If you’ve come to Deliciously Ella to find recipes and inspiration for plant-based eating, chances are that you already know that what we eat has a huge impact on health and wellbeing. There is a vast body of scientific evidence demonstrating just how life-changing a balanced diet can be in terms of how we feel on a day-to-day basis (energy levels, mood, sleep, digestion, hormone balance) as well as on our overall physical and mental long-term health.
We know that navigating all of this information and translating it into what we should actually be eating can feel confusing and overwhelming. But the truth is that eating well doesn’t have to be complicated, boring, difficult or expensive - once you have the foundations in place, it gets easier and easier to make positive choices and to really feel the benefits. To guide you on this journey, we’ve created a breakdown of the key pillars of a balanced diet.
1. The importance of "positive" nutrition
A lot of the traditional conversation around nutrition has focussed on what not to eat or ensuring that our calories-in don’t exceed calories-out. Much of this chatter has revolved around weight management, but whatever the motive, eating a ‘perfectly’ healthy diet all the time isn’t sustainable and doesn’t always make us healthier from a mental or physical perspective.
Rather than counting calories or thinking about what to take out, consider what can really benefit your health by adding it in, such as nutrients, fibre, colour, freshness, flavour and vibrancy. This positive approach also leads to a more balanced attitude towards eating, which in turn reduces restrictive eating patterns and ultimately lessens the chances of periodically falling off the wagon.
Taking the long view is a good idea with nutrition because what we eat over months, years or a lifetime is really what makes the difference and ultimately contributes to a more rounded and healthier attitude towards food (and life!).
It takes time to get to this point and not everyone finds striking that balance easy, so go easy on yourself and start slow.
2. The macro-nutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat
Let’s start by discussing the macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins and fats. These are so called because the body needs them in larger quantities. The nutrients from these sources help us perform a wide array of key functions, including providing fuel for our cells to make energy, regenerating our muscles and nervous system, synthesising all of our hormones and brain’s neurotransmitters and building our organs, to strengthening our hair and nails, and keeping our skin bright. We ideally need a nice balance of all three of the main macronutrients, which we will expand on below.
Carbohydrates have fallen in and out of favour over the years depending on what diet is in fashion at the time. The advice has often been rather extreme – either make them the foundation of your diet and eat as many as you like or cut them out entirely. Unsurprisingly, neither extreme is ideal! When it comes to understanding what carbs we should eat, we need to think about quality and quantity.
Our bodies need some carbs to stay healthy. Eating enough of the right types of carbs each day keeps us energised, fuels our muscles, supports our gut and keeps us mentally sharp. This is because when carbs break down they provide the body with glucose, which is the main fuel source for all of our cells. Our brain in particular relies on glucose and it consumes around 400 calories worth per day. This is why when we cut carbs out, we can struggle with memory and concentration or feel crabby.
When chosen wisely carbs also bring with them fibre, vitamins (e.g. B vitamins) minerals (e.g. iron, calcium, magnesium) and antioxidants, all of which benefit our bodies in numerous ways.
The best types of carbs are those that remain in an unprocessed form, that is, unrefined and unprocessed. Not only do these types of carbs contain more nutrients, they also tend to release their energy (or sugars, more on this below) slowly because they contain more fibre. This is fundamental to a healthy diet because it provides the body with a steady release of energy following a meal, rather than a quick burst, which means we don’t have to release high quantities of insulin to balance our blood sugar. Instead, our energy stays balanced, and our appetite sated in the hours following a meal.
Meanwhile, the white, processed carbs such as white pasta, white rice or white bread, contain little to no fibre, meaning they release their energy quickly. This can lead to the rollercoaster effect you may have experienced after a big bowl of white pasta, which may have left you craving sugar or coffee 2 hours later. This doesn’t mean we can’t ever eat these, but we should aim to eat more whole, unprocessed grains and starches (e.g. starchy vegetables such as potatoes, beetroot, butternut squash and legumes) where possible.
What about fruit?
All fruits contain natural simple sugars (as do most vegetables, usually to a lesser extent) but they also contain fibre, vitamins, minerals, phyto-nutrients and water, which makes them highly nutritious as well as delicious. We hear about fruit being too sweet and therefore something to avoid, but a modest amount of fruit (1-2 pieces per day, ideally in their whole form) should form part of a healthy diet.
The body can’t work properly without adequate protein. It provides the building blocks for every single one of the cells that make up our muscles, bones, blood, organs, skin and hair. Even our DNA is made up of protein. Proteins are made from amino acids, and these are needed for a vast array of physiological reactions that allow us to repair and heal, produce energy, fuel our immune system and synthesize our hormones and neurotransmitters (which control our mood, emotions, concentration and beyond). Our bodies can’t make protein themselves, so we need to make sure we get enough daily through the diet to supply all of these critical functions and allow the body to regenerate.
The average adult requires 45g - 60g protein per day if they aren’t active. Those who are very active, do rigorous training programmes, are pregnant/breastfeeding, have specific health concerns or are elderly may require more.
Research shows that vegans consistently meet the UK reference intake, if not exceeding it. To hit your daily protein requirements, it’s a good idea to have 1 or 2 portions at each meal or snack and choose a variety of sources from each group daily.
There has been a lot of fear around fat for decades, but our bodies need a constant supply of the right types of fat to stay healthy. Healthy fats work to support our mood, memory, hormone balance, immunity, cardiovascular health and joints, as well as helping to keep skin glowing and hair glossy, so we want a good amount of the right types of fat.
Broadly speaking there are two types of dietary fats - saturated and unsaturated. A plant-based diet containing nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil tends to contain good levels of beneficial unsaturated fats, especially the omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids. However, deficiency of omega-3 is more common since these are predominantly found in oily fish. It is important to keep the ratio of omega-3:6 balanced by including at least one daily source of omega-3, as below.
When it comes to saturated fats, a plant-based diet is naturally lower in these which is better for us, however getting modest intake is still recommended because research shows that they are supportive of immunity, energy and brain health. The foods that contain these fats also tend to contain other nutritious compounds such as fat-soluble vitamins (e.g. vitamins A, E, K), fibre and anti-oxidants.
The one type of fat that we should be avoiding where possible is trans-fat (or ‘hydrogenated’ fat). This tends to be ultra-processed or heated to a very high temperature and is often found in ready meals, shop-bought cakes, pastries and deep-fried foods. These have been shown to contribute to inflammation, low mood, cardiovascular diseases and maybe detrimental to long-term brain health.
An overview of dietary fats:
Omega 3 (aim for one source per day) – hempseed, walnuts, flaxseed, flaxseed oil, milled chia, seaweed, green leafy vegetables and spirulina. (It is worth remembering that these plant-based omega-3s (ALA) need converting into active forms in order to fulfil their functions in the body (EPA, DHA) and this requires magnesium, B6 and zinc, again showing how important a balanced diet is overall - nothing works alone in your body!)
Omega 6 (aim for around 2 sources per day) – nuts, seeds, avocado, cold pressed vegetable oils such as linseed, sesame seeds.
Omega 9 (around 1-2 source per day) – olives & olive oil.
Saturated fats (1 per day): coconut oil, coconut flesh, tahini, peanuts and macadamia nuts.
Trans fats (limit where possible): vegetable oils (e.g. corn oil) margarine, shop-bought cakes, confectionery, pastries, muffins, and anything cooked at very high temperatures using vegetable oils such as deep-fried food.
Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals and antioxidants and are needed in smaller quantities but work in synergy with macronutrients around the body. The benefits of these nutrients are truly universal; they are needed to drive millions of physiological reactions, ensuring that every organ and system functions optimally. For example:
Vitamin C (vegetables, fruit) and zinc (sunflower seeds, tahini) keeps our immunity working well and help our skin heal by forming collagen.
B vitamins (beans, pulses, nuts, seeds) help the body make energy, synthesize our neurotransmitters such as serotonin and keep our hormones balanced.
Iron (spinach, kale, tahini, cashews) transports oxygen around the body in our blood whilst magnesium (green leafy veg, chickpeas, black beans) helps maintain our nerves, muscles, detoxification and also helps us sleep.
Selenium (brazil nuts, brown rice) is vital for thyroid function and the liver, and folate is needed for fertility, detoxification and hormone balance.
Vitamin E is one of many anti-oxidants in the body that helps to keep our cells healthy, brightens our skin, slows brain ageing, supports detoxification and feeds our gut bacteria.
One of the benefits of eating a plant-based diet is that it is naturally rich in many of these micro-nutrients. However, there are some that do require attention as outlined below.
Iron has many important roles in the body. It’s crucial for energy, hair health, thyroid health, immunity and brain function. About 70% of your body’s iron is found in red blood cells where it binds and transports oxygen around the body – this means that if levels drop you can really notice it. Typical symptoms include low energy, feeling dizzy/faint, struggling with exercise and concentration. Because of menstruation and childbearing, women have a higher risk of deficiency and therefore need to eat more (around 14g/day) than men (around 9g/day).
Iron comes in two forms in our food: ‘haem’ iron is only found in animal sources and is easily absorbed, whereas non-haem iron is found in plant sources and isn’t absorbed as efficiently, so we need to be conscious of eating enough iron-rich foods to keep our levels high enough. That being said, it's a mineral that many people are deficient in no matter what diet they follow, so eating enough iron is something we all need to be conscious of.
Iron requires vitamin C for absorption, so having vegetables or fruit alongside grains and nuts is recommended and it’s worth noting that tea and coffee can reduce absorption of iron, so leaving space between these drinks and meals can help.
Don’t be afraid of cooking veggies: they shrink when they are heated so cooking iron-rich vegetables like spinach, kale or coriander means you can eat more of them, meaning you get more iron.
Great sources of plant-based iron include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, quinoa, beetroot, cacao, sesame seeds, tahini, pumpkin seeds, spinach, Swiss chard, kale, dried apricots, dates, figs and raisins.
Calcium is required structurally by the body for bones and teeth, but also keeps our blood at the right pH and is needed for muscle contractions. We tend to associate calcium-rich foods with dairy products, but plant-based foods contain equally good levels of calcium meaning it isn’t difficult for vegans to get enough, as long as you’re eating a variety of different foods.
Eating a wide variety of ingredients every day makes getting all the vitamins and minerals you need a lot easier. Vitamin D is required for calcium absorption in the gut, so getting your levels checked yearly is really important, especially if you don’t get much sunlight or have darker skin tones, as vitamin D comes from sunlight (more on vitamin D supplementation below).
Adults need around 700mg calcium per day (menopausal women may need more). Great sources of plant-based calcium: cabbage, kale, bok choi, okra, broccoli and cauliflower, sesame seeds and tahini, fortified plant-based milk, almonds, edamame, tofu, flaxseeds, lentils, dried figs and prunes.
Another important nutrient to consider is zinc, which is needed universally throughout the body, and is involved in over 300 reactions that keep immunity, mood, energy, hormones, skin and memory working properly.
It is a nutrient that becomes easily depleted in those that are stressed, drink alcohol, smoke or do a lot of long-haul air travel, and zinc is found in lower levels in plant-based foods, so it is important to make sure you give special attention to it to help discourage deficiencies, especially as it helps you process omega-3 properly in the body.
The best plant-based sources are tahini, sunflower seeds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, lentils and raw cacao. Hemp seeds are also a good source, and 3 tablespoons will provide around 40% of the recommended daily intake (7mg for women, 9.5mg for men) of zinc for women – try adding 2 tablespoons to your breakfast every morning.
Iodine and Choline
These are two lesser-known nutrients that we should all be aware of. Around 90% of adults in the UK don’t reach the daily recommended levels of choline, and this is especially important for pregnant women as they require higher levels. Owing to its involvement in methylation reactions that help to support DNA formation, detoxification and fertility, choline is extremely important for our bodies. It’s also needed to keep the brain healthy and to support concentration, memory and mental agility.
Good plant-based sources of choline come from tahini, beetroot, edamame, chickpeas, split peas, cauliflower and sprouts.
A recent analysis of women in the UK found that 77% are deficient in iodine, which is necessary for thyroid function, hormone balance and energy. Iodine is found in seafood and dairy, so plant-based eaters can be at higher risk of deficiency.
Saying this, topping up iodine levels is easy – seaweed, samphire, green beans, kale, spring greens, watercress, strawberries and potatoes with their skin on are all sources, with seaweed being especially rich in iodine. We need to get 140μg (micrograms) per day.
There’s a lot to digest here, so please do revisit this article time and time again. It’s also important to remember that nutrition Is just one piece of the puzzle. You may have heard the phrase ‘you can’t out train a bad diet’, and in the same vein, you can’t out-eat a poor lifestyle. Eating well is just one of the key pillars needed to optimise your wellbeing, and whilst addressing your diet is important, doing so isn’t a silver bullet that outweighs managing stress levels, a lack of movement or poor sleep.
Disclaimer: Certain supplements are used for different reasons and a one-size-fits-all approach shouldn’t be adopted. In addition, pregnant women and anyone on medication should always consult a doctor before embarking on a new diet or supplement programme. As with all information on Deliciously Ella, this is no substitution for individual medical or nutritional advice.