Nutritionist Claire Mahy discusses how eating more plants has a positive impact on the environment and shares key considerations when transitioning to a plant-based diet.
have you been participating in veganuary? perhaps you are curious to explore a plant based diet for planetary gains but are unsure whether it’s the right decision for your health?
Eating for the environment is a hot topic right now with a plethora of media exposing the undeniable truth that our current food system (high meat and dairy consumption) is unsustainable. Plus it’s the biggest driver of climate change. We have choices over what we eat and since consumer demand drives change our seemingly small choices can collectively make a big impact against factory farming.
Intensive animal farming directly contributes to climate change through methane produced by livestock and has further environmental ramifications due to the loss of healthy soil. The way food is grown to feed factory-farmed animals including heavy use of pesticides and herbicides, destroys organic soil matter which is essential for the planet and its inhabitants to thrive.
environmentally minded carnivore
I’m not suggesting we all follow a vegan diet but it’s crucial to make conscious and compassionate choices taking into account the nutrient value of what we eat, and the environmental and ethical impact. Purely from a nutrition stance, it may not suit your constitution to follow a vegan diet, however, you can still be an environmentally minded carnivore, and here’s how:
The first step to reduce your carbon footprint is simply to consume less meat and dairy. Modern society has normalised the frequency of meat consumption and it’s not necessary to eat meat every day to be nourished. Going back to hunter-gatherer times, there were periods of feast and famine and our bodies have adapted and are equipped to store nutrients.
There is no exact guidance on how much meat to eat, your needs are individual, but the overriding message is clear; as a population, we need to reduce how much meat and dairy we are consuming for a sustainable future. Perhaps start with one day a week plant-based and work towards more plant than meat days.
Not all meat is equal in terms of nutrient status, environmental impact, and animal welfare. Grass-fed cattle add to the biodiversity of soil as opposed to intensive animal farming which destroys organic soil matter. Organic meat and eggs are a richer source of healthy omega 3 fats and are free from synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, and growth hormones, meaning they score better on nutrition tables. Once more organic methods require healthy living conditions for the animals. As the saying goes, quality over quantity.
Granted organic, grass-fed produce is more expensive, however, buying cheaper alternatives is likely to be at the expense of your health and the environment. When you start to reduce how much meat you eat, the cost balances out. For example, occasionally buying an organic chicken and eating all parts including making a bone broth from the carcass, works out cheaper than regularly eating factory-farmed chicken breasts. Plant-based meals using starchy root veggies and plant proteins are budget-friendly, so the money saved can be invested in more conscious consumption.
Transitioning to more plant based
A well planned vegan diet can give most people everything they need, however, some people are more suited to a vegan diet then others. The answer to this might be in our DNA, specifically Nutrigenetics, the study of the relationship between genes, nutrients and health outcomes. We all have genetic variations which affect the way we make, use, transport and store nutrients and these variations likely account for part of the reason why some people get on better with a plant-based diet then others.
When transitioning to plant-based you may start off feeling fantastic as you increase fruit, veg, legumes and whole grains, perhaps noticing an increase in energy, more balanced mood, brighter skin, and improved digestion. If after a while these benefits dwindle you might be experiencing nutrient deficiencies. To help you navigate through this transition here are five key considerations when adopting a vegan diet.
Five considerations for a Vegan Diet
1.) Variety of Plant Proteins
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids, which are either non-essential, meaning they can be made by the body, or essential when they must be obtained from the diet. Most plant proteins do not often contain all the essential amino acids, therefore it’s important to mix and match your plant proteins for the full amino acid spectrum. The exceptions are soy, quinoa, and buckwheat which are considered complete proteins containing all essential amino acids.
- Plant proteins: tofu, tempeh, lentils, chickpeas, peas, beans, nuts, seeds (chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp), grains (quinoa, buckwheat, oats, brown and wild rice), nutritional yeast, and protein powder. Remember vegetables contain protein too!
2.) Key Vitamins and Minerals
People often ask about getting enough iron, calcium, and vitamin B12 when following a vegan diet. Iron and calcium are quite easy to obtain from plants, vitamin B12 is less available and supplementation might be required, more on that shortly.
- Iron: tofu, lentils, kidney beans, quinoa, spinach, chard, spirulina, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, molasses, dried apricots, and figs
- Calcium: green leafy vegetables, oranges, chickpeas, beans, sesame seeds, chia and flax, almonds, fortified plant milks, tofu and tempeh, seaweed
- Vitamin B12: fortified plant milks, nutritional yeast, and yeast extracts
3.) Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega 3 fatty acids are a type of healthy fat required for cardiovascular health, brain function, immune support, and hormone balance. The body cannot make omega 3’s so they must be obtained from diet.
- Vegan sources: flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, edamame and algae
4.) Processed Vegan Products
Just because something is labeled vegan this doesn’t mean healthy. Be wary of processed vegan products and check ingredient labels. Processed soy meat replacements are often laden with salt, additives, and processed oils to make them more palatable. Opt for whole food versions such as bean burgers, switch mincemeat for lentils, add chickpeas to stews and try tofu or tempeh in curries or stir-fries. Tempeh is fermented soy and a super healthy choice as fermented products confer benefits for the digestive system and immunity.
5.) Should You Supplement
Supplements can bridge the gap and act as an insurance policy if you are not getting everything you need from your diet. I usually recommend working alongside a qualified practitioner who can create you a personalised plan using reputable brands.
A few key supplements to consider are a multivitamin and mineral which contains vitamin D3, vitamin K2, iron, calcium, and iodine. Extra vitamin B12 since vegan dietary sources are limited and B12 status is heavily determined by digestive health and Nutrigenetics. You can always have your B12 monitored via a blood test. Thirdly an omega 3 supplement sourced from algae.
Eating plant-based is not a club where you are in or out. You might have periods of eating animal products and times in your life eating vegetarian or vegan. The important thing is to really connect with and listen to what your body needs alongside making conscious choices for the planet, that’s when you strike your unique balance.
Feeling inspired to try out some plant based cooking? Click here for a delicious lentil bolognese recipe by GITH’s recipe blogger Samantha Saliba.