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Monday, 20 March 2023

Plant-based living: What it is and how to live it

Firstly, what is plant-based living?

Plant-based living extends from the food we eat to the skin care we use, to the clothes we wear.

A diet based on whole foods like fruit and veggies, grains, legumes and nuts is the cornerstone of plant-based living.

Eating this way doesn’t mean a total exclusion of all animal products – some dairy, meat, eggs and fish are included in a plant-based diet, consistent with our national dietary guidelines.

Plant based doesn’t mean “plant only”, vegan or vegetarian; the term simply refers to a diet where plants constitute the majority of the food consumed. A vegan approach will exclude all animal products from the diet (including honey) and from any skin care products, clothes and shoes (such as leather), whilst vegetarians exclude meat, fish and poultry but do consume some animal products such as milk, cheese, and eggs.

Skin care brands are pivoting to include more plant-based ingredients and launch vegan lines.

Why are more and more people turning towards a plant-based diet?

Put simply, it’s better for your health and the planet. The main reason people are turning towards plant-based is due to an increased awareness about the environmental impact of our food choices.

On top of this, the physical and mental health outcomes of following a plant-based diet are very clear.

Researchers from Deakin University found that meeting current Australian Dietary Guidelines, which recommend the majority of our diet comes from plant based sources, is linked to a 30 per cent lower risk of obesity in both men and women.

A large-scale study published in Molecular Psychiatry suggests a 33 percent reduction in depression risk when following a “mainly plants” diet, such as the Mediterranean diet.

We’re also seeing an uplift in the number of people interested in studying our new short course, Food and the Environment as more people want to reduce their impact on the planet.

Currently, only 1% of Australians follow a strictly vegan diet. Environmental, health and animal welfare are key reasons people choose to eat a vegetarian/vegan diet or reduce the meat in their diet. Many are opting for a flexitarian diet, one which minimises but does not exclude meat and dairy. Similar to the Mediterranean diet, this flexitarian approach is well known in the Blue Zones, areas of the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives. Meat is consumed one to two times a week and is viewed as an important, occasional inclusion in the diet. This is consistent with a plant-based diet.

Why is plant-based a more sustainable way to eat?

The food we choose to eat contributes more to our eco-footprint than our transport and home energy use combined, with meat, eggs and dairy products being the biggest contributors.

Australians are the sixth biggest consumers of meat in the world after South American countries and the USA with each of us eating on average 95kg of meat per year. This is triple the amount recommended in the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and triple the average amount per person globally.

Recently, the EAT- Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, brought together 30 scientists from around the world and reached a consensus on the most sustainable and healthy diet. Their report published in the Lancet indicated that global consumption of fruit, vegetables, legumes and nuts will need to double and consumption of meat and sugar will need to decrease by more than 50% in order to transition to a healthy diet for a population of nearly 10 billion by 2050.

"A diet rich in plant-based foods and with fewer animal source foods confers both improved health and environmental benefits."

Meat consumption is now recognised as a key contributor to environmental degradation for the following reasons:

  • The production of beef is particularly greenhouse gas intensive; cattle are ruminant animals (have 4 stomach compartments) and produce significant amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas 21 times as intensive as carbon dioxide).
  • A significant proportion of the greenhouse gas effect from beef production comes from the loss of trees where feed crops are grown and harvested to feed the beef. For example, in South America, some 70% of former forests have been converted into grazing land.

In fact, raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gas emissions than all the cars, trucks, trains, ships, and planes in the world combined

To produce the meat in a standard burger, as much greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere as driving a car 60km. And 3000L of water is used to make one steak which is the equivalent of two months’ worth of showers!

How can we substitute meat through plant-based foods?

The main nutrient meat provides is protein, so when reducing meat consumption, it’s important to introduce plant foods high in protein, such as legumes, nuts and seeds and some dairy and eggs.

An increased emphasis and a required shift towards less meat consumption, has resulted in the explosion of meat alternatives. When Canada recently announced their new Dietary Guidelines, which placed an emphasis on a plant focused diet, sales of tofu increased significantly, leading to a “tofu shortage”.

Plant-based “faux meats” are growing in popularity – products like vegan cheese, veggie patties and vegan salami have been in the supermarkets for years. More recently, there has been a move towards more realistic faux meat products. For example, sausages, burgers and “chicken” strips. Beyond meat is one company selling meat alternatives such burgers which are coloured with beetroot to give them a similar colour to meat. However, they are still highly processed form of protein.

People wanting to introduce plant protein should focus on whole foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds and fermented soy products like tempeh.

What are some tips you suggest for those who want to move towards a plant-based diet, but aren’t sure where to start?

  1. Make veggies the star on the plate. For example, ensure ½ the plate is veggies, ¼ carbohydrate rich foods such as rice, pasta, couscous and the remaining ¼ protein rich foods such as meat, poultry, fish.
  2. Try Meat Free Mondays. Mix it up with a veggie frittata, cauliflower and cheese bake, stir fry tempeh and veggies or pumpkin soup with parmesan cheese.
  3. Rotate your milks. Buy cow’s milk one week, almond the next, soy, then rotate. Alternative milks (or alt milks or mylks) are gaining popularity as more people regularly avoid dairy products for health, animal welfare and environmental reasons. In Australia, one in six adults avoid milk or dairy foods, opening up a market for alt milks such as almond, coconut, oat, rice and soy milk. Nutritionally, soy milk fares better than other alt milks; it has more protein and fibre. Consumers should read the labels of alt milks as many include additives and sugar to create a mouth feel similar to cow’s milk and several almond milks consist of mainly water and only 2.5% almonds. Unless fortified, alt milks may not contain sufficient calcium to meet the recommended daily intake levels.
  4. Use less meat in dishes. For example, if cooking a lasagne, replace half the mince with red lentils.
  5. Aim to keep portions in line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines:

A standard serve is (500–600kJ):

  • 65g cooked lean red meats such as beef, lamb, veal, pork, goat or kangaroo (about 90-100g raw)
  • 80g cooked lean poultry such as chicken or turkey (100g raw)
  • 100g cooked fish fillet (about 115g raw) or one small can of fish
  • 2 large (120g) eggs
  • 1 cup (150g) cooked or canned legumes/beans such as lentils, chickpeas or split peas (preferably with no added salt)
  • 170g tofu
  • 30g nuts, seeds, peanut or almond butter or tahini or other nut or seed paste

6. Plant-based can still include junk food such as soft drinks, cookies and chips, so it’s important to place an emphasis on real whole foods that mostly resemble how they came out of the ground or off the tree.

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Sophie Scott

Sophie Scott is passionate about nutrition, fitness and behaviour change coaching. As a Registered Nutritionist and Environmental Scientist, she takes a wholistic approach to nutrition, focusing on people’s relationship with food and driving a shift to a healthier approach to eating.

With more than 12 years’ experience in the health and fitness industry, Sophie has supported hundreds of women along their health journey through her business, fitandfed.

Sophie is an enthusiastic nutrition teacher and accomplished course creator at Endeavour College of Natural Health, inspiring the next wave of nutrition and wellness professionals.

Read more by Sophie Scott

"There are many practical parts in the course to ensure that I am proficient in applying nutrition knowledge. Now I am not only quite confident in my diet, but also help multiple clients to lose 5-8kg in 3 months healthily. This is a very recommended course."

- Joanne He

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