There is a lot of debate over what is healthier, a plant-based diet or an omnivorous diet. People ask the question, “Is a plant-based diet healthy?” If you are considering a plant-based diet, or are already on one, this article will relieve any anxiety you have about the downside to a plant-based diet. It will concentrate on the key criticisms of a plant-based diet that are often raised. In effect, it will overcome concerns about a plant-based diet.

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Supporters of eating meat generally raise 2 main issues with a plant-based diet. The first is that most plant-based foods lack one or more of the essential amino acids. And, that plant-based foods lack some important nutrients. So, if these are the concerns, let’s find a way to overcome the downside to a plant-based diet. If we can do that successfully we can then receive all the benefits of a plant-based diet (lower consumption of saturated fat, lower cholesterol and heart-related disease, lower risk of cancer, better metabolism, longevity, and support of our planet) without any of the purported disadvantages of a plant-based diet.

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Most Plant-based Proteins Are Not Complete Proteins

Protein contains amino acids necessary for proper bodily function. It is commonly known that there are 20 amino acids. For the sake of accuracy, however, let me state that there are 22 amino acids. The disparity is not important here. What is important is that our body can produce 11 amino acids on its own. However, our bodies cannot produce 9 of them and therefore we must get them from food. That's why they have been labeled essential amino acids. This simply means it is “essential” that we get them from food intake.

If you want to check supplement or food labels, below is a list of all amino acids including the 9 essential amino acids. These are the amino acids that are not produced in the body and we must get from our diet.

female standing silhouette

ESSENTIAL

Histidine
Isoleucine

Leucine
Lysine
Methionine
Phenylalanine
Threonine
Tryptophan
Valine

NON ESSENTIAL

Alanine
Arginine
Asparagine
Aspartate
Cystine
Glutamic
Glycine
Ornithine
Proline
Serine
Tyrosine

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Proponents of eating meat are quick to state that meat-based protein from fish, red meat, white meat, and dairy contain complete proteins. Simply meaning they contain the 9 essential amino acids that our bodies do not produce. While this is true, many of us do not want to eat meat for a variety of health-related and environmental issues. It is important to note that some studies claim that plant foods have a complete amino acid composition. Let's not concern ourselves with whether this is true or not. Let’s just stay with our objective of focusing on the downside to a plant-based diet and make sure we get our essential amino acids.

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You Don’t Need All Amino Acids in Every Meal

The criticism of a plant-based doesn’t take into consideration that you don’t need all 9 essential amino acids in every meal. Meat eaters don’t eat meat at every meal. Many meat-eaters don’t eat meat every day. So, for us plant-eaters, all we need to do is make sure we get the essential amino acids regularly. So how do we get these essential amino acids if we don’t eat meat? By having a good mix of protein in every meal.

The recommended amount of daily protein is .36 grams per pound of body weight. ♦100 pounds = 36 grams  ♦150 pounds = 54 grams  ♦200 pounds = 72 grams

Here is a list of high protein plant-based foods:

Beans (black, kidney, lima, navy, pinto)- 15g per 1 cup

Brazil Nuts- 19g per 1 cup

Broccoli- 1.2g per 1 cup chopped

Brussel Sprouts- 3g per 1 cup

Buckwheat- 22.5g per 1 cup

Chia Seeds- 12g per 4 tbsp

Collard Greens- 1.1g per 1 cup chopped

Edamame- 17g per 1 cup

Ezekiel Bread- 5g per slice

Flaxseed- 1.9g per 1 tbsp

Hazel Nuts- 20g per 1 cup

Hempseeds- 15g per ¼ cup

Humus- 1.2g per 1 tbsp

Lentils- 18 g per 1 cup cooked

Pasta- 6g per 1 cup cooked

Pumpkin Seeds- 12g per 1 cup

Quinoa- 8g per 1 cup cooked

Soybeans- 29g per 1 cup cooked

Spinach- 1g per 1 cup

Spirulina- 4g per 1 tbsp

Split peas- 16g per 1 cup cooked

Sunflower seeds- 29g per 1 cup

Tempeh- 31g per 1 cup

Tofu- 10g per ½ cup

Wild Rice- 7g per 1 cup cooked

Guarantee You Get Your Essential Amino Acids

If you want to be absolutely sure you are getting your essential amino acids from the protein in a plant-based diet, here are some suggestions:

Quinoa, soybeans, and spinach do have all 9 essential amino acids and are complete proteins. Therefore, make them a staple in your diet.

Another safeguard to making sure you get essential amino acids is to cook with Bragg Liquid Aminos. All the essential amino acids are contained in Bragg Liquid Aminos except Tryptophan. Tryptophan is contained in some of the foods on our list above (Buckwheat, Lentils, Pumpkin seeds, Quinoa, Spinach, Soybeans, and Spirulina). Bragg Liquid Aminos also contains 8 of the non-essential amino acids.

You can take a supplement such as NOW Sports Amino-9 Essential powder. Amino-9 Essential has all the essential amino acids.

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Plant-based Foods Lack Certain Nutrients

Now that we have incorporated the foods above into our plant-based diet, and/or are using a supplement to get the rest of our essential amino acids, we’re halfway there. Let’s overcome the other downside to a plant-based diet. Plant-based foods lack certain nutrients, specifically Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid), Heme-iron, and Zinc. So, if we can find a way to incorporate these nutrients, we will have overcome any downside to a plant-based diet.

Vitamin B12

Here’s the simplest way of making sure you get enough Vitamin B12. Supplement. We could suggest that you research and experiment with plant-based foods that may have B12 but it’s a lot of work. Just take a supplement. We recommend NOW Vitamin B12.

Vitamin D

There are some plant-based foods that contain Vitamin D. Mushrooms (Shitake, Portobello, Maitake, Morel & Button) contain varying amounts. Other foods have been fortified with Vitamin D such as orange juice, soy yogurt, and some cereals as well.

Variety of fruits and vegetables in a plant-based diet
Photo credit Chokniti Khongchum from Pexels

However, to make sure you get this critical vitamin, we recommend you get some sun and supplement. It is recommended that you get 20 minutes of midday sun several times per week. Even though we live in Florida, we do not get enough exposure to the sun so we supplement with Now Vitamin D.

DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid)

DHA is one of the Omega-3 fatty acids. It is vital for cells in our body and affects the speed and quality of communication between nerve cells. It is also important for our eyes and helps reduce cardiovascular disease. Our bodies cannot produce DHA in adequate amounts so we must get it from our diet.

Contrary to what you might read, there are plant-based sources of DHA such as different forms of algae like spirulina and seaweed. Chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flaxseeds also contain DHA. Lastly, edamame, kidney beans, and soy bean oil are all sources of DHA.

If you don’t eat enough of these DHA sources, you can use a supplement like DHA-500 from NOW.

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Heme-Iron

We need to get enough iron in our diet for sure. But discussion about iron is a bit more complicated as there are 2 types of iron, heme-iron and non-heme iron. Both types come from meat. But only non-heme iron comes from plants. Non-heme iron is good, but the body must alter it in order to absorb it through the digestive process. So only about 10% of the intake is used by the body. Also, regardless of the type of iron you ingest, ample amounts of Vitamin C are key to the processing of iron.

Now that we have figured that out let’s see how we plant-based eaters can get our iron. The following plant-based foods have a good quantity of iron. Broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kiwi, oranges, strawberries, pineapples, and grapefruit are good sources of non-heme iron.

If you are just starting out on a plant-based diet or have been eating this way for some time, we recommend that you get your iron levels checked. You can do that through your primary care doctor who will order a blood test. Or, if you prefer, you can do an in-home test from Walk-In-Lab.

www.walkinlab.com

If your iron level is low or you don’t eat enough of the plant-based foods that contain iron, supplement with Natures Bounty Iron.

Zinc

Zinc is an important mineral essential for normal cell division and metabolism. A zinc deficiency can lead to poor wound healing, acne, loss of appetite and an impaired immune system. But here’s the good news. You can get enough Zinc from a plant-based diet if you focus on eating the right plants.

Here is a list of plants, nuts, and seeds containing high amounts of zinc:

Almonds
Cashews
Chia seeds
Chickpeas
Lentils
Kidney beans

Oatmeal
Pumpkin seeds
Sunflower seeds
Tempeh
Tofu

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Supplementation

Both my wife and I are plant-based eaters. But we are not crazy about studying and measuring the amount of each nutrient in the food we eat. So, to be on the safe side and to be as healthy as possible, we supplement. This isn’t a major change for us as we used to supplement when we ate meat too. We don’t worry about protein as much because we eat a lot of the protein-rich plant foods listed above. But we do supplement the other nutrients. Here’s a list of the specific supplements we use:

Have we successfully overcome the downside to a plant-based diet?

I contend that we have. If you regularly incorporate many of the plant-based foods listed above into your meals, and you supplement to make sure there is no deficiency of important nutrients, you will have an extremely healthy diet. You’ll gain all the benefits of a plant-based diet, and you’ll avoid the many health concerns of eating meat. Plus, you’ll get the bonus of a plant-based diet that I especially love. You can pretty much eat as much as you want without gaining weight!

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