Nutritional Considerations For Plant Based Eating

Nutritional Considerations for Plant Based Eating

WNBF Pro Dr. Andrew Chappell

Healthy and Plant Based Eating

A healthy diet is essential for maintaining overall health and well-being. As I often tell my clients a healthy diet is a high-performance diet. Is a simple truth. The healthier an individual is the better they function. What is a healthy diet though? Well nutritionists and epidemiologist have known for sometimes that people who follow a Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, fish, and lean meats have higher life expectancy. Moreover, those who follow these types of diets also have less noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancers. Moreover they also have a greater quality of life particularly at the end of their life. As a result, many of the worlds food and health agencies suggest diets based on the aforementioned concepts, with the addition of animal based food products like dairy. The UKs Eatwell guide and U.S Harvard eating plate is based around the Mediterranean concept. It’s important however to note that although there are many different ways one could diet, and that when people talk about the comparison between what is healthy and what is not, unhealthy is pertains to the typical “Western diet”. The Western Diet is a diet high in salt, sugar, and saturated fats primarily obtained from highly processed foods, while being low in fruits and vegetables. Animal based products such as red and processed meats are higher than healthy recommendations, while these diets are often devoid of wholegrains in favour of processed cereals.

The UK Eat Well Guide suggests a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, wholegrains and starches, dairy and lean proteins provides the user with all the essential nutrients required for optimal health. Note that processed foods and snacks are not included in the plate.

The plant based movement of vegetarianism and veganism is primarily driven by a moral belief around the consumption of animal-based foods. There’s also a growing concern around sustainability and environmentalism in relation to animal based products. Moreover, there is also a health component associated with the plant based movement. As an alternative to a “Western Diet” it’s certainly true a plant based lifestyle can be far healthier. At this point however it is important to point out that veganism and vegetarianism may be no healthier than those who consume a Mediterranean diet or those following current healthy eating advice. This is an important distinction. Plant based practitioners must also consider that these diets (in particular veganism which excludes the consumption of dairy and eggs), lack some of the necessary nutrients that can only be obtained from animal-based foods and that fortification/supplement may be necessary. Following such a diet in the pre industrial or even pre world war 2 20th century would have lead to deficiency diseases. The reason certain nutrients can only be found in animal based foods is down to evolution and the synergy between animal flesh consumption and the inherent richness of the nutrients provided. With that in mind, here are some key considerations for those following or seeking to implement a plant based approach to dieting.

It’s no coincidence that animal based foods rich in micronutrients also contain cofactors which aid in their absorption


Vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs, can easily access lots of high-quality low-fat proteins in many cases without even the need to supplement. Some vegetarians may also eat fish, which can make things even easier. Obtaining enough protein however is much more challenging for vegans. Protein is essential for growth and repair of muscle tissue and other body tissues, and it is an important component of enzymes, hormones and the immune system. The recommended daily intake of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. However, excess protein is required when it comes to building muscle mass where recommendations range between 1.6 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Where cutting is concerned recommendations are even higher at 2.3 to 3.3 g/per kg BW. This can be challenging for vegans, as many plant-based sources of protein are not as high in protein as animal-based sources. Moreover, these protein sources can be limited in the number of essential amino acids and branch chain amino acids (BCAA), protein combining can help overcome some of these issues, however it can still be difficult to obtain enough BCAA. In this instance supplementing with some BCAA may be an example of where athletes may be able to make up the short fall.

Branch Chain Amino Acids like leucine play key roles in cell signalling that initiate processes like muscle protein synthesis. It can be difficult to obtain enough high quality protein from a plant based diet, and supplementation should be considered.

High protein plant sources of protein include beans and lentils, chickpeas, and soy-based products like tofu and tempeh. In addition to these high-protein vegetables, other plant-based options such as nuts, seeds, can also provide significant amounts of protein. It’s important to note however that plant-based protein sources often have lower bioavailability than animal-based sources. This means that although you may be able to consume enough protein from plant sources, the ability of your body to absorb this protein can be inhibited.

High-protein vegetable options

VegetableProtein (g) per 100g
Black Beans8
Brussels sprouts3

Meat substitutes are also popular amongst plant based dieters. These are food stuffs which have been designed by food scientists to resemble the appearance, texture and flavour of animal based products. For example there’s a wide variety of vegetarian/vegan burgers, sausages, chicken pieces, minces and bacon all available to the consumer. Many of these products are made from mushroom, beans, lentils, soya and in some cases contain egg. These products are often fortified as well with micronutrients to help consumers obtain their requirements. These can be a useful substitute for vegans/vegetarians when it comes to helping them achieve a higher protein intake, or where a high protein low fat option is desired. Consumers though should be cautious when consuming meat substitutes as plant based needn’t necessarily indicate a products as healthy. Below is a table of high protein common UK meat substitutes.

The marketplace is full of high protein meat substitutes for plant based dieters

Vegan Style Chicken Substitutes

 ProductProtein (per 100g)Carbs (per 100g)Fat (per 100g)Kcal (per 100g)
Quorn Chicken Pieces14 (65%)6.4 (7%)2.6 (28%)85
DOPSU No Chicken Pieces22 (44%)9.5 (18%)8.6 (38%)202 
THISIsn’t Chicken Pieces23 (58%)8 (19%)4 (23%)159
The Vegetarian ButcherWhat The Cluck21 (66%)2.9 (9%)3.6 (25%)128
VIV ERAPlant Chicken Pieces19 (69%)6.7 (23%)1 (8%)110
Plant ChefChicken Style Pieces17.4 (53%)10.8 (31%)2.4 (16%)133
Linda McCartneyChicken Pieces14.3 (28%)5.8 (10%)14.7 (62%)212

Vegan Style Mince Substitutes

 ProductProtein (per 100g)Carbs (per 100g)Fat (per 100g)Kcal (per 100g)
Quorn Vegetarian Mince13 (57%)2.3 (10%)1.7 (17%)92
VIVERAPlant Mince20 (76%)1.9 (7%)0.6 (5%)105 
Beyond MeatBeyond Mince15 (25%)4.8 (11%)17 (64%)238
The Vegetarian ButcherMagic Mince24 (77%)2.9 (9%)0.5 (4%)125
Plant ChefMeat Free Mince17.1 (54%)9.9 (30%)1.7 (16%)126
OMNI PorkPork Style Mince 12 (66%)2.2 (12%)0.8 (12%)72
Linda McCartneyVeggie Mince19.2 (47%)9.9 (23%)4.7 (30%)164

Tofu and Tempuh for Vegans

 ProductProtein (per 100g)Carbs (per 100g)Fat (per 100g)Kcal (per 100g)
Cauldron Organic Tofu13 (43%)1 (3%)7.1 (53%)120
Tofoo Co Organic Tufu12.6 (41%)2.9 (9%)6.9 (50%)124
Morinu SilkenTofu Firm7.1 (51%)0.6 (7%)2.6 (42%)56
Sainsbury’s SO OrganicSuper Firm Tofu11.9 (40%)1.8 (8%)6.8 (52%)118
Biona OrganicOrganic Tempeh17 (45%)11 (28%)8 (47%)151
Plant PowerOriginal Tempeh19 (41%)2.0 (4%)9.7 (65%)184
Tofoo Co Tempeh21.3 (45%)1.8 (4%)10.9 (51%)191

Vitamins and Minerals

Macronutrients aside micronutrients are an important consideration for Plant Based dieters. Some micronutrients such as Vitamin B12 (cobalamin), Haem Iron and long chain omega fatty acids (n-3 and n-6) can only be obtained from animal based sources. To combat this many vegan meat substitutes and cereals are fortified to prevent deficiencies. Vitamin B12 for example, which plays an important role in the proper formation of red blood cells, and it is essential for maintaining nerve function, is primarily found in meat, offal, milk, fish and eggs. The richest sources are liver, clams, kidneys and oysters. For those following a plant based diet, many plant based milks, and tofu are fortified with B12, along with yeast extracts like marmite. Fermented foods such as tempeh may also be a good source of B12.

Iron is a central component of haemaglobin and myoglobin in red blood cells responsible for the oxygen transportation and deposition into tissues. Iron from the diet exists in two different forms as haem and non-haem. The type the body uses within red blood cells is haem iron which can not be obtained from the a vegan diet. Plant-based sources of iron (non-haem), such as leafy green vegetables, beans, and lentils, are not as easily absorbed as animal-based sources, so it is important for vegans to be aware of their iron intake and to include iron-rich foods in their diet. Moreover, while the bioavailability of this type of iron is low, the conversion to the potent haem source within the body is also low. A lack of iron can lead to the malformation of red blood cells or a lack of red blood cells resulting in iron deficiency anaemia where the patient suffers from lethargy and weakness. Even where a plant based diet is rich in non-haem iron, supplementation with iron may be recommended, particularly where female athletes of a reproductive age are concerned.

Those looking to obtain enough iron from their diet should be mindful that non-haem iron is not as bioavailable as haem iron.

Calcium is important in maintaining strong bones and teeth, and it is essential for muscle and nerve function. While calcium can be found in plant-based foods such as leafy green vegetables, fortified plant-based milks, and fortified tofu, it is important to note that the bioavailability of calcium from plant-based sources is often lower than from dairy products. Similarly with iron, many animal based food sources contain important cofactors which aid the absorption within the small intestine. Moreover, fibre which plays an important role in digestive health may in some cases hinder the ability of the small intestine to absorb nutrients as a consequence of nutrients been bound up within the fibre food matrix.

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for maintaining heart health and brain function, and they have anti-inflammatory properties. While omega-3 fatty acids can be found in plant-based sources such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, the form of omega-3s found in these foods, called alpha linoleic acid (ALA). However, ALA as a fatty acid is a much smaller molecule than the bioactive omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. Moreover the conversion from these shorter chain fatty acids into the longer chain forms is poor. In some case less than 5% will be converted into the form which provides all the health benefits, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). So although Omega 3 fatty acids can be obtained from the diet, it’s  important to point out that only the bioactive form can be obtained from a diet containing animal based food stuffs. It is therefore essential for plant based dieters to consider supplements or fortified foods to get enough Omega-3s

Although there are many sources of omega 3, only the long chain bioactive sources can be obtained from animal based products.

Vitamin D the sunshine vitamin is important for the absorption of calcium into bones and also plays a role in maintaining the immune system. Sunlight aside this nutrient can be obtained from the diet, however only as part of an animal based approach. Foods rich in vitamin D include fatty fish and egg yolks, although many foods are fortified. It is possible to obtain vitamin D from sunlight alone, however those living in the northern hemisphere at higher latitudes in western Europe and north America, or conversely at lower latitudes in the southern hemisphere, may have to supplement to avoid deficiency during the winter months. Plant based dieters should therefore again consider supplementation.

Plant based dieters should consider supplementation to ensure they obtain all the nutrients required for optimal health

The table below summaries some of the key components of the diet that those following a plant based diet should consider. Although many of these nutrients can be obtained from fortified foods, those engaged in intensive high frequency training programs should consider identifying a suitable multivitamin and fatty acid supplement.

Key nutrient considerations for plant based dieters

NutrientDifficulty to obtain on a vegan diet
ProteinCan be obtained but may require more effort to ensure adequate intake
Vitamin B12Not found in any plant-based foods, require supplementation or fortified foods
IronNot as easily absorbed as animal-based sources, may require more effort to ensure adequate intake
CalciumCan be found in plant-based foods, but bioavailability is often lower than dairy products
Omega-3 fatty acidsCan be found in plant-based sources but not in the long chain bioactive forms therefore we may need to pursue supplementation