Principles of Plant-Based Nutrition – Principle #3

Plant-based Whole Foods

This is the third of an eight-part series: Principles of Plant-Based Nutrition

Principle #3: There are Virtually No Nutrients in Animal-Based Foods that are not Better Provided by Plants

All the nutrients we require can be found in plant-based foods. We simply don’t ever need to consume animal-based foods to get any of the good nutrition we need. Plant-based foods also contain dietary fiber and beta-carotene, where animal products do not. We must consume plant-based foods to get these nutrients. Plant-based foods also contain higher concentrations of Vitamin C, folate, and Vitamin E.

Nutrient Composition of Plant and Animal-Based Foods (per 500 calories of energy)
Nutrient Plant-Based Foods* Animal-Based Foods**
Cholesterol (mg) 137
Fat (g) 4 36
Protein (g) 33 34
Beta-Carotene (mcg) 29,919 17
Dietary Fiber (g) 31
Vitamin C (mg) 293 4
Folate (mcg) 1,168 19
Vitamin E (mg_ATE) 11 0.5
Iron (mg) 20 2
Magnesium (mg) 548 51
Calcium (mg) 545 252

* Equal parts tomatoes, spinach, lima beans, peas, potatoes.
** Equal parts beef, pork, chicken, whole milk.

In contrast, artery-clogging cholesterol is only found in animal-based foods. It’s important to note that we need small amounts of cholesterol to help support our cell membranes and some of the tissues surrounding our nerves, but our bodies can manufacture all the cholesterol we need. We don’t ever need to consume one gram it. Dietary fat is also more common and found at much higher levels in animal-based foods.

People often ask me where I get my protein. Their belief is that we cannot possibly get all the protein we need from a plant-based diet. The truth is I get all the protein I need from beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains like oats and quinoa. The protein level of nuts and seeds is actually quite high compared to animal-based proteins. Nuts and seeds do contain high levels of fat as well, but the fat in nuts and seeds is distinctly different and more healthful than animal-based sources.

There are two anomalies here: Vitamins D and B12. People on plant-based diets can sometimes have lower levels of these vitamins, but there are ways to increase these nutrients, and supplements are always an option.

Vitamin D is not really a vitamin; a vitamin is a nutrient we have to consume because we don’t make it. We can make all the Vitamin D we need, all we need to do is get out and get some sunshine. For those of us living in northern climates, especially in the winter months, a supplement will do the trick.

Vitamin B12 is present in plants, just at much lower levels. The B12 present in any food is there because of synthesis by microorganisms. In animals, the microorganisms producing the B12 reside in the large intestine, or in the case of ruminants (cows, sheep, goats), the rumen (first stomach chamber). Plants can be a good source of B12; they must be grown in organic soil where there are lots of microorganisms to produce the B12. In the days before the wide-spread use of pesticides, when we didn’t have to be so meticulous about cleaning our food, having a little soil attached to the plants grown in organic soil always gave us enough B12.

For anyone skeptical about moving to a whole-food, plant-based diet, keep in mind that everything our bodies need for optimal health and nutrition can be better obtained from plants than from animals.

This is the third of an eight-part series: Principles of Plant-Based Nutrition

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