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5 Myths About Eating a Plant-Based Diet

Even though it started off more or less as a trend, some would say, the plant-based diet is continuously gaining more followers. Not only is it environmentally friendly, helping to reduce our carbon footprint, but according to recent studies eating a plant-based diet can address cardiovascular disease, obesity and inflammation [1].

If you're interested in the field of nutrition, which I assume you are, then you certainly have come across many advocates and opposers of this diet. In order to clear the air around eating a predominantly plant-based diet, I want to guide you through five of the most common misconceptions surrounding it. Shall we begin?


1. Plant-based diet and blood sugar dysregulation


I personally know so many people that fear eating more fruit and vegetables because of thinking that too much sugar might put them at risk of gaining weight and developing blood sugar imbalance. I am certainly not a fan of white sugar, but let's face it, sugar is not always bad. It is what fuels our cells and gives us energy after all. The problem is not sugar itself, but its source. I am sure you all have heard of whole and processed foods. You see, fruits and vegetables are a good example of the whole category. Along with that sugar content that many of us fear, fruit and vegetables have lots of fiber, vitamins, minerals and even some protein and fat. Nature has certainly done a great job here. Thanks to all of these other components, especially fiber, consuming fruit and vegetables doesn't spike blood sugar and insulin levels as much as consuming processed carbohydrates/sugars that are stripped from their naturally occurring co-ingredients. Furthermore, the elements of a whole-food plant-based diet (legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts, with limited or no intake of refined foods and animal products) are highly beneficial for type 2 diabetes patients [1].



2. Plant-based diet, anti-nutrients and mineral absorption


What are anti-nutrients and are they bad for us? Anti-nutrients are compounds that can partially block the absorption of minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium and iodine. Their purpose is to protect plants from bacterial infections and being eaten by insects. There are several well known groups of anti-nutrients: oxalates (in green leafy vegetables), lectins (in legumes and whole grains), phytates or phytic acid (in whole grains, legumes, seeds and some nuts) and glucosinolates (in cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, etc). As you may already know, many of these anti-nutrients can be removed or deactivated by soaking, sprouting, or boiling the food before eating [2]. Another trick for improving the bioavailability of minerals like iron and zinc from grains is to consume these foods in the presence of garlic and onions [3]. But is this enough to ensure proper mineral absorption when eating a plant-based diet? Most studies of people eating plant-based indicate no mineral deficiencies, so it appears that there may be some degree of physiological adaption of the gastrointestinal tract to increase absorption of trace elements and so overcome the presence of phytates [4]. Furthermore, anti-nutrients may also have health benefits. Phytates for example, have been studied for their anti-cancer properties [5].



3. Where do you get your protein from and is it complete?


Getting the FDA's daily requirement of protein (50g based on a 2000 calorie diet) from plants is not difficult at all [6]. Some of the best protein sources are: tempeh (18.2g of protein / 100g), beans (17.3g of protein / 1 cup), lentils (17.9g of protein / 1 cup), quinoa (8.1g of protein / 1 cup) and almonds (15.1g of protein / 100g) among others [7]. We also shouldn't forget that protein is present in many other foods, although in smaller amounts it adds up in the end. If one is an athlete and needs a higher protein intake, there is always the option of adding a protein powder to the diet (15-30g of protein per shake). Another hot topic concerning the plant-based diet is complete protein. Complete protein is every protein source that provides enough of the nine essential amino acids which our bodies don't produce. The misconception about plant foods not being complete protein sources comes more or less from the idea that the essential amino acid needs should be met in a single meal. Truth is, we should be looking at meeting our needs throughout the entire day. The key here is variety. If one consumes enough protein per day, coming from all different sources such as seeds, nuts, legumes, grains and vegetables, then the essential amino acid needs will certainly be met [8].



4. Plant-based diet, omega-3 fatty acids and depression


Another big concern about eating a plant-based diet is not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids along with consuming too much omega-6s, which may make people more susceptible to mood disorders. For good health and longevity we should all aim for a omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of about 1:1 to 4:1. Omega-3 fatty acids should definitely be prioritized, first of all because of their health benefits related to brain, skin and heart health, but also because it is really easy to overconsume omega-6s and change the mentioned above ratio in their favor. Omega-6 fatty acids are easily found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils. In other words, eating too much of them can be a concern for both the plant-based and western diet. What about the omega-3s? There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids: ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The first one, ALA, is found in walnuts, chia, flax and hemp seeds among others. It is a short-chain fatty acid that is either being used as energy or being converted into EPA and DHA. According to the science, this conversion is unreliable, especially if the diet is high in omega-6 fatty acids. More specifically, most studies in humans have shown that whereas a certain, though restricted, conversion of high doses of ALA to EPA occurs, conversion to DHA is severely restricted [9] So, where do we get EPA and DHA from? Well, on a standard diet from fish. But what if we are plant-based? In this case, along with the daily consumption of a tablespoon of chia or flax seeds for that ALA content, one can additionally consider taking a 250mg of microalgae-based DHA supplement [10]. Not only is this going to boost the daily intake of omega-3 fatty acids, but reduce the intake of pollutants and heavy metals that nowadays often come as a risk when consuming fish. Finally, according to a study, even though a plant-based diet could be low in DHA and EPA, this diet profile does not appear to adversely affect mood [11]. Furthermore, according to a randomized controlled trial, the restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores has shown to improve mood [12].



5. Soy and hormonal imbalance


Soy and its estrogenic properties is a really controversial topic. Many avoid consuming soy in fear of hormonal imbalances. Soy is unique in that it contains a high concentration of isoflavones, a type of plant estrogen (phytoestrogen) that is similar in function to human estrogen but with much weaker effects. Soy isoflavones can bind to estrogen receptors in the body and cause either weak estrogenic or anti-estrogenic activity. This depends on the existing level of hormones in the body. For, example in postmenopausal women isoflavones can have an estrogenic effect, which explains the variety of soy-based menopause supplements on the market. Among premenopausal women soy may have a weak anti-estrogenic effect [13]. But is this something we should be concerned about? Is soy intake affecting fertility? Should soy be avoided by women with breast cancer? For the most part, the studies conducted to date suggest that a diet containing 1–2 servings of soy per day, as part of a well-balanced diet should not pose harmful effects on the function of the ovary as it relates to ovulation [14]. According to researchers, consuming soy not only may reduce the risk of breast cancer, but also increase the duration of life among breast cancer patients [15].



Final words


Not only can the plant-based diet be beneficial to our health, it can also open up a whole new horizon of flavors, ingredients and creativity in the kitchen. The key to a successful plant-based lifestyle is balance, variety and knowledge.


References


[1] McMacken Michelle, Shah Sapana. "A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes." Journal of Geriatric Cardiology. 2017 May; 14(5): 342–354.


[2] "Are anti-nutrients harmful?" Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health publication date unknown; visited January 25, 2020: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/anti-nutrients/


[3] Gautam S, Platel K, Srinivasan K. "Higher bioaccessibility of iron and zinc from food grains in the presence of garlic and onion." J Agric Food Chem. 2010 July 28; 58(14):8426-9.


[4] Stevenson Leo, Phillips Frankie, O'sullivan Kathryn, Walton Jenny. "Wheat bran: its composition and benefits to health, a European perspective." International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 2012 June 20; 63:8, 1001-1013.


[5] Shamsuddin M. Abulkalam. "Anti‐cancer function of phytic acid." International Journal of Food Science + Technology. 2002 October; 37:7, 769-782. [6] "Nutrition Facts Label: Protein - FDA." FDA US Food & Drug Administration publication date unknown; visited January 25, 2020:

https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/protein.html


[7] Self Nutrition Data; visited January 25, 2020:https://nutritiondata.self.com/foods-0.html


[8] Davis, Chana PHD. "Busting the Myth of Incomplete Plant-Based Proteins." Medium 2018 August 17; visited January 25, 2020:

https://medium.com/@chanapdavis/busting-the-myth-of-incomplete-plant-based-proteins-960428e7e91e


[9] H Gerster. "Can adults adequately convert alpha-linolenic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)?" Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1998; 68(3):159-73.


[10] Greger Michael M.D. FACLM. "Plant-Based Omega-3 Supplements." Nutrition Facts 2008 September 12; visited January 25, 2020:

https://nutritionfacts.org/video/plant-based-omega-3-supplements-2/


[11] Beezhold BL1, Johnston CS, Daigle DR. "Vegetarian diets are associated with healthy mood states: a cross-sectional study in seventh day adventist adults." Nutrition Journal. 2010 Jun 1; 9:26.


[12] Beezhold BL1, Johnston CS. "Restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores improves mood: a pilot randomized controlled trial." Nutrition Journal. 2012 Feb 14; 11:9.


[13] "Straight Talk About Soy." Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health publication date unknown; visited January 25, 2020: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/soy/


[14] N. Jefferson, Wendy. "Adult Ovarian Function Can Be Affected by High Levels of Soy." Journal of Nutrition. 2010 Dec; 140(12):2322S–2325S.


[15] Greger Michael M.D. FACLM. "Soy & Breast Cancer." Nutrition Facts 2008 September 2; visited January 25, 2020: https://nutritionfacts.org/video/soy-breast-cancer-3/

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