A Nutritionist-Dietitian’s Top Tips on Plant-Based Eating For Optimal Health

A Nutritionist-Dietitian’s Top Tips on Plant-Based Eating For Optimal Health

“Going on a plant-based diet is way easier now than ten years ago.”

This was shared by my client who was a vegetarian then, and shared that it was really a struggle in terms of meal options and social acceptance. Many people, including myself, were then not yet aware of plant-based diets and their numerous benefits.

Fast forward to today, we now have a lot of options:

  • Large commercial restaurant chains here in the Philippines have started offering plant-based food options like the Good Good Burger of Shakey’s and the Plant-Based Burger of Burger King. 
  • More and more small food and restaurant businesses are sprouting to offer their share of plant-based versions of our favorite traditional meats and meals like tapa, tocino, barbecues, isaw, sisig, lechon, burger patty, and sausages to name a few. 
  • Plant-based recipes and nutrition information available online are being shared publicly on different platforms, in a variety of languages and dielects.
  • Communities where members support each other’s journey by sharing their personal experiences, recommendations, and whatever is needed by anyone in the community are more abundant across various social media platforms. 

However, just because a food or meal or anything is plant-based also means that it is automatically healthy. You may be doing more harm than good to your health if you’re not paying attention to a number of aspects of plant-based nutrition. 

Plant-Based Diet: What Science Says

Allow me to highlight some of the studies (systematic reviews and/or meta-analyses) to give you some answers on why a plant-based diet supports optimal health. 

“Plant‐based diets are associated with an improvement in obesity‐related inflammatory profiles and could provide means for therapy and prevention of chronic disease risk.” [1]

“Plant-based diets are associated with decreased total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, but not with decreased triglycerides.” [2]

“Plant-based dietary patterns, especially when they are enriched with healthful plant-based foods, may be beneficial for the primary prevention of type 2 diabetes.” [3]

“Diets higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods were associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular morbidity and mortality in a general population.” [4]

“This comprehensive meta-analysis reports a significant protective effect of a vegetarian diet versus the incidence and/or mortality from ischemic heart disease (−25%) and incidence from total cancer (−8%). Vegan diet conferred a significantly reduced risk (−15%) of incidence from total cancer.” [5]

The Top Tips

So, how could you ensure that your plant-based eating is helping you achieve your optimal health, and not sabotaging you. Here are the top tips that I think are important to consider while thinking with my Nutritionist-Dietitian’s hat:

1. Eat more whole plant foods. 

Eat as close to a food’s natural form as possible. For snacks and desserts, choose to eat fruits, nuts, or seeds. For main meals, choose to eat vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. 

Whole plant foods are low in calorie density (the amount of calories per gram of food) which may help you manage your weight, but they are high in nutrient density (the amount of nutrients per gram of food). 

Here is data comparing the nutrient content samples from the Three Food Groups (Whole Plants, Animal Foods, and Refined Plants). This was shared by Dr. Nelson Campbell, a plant-based doctor, in his book,  “The China Study Solution.” 

As you can see, whole plant foods’ nutrient content are significantly superior compared to animal foods and refined plants. Well, in terms of protein, animal foods might be higher, but we can get what is enough for our body from whole plant foods which is 0.6-0.8 grams per kilogram body weight and approximately 8-10% of our daily caloric needs. Excessive intake of protein is associated with chronic lifestyle-related diseases like cancer (breast and prostate), chronic kidney disease and liver disease. 

Thus, adding “whole foods” to your plant-based diet is the healthier option.  Limit or avoid animal foods and refined plant foods which include refined oils, added sugars, refined grains, processed meat alternatives, and other plant-based junk foods. Choose foods that are free from additives, preservatives, or synthetic ingredients. 

2. Eat diverse whole plant foods. 

How many plant foods were there in your last meal? How many colors were there?

Dietary diversity is also important on a plant-based diet. Eating a balanced diet with a wide range of whole plant foods not only ensures that we are getting the nutrition we need, but it can also predict our health destiny for the better. It has a lot of benefits which may include a healthy gut microbiome, nutrition synergy, and reduced inflammation which is associated with several chronic illnesses including diabetes and heart disease. [5]

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are the major food groups on a plant-based diet. All of them are essential as each contains nutrients, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fibers that are important to support optimal bodily functions. Eating a variety of whole plant foods helps ensure nutritional diversity in your plant-based diet. 

Diversity with the food group is important as well. You may have switched to brown or red rice already. You can improve it further by introducing other types of whole grains or other rice alternatives in your diet which may include adlai, black rice, oats, and quinoa. 

A Nutrition Game Plan: Include one new plant food per week. Explore your local market or farm and try out plant foods that you’ve never tried before. 

3. Eat enough (based on what your body needs). 

Eating less or more of what your body needs may be unhealthy. Eating enough is important.

Each individual has different energy (or calorie) requirements based on different factors which include age, gender, current weight, physical activity level, and current health condition/s. Moreover, these factors are also being considered for computing for the macronutrient distribution and recommendations, and if needed, even for the micronutrients too. This might seem overcomplicating things, but that’s how we work as Nutritionist-Dietitians and it is the best way to create and recommend an Individualized Nutrition Plan to a person. 

So, you choose to do it yourself by learning from various online nutrition resources. How could you ensure that your diet is adequate, balanced, and supports optimal health? Here are some things to monitor, observe and feel;

  • You have the energy to do the things you need to do daily. You generally feel well. 
  • You are managing your weight. The healthy rate of weight loss or gain is 1-2 lbs per week. 
  • Your mood is stable all throughout the day.
  • You do not feel too much hunger in between meals and you can manage your cravings. 
  • Your biomarkers are all within the range. This includes all the laboratory tests which I suggest you do at least annually or bi-annually or as prescribed by your doctor. 

4. Get your nutrition from food first, then supplement, if needed. 

Do you need any supplements on a plant-based diet? Yes, but if it is needed based on laboratory tests and/or if recommended by your healthcare professional based on health conditions, nutrition, and other factors. 

Although supplementation may show positive effects in certain situations, it cannot make up for poor dietary and lifestyle choices. You might be taking a number of supplements, but if you don’t eat healthily, sleep well, or exercise, you might be flushing your health investment somewhere. 

However, some people fail to thrive on a plant-based lifestyle because of health problems which may be due to vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Thus, there is a need to pay particular attention to some vitamins and nutrients even if you think you’re eating mostly whole plant foods. Just like the car which has regular preventive maintenance, there is also a need to always have regular health check-ups and get the biomarkers done. 

The key vitamins and nutrients which we need to be mindful of in terms of sources on a plant-based diet are vitamin D, vitamin B12, and omega 3. The others may include zinc and vitamin K2. Each of them plays an important role in our body functions. For example, vitamin B12 prevents nerve damage, promotes heart health, and supports overall energy levels and the immune system. It is found naturally in dirt and animal products. Its plant food sources include fortified foods like non-dairy milk and nutritional yeast. It is possible that you’ll end up being deficient in it if you’re not eating any animal products and not supplementing with it. Thus, is recommended to get yourself checked at least annually and supplement, if needed and prescribed by a healthcare professional. 

Food For Thought

Plant-based eating can truly help individuals achieve optimal health. Quality, adequacy, and diversity are essential criteria that you should be mindful of with regards to your plant-based diet. Not taking these into consideration may put your health at risk long-term or may worsen your health conditions. 

  • Eat more whole plant foods. Limit or avoid refined plant foods and animal foods. 
  • Eat diverse. 
  • Eat enough. 
  • Food first, then supplement, if needed. 
  • And lastly, enjoy nourishing your body while protecting our planet and saving the animals. 

Key References

  • F.Eichelmann, L.Schwingshakl, V.Ferdiko, K.Aleksandrova. (2016) ‘Effect of plant‐based diets on obesity‐related inflammatory profiles: a systematic review and meta‐analysis of intervention trials.’ Available at: https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12439. (Accessed: 28 January 2021)
  • Y.Yokoyama, S. Levin, N. Barnard. (2017) ‘Association between plant-based diets and plasma lipids: a systematic review and meta-analysis’ DOI: 10.1093/nutrit/nux030 (Accessed: 28 January 2021)
  • H. Kim, L. Caulfield, V. Garcia-Larsen, L. Steffen, et al. (2019) “Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults’ Available at https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865 (Accessed: 28 January 2021)

Roni Matalog

Roni is a Registered Nutritionist-Dietitian. She completed her certification in Plant-Based Nutrition from eCornell University and T.Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies. Her interest in plant-based nutrition, holistic wellness and sustainable living only intensified in recent years, but she has long been passionate about helping individuals make positive and sustainable changes to their health, to be able to live and enjoy a better quality of life while being mindful of the environment and all beings. She founded Plants & Purpose where she offers her services and shares things about plant-based nutrition.

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