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Should I switch to a plant-based diet?

You may have heard of the health and environmental benefits of eating a plant-based diet and wondered – is this the right eating pattern for me?

Should you switch to a plant-based diet?
Lily Henderson, NZRD

Lily Henderson, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

I am passionate about improving the health of all Kiwis from young through to old. I have enjoyed working in nutrition in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

There’s no debate when you look at the latest evidence. A diet centred on plenty of whole, minimally processed plant-based foods is beneficial for our overall health. Plant foods like vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are low in saturated fat, contain heart-healthy fats and are a great source of fibre. They contain plenty of antioxidants and phytochemicals, which offer protection against disease.

The good news is, there are many different ways to eat a plant-based diet that are  healthy for our heart and it doesn’t mean you need to completely stop eating animal products in order to do so.

What is a plant-based diet?

There isn’t a common definition and it can mean different things to different people. For this article, a plant-based diet is eating mainly whole, minimally processed plant foods, for example vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Some people may also choose not to eat any dairy or animal products (e.g. vegetarian or vegan).

What’s our advice?

For a healthy heart, the Heart Foundation already recommends eating plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains and less meat, whether you eat animal products or not. A vegan or vegetarian diet may be one approach to eat more plant-based foods, however there are other heart healthy dietary patterns too. An example is the Mediterranean-style diet that includes plenty of fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil, fish and small amounts of meat. This diet decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease, both in healthy people and those who already have heart disease. This diet may be a bit easier to follow than a strict plant-based diet.

If I eat plant-based, am I healthier?

A plant-based diet isn’t automatically healthy. Too much saturated fat, sugar and salt from any source isn’t good for your health. There are plenty of processed plant-based meals and snacks like sweet potato fries, vegetarian nuggets and fruit bars. Some of these meals and snacks are marketed as ‘healthier’ but still contain ingredients which may increase your intake of saturated fat, salt and sugars, especially if you eat them regularly.

It is still important to choose whole, less processed foods that are as close to how they are found in nature as possible (e.g. whole vegetables and fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds). When you do choose packaged foods, read food labels to help you make better choices and understand what you are eating.

Where do I start?

As with all of our healthy eating advice, make sure you choose an approach that will work best for you and your family. Be realistic about the foods that you enjoy. Rather than thinking you need to completely embrace a vegan or vegetarian diet, consider how you can take small steps towards eating more plant-based foods. A ‘flexitarian’ approach may suit you best if you are vegetarian or vegan on some days and eat small amounts of lean unprocessed meat and dairy products on others.

Three simple ways to eat more plant-based foods:

Legumes all the way

Legumes like lentils, chickpeas, beans and split peas are not only good for your health, but also your wallet. They are a cheap and easy way to include protein, iron and zinc in your diet. They’re also full of fibre which helps you to feel full for longer. Canned legumes can be added to most soups, casseroles, salads and meat sauces to extend the meal and add extra texture and flavour. 

Add legumes to your diet

Consider making your own hummus in five minutes with a food processor or blender. Change the flavour by adding roast vegetables (pumpkin, capsicum) or sundried tomatoes. Use as a spread on sandwiches, wraps or as a side to your main meal.

Make your own hummus

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds contain heart healthy fats and protein. A small handful of unsalted nuts (e.g. almonds, cashews, walnuts) or seeds (e.g. sunflower seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds) can be sprinkled onto a salad to add crunch, topped on breakfast cereal or tossed through a stir-fry. Nut and seed butters like peanut butter, tahini or almond butter are a good option too (choose no added salt).

Add nuts to your diet

Plantify your favourite recipes

You don’t need to change your whole diet, a simple way is to start thinking about how you can make your favourite dishes plant-based. Replace the meat in bolognaise with extra vegetables and kidney beans, try falafel in burgers instead of beef or make a stir-fry with tofu and cashews instead of pork. Planning and preparing meat-free meals can take some time and effort, but you’ll end up spending less in the long run!

plantify your food

You can find plenty of vegetable and legume recipe ideas.

The bottom line…

To eat more plant-based foods, you don’t necessarily need to completely switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet. For many of us, just making a conscious effort to eat less processed foods and more plant-based foods on a daily basis will do wonders for your health and risk of heart disease. 

If you do choose to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, just be mindful that it can take more planning to get all of the essential nutrients you need. You especially need to consider protein, iron, zinc, calcium (if you are excluding dairy) and vitamin B12 (if you are excluding all animal products). You may need to consider fortified foods or supplementation (particularly B12 for vegans).

Browse vegetarian recipes