal, but not necessarily the high fat or carbohydrates that can come along with plant based foods.
Another difficulty with the plant based lifestyle is lack of variety. Despite there being a number of plant based food options, plant based eaters must ensure they meet their daily macro and micro nutrient daily requirements;
otherwise goals may not be achieved. This usually means sticking to a number of foods that will provide these in the highest quantities possible.
Below is a table summarizing the various plant based diets and which foods are typically permitted.
We covered the 10 nutrition cornerstones right at the beginning of the course, and we are going to look again at these for those following a plant based diet.
These cornerstones are the essential daily habits that everyone should be doing consistently before making a more individual nutrition plan. Therefore, a plant based diet is no exception to these cornerstones, but we do need to consider some further requirements for this group.
Let’s look at these again and the important points to consider for those following a plant based diet.
1. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY.
The number one habit is to never starve and eat frequently enough to support your goals.
With a true plant based diet it is difficult to overeat. With the addition of healthy fats etc. it is still possible to gain weight by over consuming calories.
Therefore, if a client is wishing to lose or gain weight by following a plant based diet, it is still important to respect overall daily calories.
2. EAT PROTEIN AT EVERY MEAL.
Balancing the macronutrients is probably the hardest part of programming a plant based diet. The key thing to remember is that vegetarian proteins generally either cross over into high carb or high fat foods. This is when protein powders become particularly useful for clients on a selective diet and can be utilized for a busy vegetarian on the go.
A lot of plant based eater’s resort to meat substitutes such as quorn to boost their protein intake. The downside of this is the heavy processing and refining make them a poor food choice with low quality ingredients.
You may also find that soya products are used commonly in this diet, again to boost protein content. Here are some of the main considerations to think about with soya: –
• Most soy in the U.S. is used to make soybean oil. The waste product is then used to feed livestock or processed to produce soy protein. Whole soybeans are rarely consumed.
• Whole soybeans are rich in micronutrients, but they also contain phytates which block absorption of minerals. Soybeans are very rich in Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which can cause problems.
• The isoflavones found in soy can activate and/or inhibit oestrogen receptors in the body, which can disrupt the body’s normal function.
• There is significant evidence that soy-based infant formula can cause harm, both via its isoflavone content and its unnaturally high content of manganese and aluminum.
However, with occasional use soya will do little harm, and the use of fermented soya such as tofu, tempeh and miso can be useful and safe additions.
Below is a ‘go to’ list of proteins and their respective carbohydrates content:
3. EAT VEGETABLES WITH EVERY MEAL.
This might seem like an easy habit for plant based eaters to achieve, but as we already mentioned, many still don’t eat enough daily fruit and veg.
For a plant based eater, 50-70% of the diet should be coming from fruit and veg, to ensure adequate amounts of macro and micronutrients are consumed in the diet.
A greens powder can be highly effective here if eating that much fruit and veg is difficult.
4. EAT WHOLE FOODS.
As with every diet reducing the processed and refined foods should be a priority. Avoid heavy supplementation, remembering food is your priority tool for nutrition and make sure that any supplement recommended is vegetarian friendly.
5. EAT SINGLE INGREDIENT FOODS.
Always aim to build and recommend client recipes based upon single ingredient foods, as these will provide the best nutrition possible and help regulate appetite.
6. LEARN TO CARB CYCLE.
Most likely your client will want some carbs in their diet, and that’s perfectly fine on a plant based diet.
As always, it’s important to consider the timing and type.
Many plant based eaters will consume a lot of carbs in their diet in order to make up for the reduced protein intake and to keep them full. Chances are, they are scared of fats too, so carbohydrates are their only solution.
Below is a couple of ‘go to’ carbohydrate sources for plant based eaters: –
• Sweet potatoes
• Brown rice
• Legumes and pulses
• Rice cakes
7. DRINK PLENTY OF WATER.
As always, a diet should be high in water for optimal hydration levels.
While we are on fluids, it’s important to mention here that some vegetarians will not be consuming dairy products. This may lead to reducing levels of vitamins and minerals such as, B12, D and calcium.
A great substitute for dairy is non dairy based milks, such as coconut, hazelnut, oat and rice. These are usually fortified with these particular vitamins and minerals so the consumer is not missing out on these important nutrients.
8. REMOVE INTOLERANCES FROM THE DIET.
As with any good nutrition plan, focus should be placed on reducing any allergies, sensitivities and intolerances when possible.
Occasionally, due to lack of variation in many plant based diets, sensitivities or intolerances can be more common. Also, this highlights the importance of ensuring food variety and rotation in a plant based diet.
9. EAT HEALTHY FATS.
A plant based diet should also include adequate amounts of healthy fats, just like any other diet.
Some suggestions could be: –
• Coconut oil (to cook with)
• Full fat dairy products (not vegan)
• Extra virgin olive oil (for dressing)
The benefit of including ample amounts of fat in a plant based diet is they will also help with increasing protein intake i.e. nuts and dairy products.
It’s therefore important to ensure high quality sources of fats, to not only improve level of nutrients, but to balance omega 3:6 ratios in the body.
A high fat diet from certain sources of fats (even if classified as ‘healthy’) may unbalance this ratio and increase levels of omega 6. Unbalanced levels omega 3:6 can lead to inflammatory conditions in the body.
Below are some of the best fat sources for those following a plant based diet:
As you can see it is possible for someone to achieve their goals by following a plant based diet but they have to be slightly more strategic about it.
Many people consider a plant based diet to be an exclusive one, which can be the case, so the goal should be to create an inclusive nutrition plan for someone. It’s important to replace the nutrients that they may be missing out on.
My top food choices for creating a plant based nutrition plan are:
Of course, we are looking at strictly plant based options here – there are other options to chose from. But these foods will build the bulk of their plan, and from a nutritional profile provide plenty of macro and micronutrients.
Building A Plan
Now you have your food choices for this diet, you may want to plan out a basic daily structure based around the macronutrients and timing.
This is highly individual and will change from person to person, so below is an example of how this might look: –
MEAL 1: Protein serving (for essential amino acids) + Healthy fats (for essential fatty acids) + Vegetables (for micronutrients)
MEAL 2: Protein serving (for essential amino acids) + Healthy fats (for essential fatty acids) + Vegetables (for micronutrients)
MEAL 3: (post workout) Protein serving (for essential amino acids) + starchy carbohydrates (for energy replenishment and recovery) + Vegetables (for micronutrients)
MEAL 4: Protein serving (for essential amino acids) + Healthy fats (for essential fatty acids) + Vegetables (for micronutrients)
MEAL 5: (optional evening snack) protein serving (for essential amino acids) + starchy carbohydrates (for energy replenishment and recovery) + Vegetables (for micronutrients)
From here then, you may want to suggest some meals or recipes to fill in the gaps.
An example could be: –
MEAL 1: 3 whole egg omelette with spinach (cooked in coconut oil)
MEAL 2: Mixed leave salad with feta cheese and seeds
MEAL 3: (pre workout) Mixed nuts, raw chocolate and coconut butter
MEAL 4: (post workout) Sushi platter
MEAL 5: Protein shake, banana.
If the plant based eater is open to some fish, eggs and possibly some dairy, then it’s important to build these into the diet as much as possible to further boost nutrients and variety.
There are a number of key supplements worth noting for those following a strict plant based diet as there could be deficiencies when following such a plan.
Is a water-soluble vitamin with a key role in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, and for the formation of blood. It is one of the eight B vitamins. It is normally involved in the metabolism of every cell of the human body, especially affecting DNA synthesis and regulation, but also fatty acid synthesis and energy production.
It is typically found in animal based products, and supplementing with at least 100mcg B-12 per day is the ideal.
Fish oil contains the essential omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are known to provide a number of health and performance benefits due to their highly anti-inflammatory properties. From a health perspective these fatty acids appear to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, while from a performance aspect they can help to prevent muscle breakdown, enhance joint healing, improve brain function and achieve greater fat loss.
Aside from the benefits of this alone, it is important to balance Omega 3 : Omega 6 ratios within the body. A plant based diet is lacking in O3, and many of the typical foods eaten will promote a higher state of O6, creating a higher inflammatory response in the body.
Dosage: Take a total EPA/DHA value of 1-2g per meal per day. Liquid form is best.
If fish derived oil is out of the question, you can purchase an algae derived product instead.
A good quality greens blend will contain whole foods, fruit extracts, vegetable extracts and super fruits. Greens powders are a convenient and effective supplement to help increase daily fruit and vegetable intake and improve overall health and diet.
Aim for 1-2 servings per day, and opt for a 100% plant based option.
Getting adequate protein into a plant based diet can be difficult, so adding a plant derived powder to the diet is hugely beneficial. I suggest pea, hemp and rice based powders.
A diet low in dairy products can lead to calcium deficiencies, and I suggest aiming for at least 600mg a day via supplementation or plant based products.
Plant based milks are great for this too, as many are fortified with added calcium e.g. coconut milk. Always pick the unsweetened options.
Many animal based foods contain the most valuable form of vitamin D, the D3 variety. Therefore when following a plant based diet it is even more important to supplement with vitamin D, via increased sun exposure or capsule form.
Dosage; 2500-5000IU per day of Vitamin D3 in liquid of spray form.
Many nutrition coaches see plant based diets as a problem, but with a properly planned programme and some confident knowledge, a vegetarian diet can provide a varied, nutritionally dense option for those who wish to take it.
Below is a list of the calorie and macro goals you can print:
*You can also download the form by clicking the download tab on the top right of the document.