Why swapping meat and milk for plant-based alternatives might miss vital nutrients

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As we strive to mitigate climate change, many people are turning to plant-based diets as a way to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

But while it’s easy to swap dairy milk for plant-based “milk” and animal meat for plant-based “meat,” it’s important to consider the nutritional implications of these changes.

Plant-based “milk” and “meat” are not nutritionally equivalent to their animal-source counterparts, and the nutritional composition of different plant-based products can vary widely.

A recent study in Australia used computer simulations to model the nutritional implications of swapping animal products for plant-based copies.

The results showed that the impact of switching varied from nutrient to nutrient. While iron intake increased by 15%, sodium intake increased by 7%, and most other nutrients declined.

The most concerning predicted declines were in vitamin B12, iodine, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, and zinc.

These nutrients are critical for healthy bodies and brains, and many people already don’t get enough of them.

The declines predicted by this study suggest that simply swapping animal-sourced for plant-sourced foods would likely exacerbate these dietary inadequacies.

For example, milk is an important source of iodine in Australia, but without fortification, plant-based milk is very low in iodine.

Vitamin B12 is present in both meat and dairy, and between 5% and 8% of females aged 14 years and over don’t get enough.

Plant-based versions are likely to exacerbate this inadequacy.

Additionally, meat contains chemicals that enhance zinc absorption while plants often contain factors that reduce zinc absorption, so switching to plant-based versions could lead to a fall in zinc intake, and the zinc provided by plant-based “meat” and “milk” may be less available to the body.

Approximately 80% of Australian adults consume less than the recommended intake of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are particularly important for heart and brain health.

While meat, especially if grass-fed, is a useful source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, plant-based “meat” tends to contain little or no long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.

To maintain an adequate nutrient intake while transitioning to a plant-based diet, it may be necessary to fortify plant-based “meat” and “milk” with nutrients that might otherwise be missing from our diets.

We also need to consider how plant-based “meat” and “milk” fit into national food selection guides, such as the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.

As we work towards more environmentally sustainable diets, we must also consider nutrient intake when developing policy actions and public health messages.

This is particularly important for vulnerable populations, such as the young, the elderly, and women of childbearing age.

How to have a healthy plant-based diet

A plant-based diet can be a healthy and sustainable way of eating if done correctly. Here are some tips for creating a healthy plant-based diet:

Include a variety of plant-based foods: Eating a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds will provide your body with a wide range of nutrients.

Make sure you get enough protein: Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to get enough protein from a plant-based diet. Legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds are good sources of protein.

Get enough iron: Iron is an important nutrient that can be harder to get from a plant-based diet. To ensure you get enough iron, include leafy greens, tofu, beans, and fortified cereals in your diet.

Consider taking a vitamin B12 supplement: Vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal-based foods, so it is important for vegans and vegetarians to supplement with it. Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy nerves and blood cells.

Be mindful of added sugars and processed foods: Just because a food is plant-based doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Be aware of added sugars, refined grains, and processed foods.

If you care about nutrition, please read studies about a breakfast linked to better blood vessel health, and drinking too much coffee could harm people with high blood pressure.

For more information about health, please see recent studies about unhealthy habits that may increase high blood pressure risk, and results showing plant-based protein foods may help reverse diabetes.

The study was conducted by Anita S. Lawrence et al and published in Nutrients.

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