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A Peek at the Plant-based diet

A plant-based diet sounds really healthy - images of green leafy veg and colourful fruits spring to mind. But what actually is a plant-based diet?

In reality, there are many forms of a plant-based diet, all of which are based on whole and unrefined foods. The benefits of eating plant-based is that it can help to prevent a variety of chronic diseases. The added fibre and potassium found in plants will help reduce the risk of heart disease, and also when whole foods replace refined carbohydrates, it reduces the risk of diabetes. An added bonus is that the potent phytochemicals that are in fruit and veg can help to ward off cancer.

Plants also contain agents that serve as cell-protectors. Broccoli contains a molecule that has the ability to target and kill oestrogen receptor alpha positive breast cancer cells.

Another benefit of eating plant-based food is that it helps reduce high blood pressure. The Harvard School of Public Health suggests that diets rich in fruits and veg can actually work to significantly lower blood pressure.

So, what do you eat on a plant-based diet? A healthy plant-based meal is made up of vegetables, tubers & starchy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes & healthy protein, as well as healthy oils (olive oil, avocado oil etc). The Harvard Healthy Eating Plate is a helpful visual guide created by nutrition experts at Harvard School of Public Health and editors at Harvard Health Publishing, and is well worth a look.

Some plant-based diets exclude or minimise consumption of meat, fish, dairy products and eggs, as well as highly refined foods.

If you embark on a plant-based diet, there are some nutritional deficiencies that you need to be aware of:

Vitamin B12 - this is found mainly in animals products (dairy, meat, insects, eggs) and nori seaweed. If you feel you lack this vitamin, you can take a supplement.

Vitamin D3 (as opposed to vitamin D2) - this vitamin plays an essential role in maintaining bone health - lack of this vitamin can cause osteoporosis, rickets and a higher risk of heart disease and multiple sclerosis. It is obtained from sun exposure as it is not produced in the body, but this can sometimes be limited due to lifestyle, therefore supplementation may be required. Vitamin D3 is found in animals foods (especially fatty fish), and is more effective that vitamin D2 which is found in plants (especially mushrooms).

Omega-3 Fatty Acids - very important for your heart and is found in fish and eggs, as well as chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts and hempseeds. Make sure you are eating some form of Omega-3, or take a supplement.

Zinc - found in beans, legumes and whole grains. However, the phytic acid in these plants can reduce zinc absorption. The thing to do is to soak or sprout grains and beans before cooking, the phytic acid is reduced.

Iron - nonheme iron is found in leafy green vegetables, whole grains, lentils, peas, and dried fruits. Nonheme iron is not as well absorbed into the body as heme iron (found in meats), so to help absorption, add foods rich in vitamin C as this vitamin helps iron absorption. Another way to help the body absorb the iron in foods is to avoid drinking coffee, tea or calcium-rich foods with iron-rich foods. If you are concerned about your iron levels, see a doctor to find out your iron levels before you supplement.

All in all, a plant-based diet can be very healthy if you make sure you eat a wide variety of food and supplement the minerals and vitamins you may be lacking.

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