Plant-Based Nutrition: A Popular, Albeit Hotly Contested Topic

Vegan diets are more popular than ever now, and Australia is leading the way in regards to interest in vegan food and plant-based nutrition. Certainly in clinical practice, there has been a massive increase in the number of vegan and vegetarian patients we see coming through the clinic doors over the past few years, and at this stage, there’s no sign of it slowing.

What this means is there has been a massive shift in people’s perception of vegan diets and plant-based nutrition, and all this interest in veganism has led to increased dietary options for vegans, increased research into vegan nutrition and of course, increased understanding of the benefits and potential pitfalls of plant-based diets.

Undoubtedly, plant-based diets pose a number of health benefits, and these have been demonstrated across various research papers, clinical trials and epidemiological studies espousing the benefits of plant-based nutrition. For example, individuals on plant-based diets typically have lower BMIs than those consuming standard Western diets, and this in part contributes to their reduced risk of ischaemic heart disease. In a 2017 systematic review, researchers analysed the evidence across 86 cross-sectional studies and 10 cohort prospective studies, and found that vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with lower total cholesterol, lower LDL cholesterol and lower blood sugar levels than omnivorous diets. Plant-based diets have also been associated with improved blood glucose control and weight management in patients with type 2 diabetes (link), which may lead to improved long-term health outcomes. Vegetarians and vegans are also more likely to reach their recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables (link), which may in part contribute to their reduced risk of certain diseases. As fruit and vegetables are a rich source of vitamins, various minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals, increased consumption of them is widely linked to improved health outcomes across a range of parameters.

So it is clear vegan and vegetarian diets possess a number of attractive benefits, but what about the potential pitfalls? Well, whilst it’s wonderful to be passionate about your dietary choices (especially if those choices relate to religious, ethical, cultural or other reasons), it’s so important to be pragmatic and realistic about how your dietary choices affect your overall health, so you can recognise potential limitations within your diet and therefore be in a position to address them. The debate should not be about whether a vegan diet is the healthiest diet, but about whether it can be a healthy diet when done well.

Sadly, we see so many individuals who have jumped on the vegan or vegetarian diet band-wagon, felt great initially, and after a number of months, come to our clinic with symptoms like tiredness, low energy, bloating, cold hands and feet, skin breakouts, menstrual irregularities and more. These patients went vegetarian or vegan with good intentions, but unfortunately, without professional nutritional advice, their dietary choices have contributed to the development of symptoms reflective of nutritional inadequacy. In such cases, my aim as a naturopath is to identify and address the cause of the patients’ symptoms, correct underlying nutritional imbalances and provide ongoing dietary guidance and education, so they can optimise their dietary choices and health long-term.

So what are the most common nutritional traps we see vegans and vegetarians falling into? Well, whilst there are some common pitfalls we see across the board, this largely depends on the person’s age, sex and life stage, as well as factors like how long they’ve been vegan or vegetarian, their current understanding of nutrition, and whether they follow other dietary restrictions, such as being a high carb vegan or a paleo-style vegetarian. Age and gender play a large role, because these factors greatly affect our nutritional requirements. For example, vegan men tend to find it easier to maintain heathy iron stores than vegan women, because they don’t menstruate every month. On the other hand, vegan men might find it harder to meet their zinc and selenium requirements on a vegan diet, because they have much higher needs for these nutrients. In addition to things like iron, zinc and selenium, some of the other nutrients we might pay close attention to include iodine, vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin K2, vitamin D and certain essential fatty acids. We also look at overall nutritional status, such as the quality and types of foods our patients are eating, how they feel on those foods and whether they’re regularly including a wide variety of fresh, colourful and minimally processed wholefoods in their day-to-day diets.

Ultimately, as a vegan or vegetarian, it’s about recognising that while there are some fantastic benefits of a plant-based diet, it’s so important to be pragmatic when it comes to recognising the potential pitfalls of your dietary choices, so you can make informed and educated decisions around the foods you choose to eat and how you manage your nutritional requirements. There is always going to be debate about what the healthiest diet for the human race is, and whether you’re paleo, vegan, gluten-free or eating a standard Australian diet, there is going to be both pros and cons to your dietary choices. This is why we work with our patients to educate them about nutrition and provide a supportive and open space in which they can ask questions and learn about their health.

If you’d like to learn more about plant-based nutrition, come along to my next workshop, where we’ll be exploring some of the common questions and concerns surrounding vegan and vegetarian diets. This talk is suitable for new vegans and vegetarians, seasoned vegos, parents of vegans/vegetarians and those who are simply interested in plant-based nutrition. The talk will be held at Perth Health & Fertility at 7:15 PM on May 2nd, and you can secure your tickets via Eventbrite. I hope to see you there!

Niki x