Healthy vs unhealthy plant-based diet

Remember when family members insisted you eat your veggies? Turns out, they were onto something. Plant-based diets have gained traction for their health and environmental benefits. A survey revealed a growing trend in meat reduction, especially among Gen Z. While plant-based eating emphasizes whole grains, fruits, veggies, and legumes, it’s crucial to navigate it wisely to avoid nutrient deficiencies. Variety is key, as is possibly supplementing, but you should always consult a health professional to tailor a plan that’s right for you. Curious about ensuring you're getting enough protein or how to add more plants to your diet? Explore our related guides for a deeper dive.
Healthy vs unhealthy plant-based diet

Remember that time when your mom, or maybe an overzealous uncle during family gatherings, would tell you to finish your vegetables? They’d say things like, It’s good for you and you really don’t have a say in it. So, you’d begrudgingly force yourself to gobble up that last piece of steamed broccoli at the table.

Ahh, the good old days. But now that you’re all grown up and can decide for yourself, you’re thinking, maybe, just maybe, they were right all along. 

Plant-based diets have grown popular in the last decade not only due to their health benefits but also due to ethical or environmental reasons. 

An online survey of 1,500 Americans revealed that although most consumers still prefer meat as their primary protein source, more than a fourth limit meat consumption in some way. This observation was more obvious among Gen Z participants (those born from 1997-2012), where more than a third of the participants from this age group considered themselves as meat limiters or someone who chose to reduce their meat intake. 

But is going plant-based really a good idea? Or is there an unhealthy plant-based diet you should be cautious of? Keep reading to learn more!

What is a plant-based diet? 

Plant-based diets prioritize eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and healthy oils over animal-based meat, eggs, and dairy. These plant-focused options are usually rich in fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and phytochemicals that help promote healthy body weight, reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease, and lower the risk of developing certain types of cancer

Also, a plant-based diet looks into the amount of processing done to the food before reaching your plate. Highly refined and processed foods, like canned plant foods and white bread, are big no-nos as these foods may be devoid of essential fibre and vitamins or include additives, such as sodium and sugar. 

Not all plant-based diets eliminate animal products like fish and poultry (as shown in the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate visual guide). However, milk, dairy, red meat, bacon, and other processed meats are consumed in moderate amounts. Simply put, a plant-based diet focuses on simple, nutritious, whole foods.   

Can a plant-based diet be unhealthy?

Yes, if not done properly. The primary concern when considering a plant-based diet is ensuring you consume a healthy balance of necessary nutrients for your daily activities. If you suddenly remove certain kinds of food from your diet, you may be at an increased risk of nutritional deficiencies. Weak legs and feeling sick are common symptoms of these deficiencies.


Yolk toasts and veggie slices forming a sad face

Health risks of a plant-based diet

An unhealthy plant-based diet usually has something to do with nutrients or lack thereof. It’s been well-documented that plant-based foods may be missing or lacking certain important nutrients. Here is a list of the most common nutrients lacking in plant-based diets: 

  • Vitamin B12
  • Creatine
  • Carnosine
  • Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol)
  • Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
  • Heme iron
  • Taurine

Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is found almost exclusively in animal-based products, such as dairy, eggs, fish, and meats. Vegetarians who consume eggs and dairy can still meet their dietary requirements, however, strict vegans are at higher risk of Vitamin B12 deficiency. 

Research suggests that we are “genetically adapted to procure nutrients from both plant and animal sources” and adherence to a strict vegan diet may lead to increased risk of bone fractures, muscle loss or sarcopenia, anemia, and even depression. 

Folate deficiency anemia is a disease associated with Vitamin B12 deficiency and commonly includes symptoms like fatigue, pale or yellow skin, and difficulty concentrating and completing tasks, among others. There are also a few non-representative surveys that may indicate an increased risk of low iron stores in the body due to a plant-based diet which can be linked to iron deficiency anemia.

In terms of bone health, vegans may have an increased risk of lowered bone mass due to inadequate consumption of specific nutrients that benefit bone health. These nutrients are mostly found in animal products, such as calcium, protein, vitamin D, zinc, vitamin B12, and n-3 fatty acids. 

So, if you’re feeling sick after switching to a plant-based diet, it might be worth looking at some of these symptoms. These are just a few examples of how a plant-based diet can backfire if not done properly. It's important to keep in mind that our bodies depend heavily on the food we eat, and it's our responsibility to protect ourselves.


Person slicing varieties of vegetables on a table

Tips for a healthier plant-based diet

Considering a plant-based diet requires balancing out the kinds of food you eat, and it’s not exactly black and white. Here are a few tips if you’re looking to cut down on animal-based foods. 


1. Check with your GP

It’s always a good idea to check with a health professional before doing anything drastic with your diet. Yes, drastic, as in removing an entire food group. We are different people with different needs, after all. 

Your nutritional requirements need to match your personal needs and plant-based diets can be tailored to meet the nutritional needs of different individuals. 

For example, women of childbearing age, infants, and children need to ensure that their diets are rich in iron. Pregnant women may need to consume more iron to support the growth and development of their baby, while athletes may need to consume higher amounts of protein to support their muscle growth and recovery.


2. Educate yourself 

A successful plant-based lifestyle requires some planning and research. While there are many nutrient sources available from plant-based sources, there are a few that may be difficult to obtain in adequate amounts. 

Exercise caution to avoid nutrient deficiencies and ensure proper bodily function. Educate yourself to make mindful choices and avoid misinformation about your new lifestyle.


3. Variety is key

Getting as much variety in your kitchen is a great way to ensure that you are getting all the important nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy. When you have a wide range of food options available, you can choose from a variety of foods that support your plant-based lifestyle. This means that you will have more potential sources of important nutrients for your body, including vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

If you’re planning to remove animal-based meat from your diet, it's important to take your time as you consider healthy plant-based options. There are many delicious and nutritious plant-based sources of protein, such as tofu, tempeh, lentils, and beans that can help you meet your daily protein needs.

Additionally, incorporating a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits into your diet can provide you with the vitamins and minerals essential for optimal health.

To further enhance the nutrient density of your meals, consider adding in healthy fats, such as avocado, nuts, and seeds, and whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat bread, and quinoa. These foods can help you feel more satisfied and provide you with sustained energy throughout the day.

Overall, by prioritizing variety and nutrient density, you can support your plant-based lifestyle and ensure that your body is getting all the important nutrients it needs to thrive.

Related: How to eat more vegetables (even if you’re not a veggie person)


4. Consider your options 

For individuals considering a plant-based way of life, a major concern is often where to get protein. Protein requirements differ based on age, health, and activity level, but you can easily meet them with a plant-based diet. 

If you're not ready to give up meat entirely, it's good to know that there are options available in the market. You don't have to deny yourself meat!

For example, you could try plant-based meats that imitate the taste, texture, and nutritional profile of real meat. If consumed in moderation and with nutrient-rich foods like fresh produce, whole grains, and legumes, plant-based meats can be a healthy addition to your diet.

Related: What is plant-based meat?


5. Consider supplements and fortified foods

If you’re unable to meet your daily nutrient requirements through food alone, you can consider taking multivitamin supplements to fill potential nutritional gaps in your diet. However, do not treat supplements as a replacement for a healthy diet, but rather as a complement to it.

Remember, it’s recommended to consult with a healthcare professional before considering any kind of supplement.

Fortified foods, on the other hand, are products enriched with additional nutrients which normally would not be present in the food. This is done to enhance the nutritional value of the food and provide health benefits to consumers who may not be getting enough of these nutrients in their diet.

Adding these nutrients to foods can help prevent deficiencies and improve overall health. For example, fortified cereals may contain added iron to prevent anemia. Check food labels of plant-based alternatives for milk, spreads, and snacks to ensure that they’re indeed fortified. 

Frequently asked questions

Why do I feel weak on a plant-based diet?

It’s possible that your diet does not support a balanced source of nutrients. Plant-based diets typically involve partially or fully excluding animal-based foods from your meals. While this may seem like a healthy choice, it’s essential to note that cutting out important food groups without properly considering plant-based sources or proper dietary supplementation may cause nutrient deficiencies that may affect your day-to-day activities.

How can I get more energy on a plant-based diet?

Consume a variety of plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These foods contain a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. Additionally, it may be necessary to take dietary supplements to make up for any nutrient deficiencies in your diet.

What are the risks of plant-based processed food?

Plant-based processed foods aim to widen available options for those trying to limit their intake of animal-based products. However, some of these foods may contain unwanted “extras”. 

Some options may contain more salt, fat, preservatives, and artificial flavours, so always check the label and choose options that fit your health goals.