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The 5 biggest misconceptions with plant-based diets


Interest in adopting a plant-based diet, particularly in the western world, is growing exponentially. Top athletes, celebrities and vegetarian movements are at the forefront of advocating for a plant-based diet. Recent research suggests that 1 in every 3 New Zealanders are reducing their meat consumption or eating no meat at all. For a country recognised for its farming and Sunday roasts, these figures are remarkable and worth exploring further. It is thought that around 10% of New Zealanders are either ‘mostly or always meat-free”,  and each year the number of people supporting a plant-based diet continues to rise. Not only is this way of eating becoming more accepted by society, but food retailers are also having to adapt by purchasing more meat alternatives, and providing more vegetarian menu options. The senior director, Julie Emett, of the Plant Based Food-Association retail partnerships remarked that "plant-based foods are a growth engine, significantly outpacing overall grocery sales".

Environmental, ethical and nutritional motivations are among the top drivers for pursuing a plant-based diet. Many other motivations exist, ranging from religion, value for money, dislike of the taste and/or handling of meat, and social influences. The New Zealand Vegetarian Society President Caroline Jack believes upward trends are related to an increased awareness of farming. Documentaries such as "The Game Changers", "What the Health" and "Cowspiracy" also attract a lot of attention to the plant-based movement.

The first factor to consider is what is a ‘plant-based diet’? The term ‘plant-based’ means many different things to many different people so we’ve got to be careful with how we interpret anything using the term. For some people, a plant-based diet excludes all animal products and consists of only plant foods while for others a plant-based diet is primarily comprised of plants but animal products still may be included. The main types of plant-based diets are vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian and flexitarians. All the diets have one thing in common, they exclude a form of animal products to some degree with the stricter vegan diet and looser flexitarian diet. The type of plant-based diet that works for one person, may be different from what works for someone else.


The 5 biggest misconceptions with plant-based diets

When choosing to eliminate or reduce a dietary component, that for many of us has been instilled in our dietary culture, there is understandable uncertainty and factors to consider. Plant-based eating has received a backlash for its suspected inability to meet nutrient demands. Here we debunk some of the biggest misconceptions that exist surrounding a plant-based diet


Can I get enough protein from plant-based diet?

Perhaps the most common accusation made towards plant-based diets is that they do not provide sufficient protein. This is an understandable concern considering the great amount of digestible protein that animal food provides. However, animal protein is by no means an essential nutrient for the human body. A plant-based diet is more than capable of supplying sufficient dietary protein, provided it is well-planned and energy requirements are being met. Protein is found in the likes of beans, rice, tofu, lentils, hummus and grains. A diet that combines a number of these foods will provide an adequate supply of amino acids (the building blocks used to make proteins), and therefore prevent protein deficiency.

One of the biggest challenges people face when deciding to go plant-based is they don’t have a repertoire of protein-rich recipes or they may be the only person in their family that is eliminating meat. As a result, they cut meat out of their meals without replacing it with a plant-based high-protein alternative. A slow transition to a plant-based diet, or allocating time to plan and follow protein-rich plant-based recipes, is a great way to ensure the diet is well-planned and protein requirements are being met.


Will a plant-based diet make me low in iron?

Iron is a mineral found in food. It’s job is to carry oxygen around the body. The American Dietetic Association states that iron-deficiency is rare, even in individuals who follow a plant-based diet. Though it is true meat provides a great bioavailable source of heme-iron, plant-based foods contain iron too, just in a different form. Plant foods contain what is called nonheme iron, this type of iron is more susceptible than heme iron to other factors in food that lower its absorption.

To get the most iron out of food on a plant-based diet, consuming iron-rich foods like nori, seeds, grains, leafy greens, beans, tempeh and fortified cereals and flours, should be done alongside vitamin-C containing foods. Vitamin C rich foods help the absorption of iron and include blackcurrants, orange juice, kiwifruit, capsicum, broccoli, berries and kale.

Tannins, found in tea, reduce the absorption of iron. Drinking tea between meals, or waiting at least 30 minutes to 1 hour after eating is recommended to optimise iron absorption. Phytate, a compound found in plant foods like beans, grains, nuts, and seeds, also reduces the absorption of iron. Tricks like soaking beans and grains and heating food will help to reduce some of the effects of phytate on iron absorption.

As a result of reduced iron bioavailability in plant-based foods, the recommended iron intakes of vegetarians is 1.8 times higher than for non-vegetarians.


Will I always be hungry on a plant-based diet?

Some people fear that without including meat or other animal-based products in their diet, they are never going to feel truly satisfied. The theory behind such a thought process is that animal products are high in protein, which has a satiating effect. On top of that, plant-based products are typically lower in calories. However, as previously mentioned, plant-based foods also contain protein, alongside one of the most satiating food components - fibre.

Fibre is the parts of plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and legumes, that cannot be digested by the body. It slows the digestion of food through the gut helping you feel fuller for longer.

If you’ve switched to a plant-based diet and are experiencing hunger, it is likely your consumption of nutrients is a little out of balance - ask yourself am I getting enough protein, fat AND fibre?

Will a plant-based diet provide me with all the nutrients I need?

Zinc, calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12, vitamin A, and essential fatty acids are the most discussed nutrients when it comes to the adequacy of a plant-based diet. The only vitamin you are unable to obtain from a diet strictly derived from plants (vegan) is vitamin B12. All other nutrients can be obtained through plant foods in a well-balanced plant-based diet. The key is variety! Aim to include as many different plant foods in your diet each week as possible.

If you’re worried, have a chat to your GP about getting your blood tested every so often.


Does a plant based diet contain complete protein?

The American Heart Association states that “plant proteins alone can provide enough of the essential and non-essential amino acids, as long as sources of dietary protein are varied and caloric intake is high enough to meet energy needs.” The main consideration when switching to a plant-based is, therefore, the quality of the protein. Protein quality is determined by the composition of the amino acids (building blocks) and the digestibility of that protein. Plant-based proteins are less digestible than animal proteins because of the “anti-nutritional” factors including tannins, glucosinolates (found in mustard and canola products), trypsin inhibitors (in legumes) and more. Treatments such as soaking food, heating it, boiling, steaming and fermenting do reduce the effects of “anti-nutritional” factors but don’t elimintate them.

One of the downfalls of consuming less digestible protein is that more protein, and consequently energy, must be consumed to reach protein requirements. This is where plant-based protein powders may have a role. Protein powders have a complete amino acid profile and are clear of anti-nutritional factors.

Plant proteins also contain lower concentrations of essential amino acids (EAAs), which can’t be produced by the body, than animal proteins do. Of particular interest is lower concentrations of the EAA Leucine, which has an important role in working as a signal to start and monitor muscle protein synthesis (muscle growth).

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Download the Plant-Based Diet Protein Guide.


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