The Plant-Based Diet

There is no such thing as junk food - there's junk, and there's food. Eat food and you'll be fine.

As humans are trying to boost their health and performance, food has become a focal point of biohacking, aka do-it-yourself biology, or the art of making small, incremental diet or lifestyle changes to make small improvements in your health and well-being.

Here’s an idea of what the world of fruit and veg can give you to unlock your body’s full potential, and optimise your gut microbiome for whole body health..

Quick DISCLAIMER - This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

What is a plant based diet?

According to the British Dietetic Association, a plant-based diet is based on vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and fruits, with little or no animal products.

You’re probably wondering whether there’s a difference between plant-based and vegan diets, or whether eating plant-based is vegan. Well, “plant-based” is a broad term that encompasses a variety of eating patterns, such as:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian - Plants, eggs, and dairy. Avoid: Meat, poultry, fish, and seafood
  • Ovo-vegetarian - Plants and eggs. Avoid: Dairy, meat, poultry, fish, and seafood
  • Lacto-vegetarian - Plants and dairy. Avoid: Eggs, meat, poultry, fish, and seafood
  • Vegan - Plants. Avoid: No animal-derived products
  • Pescatarian - Plants, fish, and seafood (may include eggs and dairy). Avoid: Meat and poultry
  • Flexitarian - Mainly plants with animal-derived foods in moderation

If your diet is mainly made up of whole, plant-based foods, even with meat, fish, or dairy in moderation, then you are probably following a flexitarian plant-based diet. However, if your diet is mainly composed of refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and “vegan” fast food, then it’s not a plant-based diet.

Health benefits of eating foods of plant origin

People who follow plant-based diets are more resilient to common chronic diseases and heart problems. It’s good for weight control, metabolism, and reducing inflammation. Such diets may be recommended as part of the treatment plan for obesity and diabetes type II.

How veganism affects the body

There’s a good amount of evidence indicating that people who choose nuts, legumes, fish or poultry as sources of protein have lower risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer.

One reason that plant-based diets benefit the body is because they contain prebiotics, especially fibre, which fuel the activities of the beneficial bacteria in the gut. These microbes keep the gut healthy and stimulate the production of beneficial nutrients, like short-chain fatty acids and vitamins.

Do plants provide protein?

Your body contains about 10,000 types of protein that power everything you do. Proteins are made up of 20 common amino acids, 9 of which cannot be made by the body and must come from our diet. It is widely believed that plants don’t have protein, but that’s simply not true, for example:

  • 225g Lentils provides 18g protein/15g fibre
  • 225g Buckwheat provides 22g protein/17g fibre
  • 100g Tempeh provides 14g protein/6g fibre
  • 225g Tofu (eat in moderation, more on this below) provides 10g protein (no fibre)
  • 225g Chickpeas provides 12g protein/7g fibre

According to the British Nutrition Foundation, the daily reference protein intake for adults is:

  • 0.75g per 1 kilogram of body OR
  • 56g/day per day for men aged 19–50 years
  • 45g/day per day for women aged 19–50 years

Plant-based diets and athletic performance

If you’re sporty and considering a plant-based diet for health or ethical reasons, then understandably you might be a bit sceptical, after all, the general consensus for decades has been to promote meat as the only real source of protein.

Recently, people have been coming around to the idea of a plant-based diet for athletes, mainly thanks to the Netflix plant-based diet documentary, Game Changers, in which a UFC champion fighter experiments with a plant-based diet for athletic performance.

Interestingly, one study shows that the Roman gladiators and legionnaires ate a plant-based diet. Their daily ration consisted of 78% carbohydrates, most barley, and beans. Interestingly, when you combine beans and grains, you get a complete protein equal to meat-based protein.

There are plenty of international athletes that have adopted a plant-based diet, including Novak Djokovic and Venus Williams from the tennis world, Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton, and ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, co-producer of Game Changers, is a fan.

One of the most active proponents, Nigel Mitchell, has been working behind the scenes to convert athletes to plant-based diets since the 90s. As Head of Nutrition for British Cycling and Team Sky, he helped them achieve several Tour de France victories. (Nigel Mitchell is the author of 'The Plant-Based Cyclist' book that contains high-protein plant-based meals and tips on health and nutrition.)

Risks associated with plant-based diets

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between plant-based and vegan. If you decide to exclude animal products from your diet, then you need to be particularly mindful of potential nutrient deficiencies. Plant-based diets can meet your body’s needs, but they require diversity and supplementation to meet the high-energy and nutrient requirements of an athletic body. For example:

  • Vitamin B12 - supplements or vitamin B12-fortified foods, like cereals, soy products, and yeast extracts
  • Iron - nuts, dried fruits, leafy green accompanied by foods rich in vitamin C
  • Zinc - fermented soy, legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds
  • Selenium - Brazil nuts, brown rice, sunflower seeds, baked-beans, mushrooms, oatmeal, spinach, lentils, cashews, bananas
  • Calcium - dried fruit, seeds, nuts, leafy greens, red kidney beans, and tofu
  • Omega 3 fatty acids - walnuts, soya, seeds such as flaxseed, hemp, and chia seeds, and their oils
  • Iodine - seaweed, iodised salt

If carefully planned, a plant-based diet is generally safe for healthy people. However, those who are prone to allergies and food intolerances might struggle to combine dietary restrictions with their nutritional needs. As an athlete it’s always recommended to consult a dietitian or nutritionist to plan your plant-based diet - this will help avoid any nutritional deficiencies that can affect your health.

Plant-based animal product substitutions

Tofu is a very versatile plant-based meat alternative, but … always seek out organic, as soya is one of the largest commercially-grown agri-crops which comes highly sprayed. It’s also a known endocrine-disruptor, so best eaten in moderation. Fermented is always best, Tempeh is a better alternative than regular tofu.

Nowadays, it’s easy to get your hands on plant-based foods and vegan protein. In fact, in 2018 the UK overtook Germany as the world’s biggest purveyor of vegan foods. Even fast-food outlets like Burger King are jumping on the bandwagon with a plant-based Whopper, and Greggs are now doing vegan Sausage Rolls (although would I eat either? Think you know the answer to that 😉 )

However, just because you can now eat your fill of plant-based meats, plant-based chicken wings, plant-based mince, and plant-based chicken, doesn’t mean you should. They’re all processed in a factory – as the saying goes, “If it’s made in a plant, don’t eat it; if it comes from a plant, do.” Plus, these processed foods contain lots of salt and not-healthy saturated fat. Remember, plant-based junk food is still junk food, even if it’s vegan.

As any true athlete will tell you, you need to learn how to cook so you can control your portions, as well as macro- and micronutrient intake. Scientific research agrees: people who eat home-cooked, freshly prepared meals consume more fruit and veg, and are slimmer too.

Eating plant-based doesn’t have to be boring – it can open up a whole new delicious world of tastes and flavours you could never imagine, and it looks amazing as well, filled with every colour of the rainbow, which handily links to another 'rule' which is that you should aim to 'eat the rainbow' each day.

There’s such a huge range of plant-based recipes out there - burgers made with beans/pulses which are a great source of protein and prebiotic fibre – a gourmet delight for the gut microbes. We make a wonderful spicy bean-burger with black beans, served with a heap of sweet-potato fries and either a cabbage and apple slaw or a big serving of guacomole, which I can never get enough of.

Or snack on homemade hummus which is incredibly simple to make in a blender or nutri-bullet. One of our favourites is a protein-rich plant-based quinoa bowl full of colourful veg and delicious caramelised onions, which sits in the fridge and gets added to allsorts as a side-dish or just a snack bowl.

You can benefit from the plant-based diet at any age and stage of your life; guaranteed to ensure your body receives everything it needs nutritionally with a conscious approach and diverse whole foods. What's not to love! 😊

22.9.20 Edited to add: During lockdown we signed up to a Recipe Box delivery company, Mindful Chef, and chose 3 of their vegan meals each week (this is where we got the Black Bean Burger recipe from). It was well-priced, great food and took the strain off the supermarket pressure due to lockdown. I can't recommend them enough, and no we're not linked to them in any way, this is just a heartfelt recommendation. Each recipe was a simple 7-step process and no dish took longer than 30-minutes, with some at just 15-minutes.

They've also got a huge Recipe section dedicated to vegan meals so if you want some recipe inspiration, click here - we tried loads of them, and still do.