When we consider the nutritional needs of the body in order to survive and function, we can broadly divide or define the diet into macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat), and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). The three macronutrients all have their own specific roles and functions in the body, and all supply us with calories or energy. For this reason, the body requires these nutrients in relatively large amounts to grow, develop and continually thrive. Remember macro means large!
Micronutrients on the other hand, whilst equally crucial, are required in much smaller quantities (micro = small) to ensure normal metabolism, growth and physical and mental wellbeing. Of course we also need water to survive, which serves as a carrier, distributing nutrients to the body’s cells, and removing toxins and waste products for elimination.
So, to get us started let’s take a look at macronutrients!
Where do we source macronutrients on a plant-based diet?
All foods can be broadly categorised into a protein, a carbohydrate, or a fat-based food, although hardly ever, will a food be 100% of one macronutrient, especially in a varied and fresh plant-based diet.
Let’s take the example of an avocado - comprised of about 20% carbohydrate, 5% protein and 75% fat. Bananas on the other hand are 95% carbohydrate, with a splattering of protein and fat. Nuts, such almonds, are rather like avocados, being comprised of about 70% fat, 15% protein, and 15% carbohydrate.
Nutrition doesn’t always have to be complex and highly scientific, and we can easily build a healthy plant-based diet simply by knowing our major macronutrient foods.
Carbohydrates are the main energy source for the body and are made up of chains of small units of sugar that the digestive system can break down relatively easily, and ultimately enter the body as glucose. Glucose is essential for the body, being the preferred and quickest source of energy for the body’s cells, as well as the brain. For this reason, the diet ideally needs to contain 45-65% carbohydrates.
Most diets should be built “upwards” from a solid foundation of carbohydrate rich foods. This is easy on a plant-based diet, as carbohydrates are found in the vast majority of natural plant foods. By far the healthiest choices are fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses, legumes, and whole grains. These foods contain plenty of energy, along with fiber and nutrients. Any well-constructed and thought out plant-based diet is almost never low in fiber – a very useful and vital component of plant foods. Fibre is the gut’s brush and sweeper, bulking agent and overall body cleanser! Although fiber cannot be digested by the body, it plays a crucial role too in the intestines, expelling waste, providing food for our healthy gut bacteria, and also helping to maintain healthy cholesterol levels.
Good carbs to go for!
- Squash and zucchini
- Wholegrain rice
- Wild rice
The skinny on fats
Fat is a wonderful part of the diet, as aside from the expected “essential” roles and functions it plays in brain development and function, cellular production, cell regeneration and overall cell functioning.
Another major function of fat in the body is protection, and insulation. Fat helps keep us warm in the winter, and maintain a comfortable body temperature. It is also vital for cushioning and to protect the body’s organs. Lastly, fat plays a vital role in the absorption of certain fat-soluble vitamins (i.e. vitamins A, D, E, and K) as well as carotenoids found in colourful plant-based foods such as kale, avocado, carrots, watercress and bell peppers.
A healthy diet generally consists of around 15-20% fat, and if you want healthy fat (which of course is the primary aim) the sorts of foods that are naturally fat-rich, taste delicious and are highly versatile are listed below.
Some healthy fat-rich foods are avocado (used in many meals), coconut and coconut oil (for light frying) hempseeds (in salads and smoothies), hemp oil (for salad dressings), almonds, pumpkin seeds, olives (as snacks and included in many raw salads), and more recently chia seeds (as a breakfast porridge).
Good fats in your foods
- Avocado (this top food not only has a good balance of carbs, fat and protein, they also contain a wide range of vitamins, minerals, & phytonutrients such as carotenoids and phytosterols)
- Pumpkin seeds
- Chia seeds
- Coconut flesh and oil
- Seed oils
Protein can make up anywhere from 15-30% of a healthy plant-based diet. Proteins and protein-based foods contain amino acids that are the building blocks of protein, as well as protein structures in the body – e.g. cells and tissue structures, hormones and enzymes. Amino acids are linked together in differing levels of complexity, and formation.
All in all there are 20 different amino acids, 9 of which are considered essential, meaning the body can’t manufacture these naturally. They therefore have to be included and consumed in the diet. Proteins that contain all 20 amino acids are often called complete proteins, and on a plant-based diet, we need to look to foods such as quinoa, avocado, chia seeds, and hemp seeds for complete protein nourishment.
Proteins play exclusive and vital roles in the body such as building, and repairing/regenerating body tissues and cells. Undeniably, it is particularly important for physically active individuals whose muscle tissue is constantly being broken down, and in need of repair. Protein has other roles that include the manufacturing of hormones, as well as enzymes used in digestion. Protein is also vital to the healthy functioning of the immune system.
Proteins to partake in
- Beans, pulses and legumes (even better if sprouted!)
- Seeds (especially hempseeds, chia seeds and flaxseeds)
- Nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans, cashews)
- Raw greens (kale, spinach)
- Other vegetables
Putting it all together…
Whether you prefer 3 meals a day or 5 smaller meals or snacks, you can't go wrong by simply dividing a meal into 3 parts, including a main carbohydrate, a main protein and a naturally fat-rich food. Here are some workable, and practical examples…
- Avocado, quinoa and puy lentil 5-veg salad
- Chia & almond milk porridge with banana, coconut shavings, mango, & pumpkin seeds
- Wild rice and pea salad
- Tofu stir-fry with wholegrain rice
- Spaghetti squash with tomato, olive and basil sauce