5 mistakes people make when switching to a plant-based diet

 Dr Andrew Thompson discusses how veganism without good health management can lead to poor health outcomes

More Australians are adopting vegetarian and plant-based diets, with many choosing to cut their intake of meat – and even fish, dairy, and eggs – to improve their health. While making such changes can be beneficial to health, a doctor warns that it could lead to poorer health outcomes if not done properly and urges Australians to consider diet and lifestyle changes more closely before making the switch.

Dr Andrew Thompson is a registered doctor with Australia’s leading, award-winning online prescription and telehealth service, which has helped more than 400,000 Australians access health services. He says switching to a plant-based diet risks lower nutrients and a higher intake of processed alternatives. In fact, despite the rising popularity of plant-based and vegetarian diets, obesity continues to be a growing problem among the population: 32 per cent of Australians are considered to be overweight, while 28 per cent are classified as obese, an increase on the previous year.

Dr Thompson says: “If Australians make poor choices when switching to a plant-based diet, they can risk becoming deficient in vital vitamins and nutrients, such as protein, B12, iron, vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and calcium. Vegans and vegetarians can be at a higher risk of developing anaemia, while low omega-3 fatty acid intake can lead to numerous serious health conditions, including heart problems, fatigue, poor memory, and even mental health issues, such as depression.

B12, in particular, can only be sourced from meat and seafood, such as beef, liver, salmon and chicken and other animal products such as eggs, milk and yoghurt. Seafood such as salmon, sardines, and oysters are also rich in omega-3 fatty acid, however, there are some excellent plant-based substitutes, including chia seeds, walnuts, beetroot, and flaxseed.

“Adopting a new lifestyle such as this isn’t as simple as eradicating meat and animal products. It’s important to ensure that any foods or food groups are being replaced with an equally nutritious alternative.”

5 common mistakes to avoid when switching to a plant-based diet. 

  1. Failing to seek regular blood nutrition tests. A plant-based diet requires extra care to ensure individuals are getting all the right vitamins and minerals they need to stay happy and healthy. Blood nutrition tests can assess levels of iron, folate, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, phosphate as well as an individual’s full blood count. I recommend Australians get a blood test through their regular doctor or an online telehealth service, to assess their baseline health. After making the switch they will need another blood test around three and six months later to see how they’re tracking. Australians would also be wise to speak to their doctor about how often they should continue to get tested. The frequency depends on a variety of other factors including age, weight and any chronic health conditions.
  2. Eating processed animal product substitutes. Plant-based meat and alternative by-products are marketed as a healthier substitute to their original counterparts. However, the levels of nutritional value found in these alternatives can be misleading as sufficient diet replacements. Ultimately, these products are processed and can be high in sodium. Any diet high in processed foods and low in whole foods, such as vegetables and fruits, is considered unhealthy and low in nutrients. Studies have found that plant-based meat generally contains less energy and saturated fat, but more carbohydrates and sugars than meat. The overall nutritional value (or Nutri-Score) of plant-based meat was also found to be lower than animal products.
  3. Loading up on vegan junk food. The idea of a vegan diet that comprises of grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetable fats and oils is not always sustainable or realistic. Many junk foods such as hot chips are naturally vegan and there are countless vegan substitutes for those that are not. Sometimes a naturally vegan junk food is the easiest readily available snack, and it is important for Australians to be wary of loading up on these foods as a key component of their diet. Vegan substitutes such as dairy-free ice-cream or gelatine-free lollies are often marketed as a healthy snack but should still be avoided in high quantities.
  4. Cutting out key nutrients without replacing them. Vegan diets can be associated with low levels of iodine, zinc, calcium, potassium, selenium, and vitamin B2, Niacin (B3), B12 and D.Studies show that vitamin B12 levels are significantly lower among vegans, while calcium intake among the majority of vegans is below healthcare recommendations. Regularly consuming foods that are rich in these vitamins and minerals such as beetroot, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, avocadoes and mushrooms, are important to maintaining good health. To boost vitamin intake, supplements can be used in conjunction with a healthy diet for optimum intake.
  5. Eating the wrong portion sizes. Transitioning to an entirely new diet can cause confusion over what portion sizes a person needs to stay full. Concern around being hungry or fears of missing key nutrients in every meal may cause some people to overeat unnecessarily. However, it is also possible to under eat by misinterpreting levels of energy found in vegan meals – a plate of plain steamed vegetables may not completely satisfy one’s hunger. There are several calculators available online that can calculate an individual’s ideal portion sizes based on their height and weight.

Many experts have also argued that, despite environmental impact being a popular reason to switch to a plant-based lifestyle, certain vegan-friendly foods such as avocadoes, blueberries and strawberries contribute greatly to the climate crisis through international imports or excessive water use. For instance, 9.5 billion litres of water is used daily to grow avocadoes. Milk alternatives, such as almond milk, requires an excessive amount of water in its product: just one almond amasses a water footprint of 12 litres. Environmental impacts are also predicted to have serious impacts on health in the long term, including an increase in food-and water-borne illnesses, infectious diseases, increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and mental health issues.

Dr Andrew Thompson is a registered doctor at InstantScripts, Australia’s leading, award-winning online prescription and telehealth service, which has helped more than 400,000 Australians access health services.