Diet therapy

How to make the most of a plant-based diet

Have you had a really good look in the supermarkets lately?

There’s now a huge range of ready to go, plant- based diet foods in the chillers and aisles dedicated to protein powders and flours; Quorn meat replacer; eggless omlette mixes; vegan breads, snacks and cereals and much much more.

Move over Keto and Gluten free diets, the plant-based diet industry has arrived!

For a country like New Zealand which has been built on meat and dairy exports adopting a more plant- based diet will be a challenge for some. However in a bid to reduce green house gases, to clean up our waterways, increase crop production and build a more sustainable lifestyle for everyone we are being asked to seriously look at what we swallow.

What is a plant- based diet?

Essentially a plant -based diet focuses on whole or less processed food as close to nature as possible. Plant foods include fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds. With the exception of coconut most of these foods are low in saturated fat, a source of healthy polyunsaturated fats, are a plentiful source of dietary fibre, anti-oxidants and pytochemicals to protect us from disease.

This is not a new dietary trend. In 2014 it was estimated that of the 7 billion people on the planet 375 million were vegetarian or vegan.1 Some choose this lifestyle for e.g. ethical, environmental, animal welfare or religious reasons along with also being more active and avoiding smoking and alcohol consumption. Others may have no choice at all and are vegan or vegetarian because of poverty, war or famine.

Getting to know these plant-based foods better

Fresh fruit and vegetables: need no introduction
Whole grains: brown rice, barley, wheat, quinoa and rye
Legumes: chickpeas,dried or canned beans (red kidney, haricot, lima,butter, cannellini
and pento beans), split peas and lentils
Nuts: peanuts, almonds, cashews, brazil and walnuts -ideally choose unsalted and
dry roasted nuts rather than those cooked in fat.
Seeds: pumpkin, sunflower and chia -once again dry roasted and without additional salt

All of these foods are a source of carbohydrate for energy, dietary fibre for healthy gut function and are important sources of vitamins and minerals. Many also contain protein in varying amounts and with care and knowledge these foods can provide the backbone for a healthy diet.

What are some of the challenges?

Cooking family meals

While teenage kids are catching on to the effects of global warming, and may have been pestering their parents for ages to go vegetarian other family members may be less enthusiastic about reducing their meat intake just yet. It takes time to make changes.

Who ever does the cooking may not be ready yet to see their chickpea or lentil patties crumble in the pan as they learn how to cook them or see their favourite meat dishes squeezed out of their usual weekly menu slot. It may take time to learn new recipes, however this is where, if funds allow, the use of some vegetarian convenience foods such as ready made hummus and falafel could come in handy at the start.

Technology verses real food

With the advent of so many meat and dairy replacement foods in the supermarket people may rightly question whether the plant-based diet is still ‘natural’ and based on whole foods or just another magnet for food additives, colourings, preservatives and salt?
One certainty does exist. As the food technologists, food industry, chefs, food writers and producers all work creatively to fathom ways to feed our growing population, being able to read and understand food labels will become an increasingly important life skill.

What about our nutrition?

Nutrient adequacy is still hugely important. People who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet still need to consider and plan to include all the essential nutrients that they need. Especially the types and amounts of protein, iron and zinc (if dropping meat) plus Vitamin B12 and calcium (if also excluding dairy).2

While some processed plant-based diet foods may be fortified with iron, calcium or protein, supplementation of these nutrients may still be necessary for vegans especially if they have health issues such as fatigue, iron deficiency, low body weight, ammenorhea, gluten intolerance or food allergies. Check with your GP and Dietitian first.

The fat, the salt and sugar issues, that may have contributed to our weight gain, heart disease and cancer in the past, still need to be considered when we are replacing some of the meat and dairy foods for vegetarian alternatives. Just because that dark chocolate, yoghurt, cheese or cake now has coconut oil instead of cream doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s lower in energy, saturated fat or sugar.

We also still have to factor in cooking methods. While using cooking oils is a healthier option it still raises the total fat and energy levels of the food, so mind how you go.

We all have different needs

Growing children, athletes, the elderly, the sick, the construction workers etc, we all have different nutritional needs. Adopting a plant- based diet with higher fibre, less protein, iron and (maybe) energy will still need some modification to suit our age, activity and health requirements.

Key issues to be aware of

When we remove meat and dairy from the diet it is important to take care with the foods we replace them with in order to maintain and adequate intake of protein, calcium and iron.

Getting enough protein from plant-based milk

While adults can replace cows milk with plant milks the protein levels of these milks (except for soy) are generally lower. See below.3 So if you are buying non dairy products, read the food label and choose those that are fortified with extra calcium and/or protein. NB these milks are not suitable for young children.

Milk Protein Fat Carbohydrate Energy Calcium Sodium
250ml cup g g g Kj/Kcals mg mg
Cows milk Calci Trim® 14.8 0.5 12 480/114 475 115
Cows milk Whole 8.7 8.7 15.4 722/172 267 90 
Cows milk Trim® 9.3 0.26 12.4 369/88 306 102
Soy milk fat reduced 8.2 0.25 19.3 540/129 350 131
Rice Milk + protein 3.9 2.8 14.7 417/99 315 144
Oat Milk + calcium 3.9 5.3 16.9 576/137 325 151
Almond Milk 1.6 7 5.1 375/89 177 153
Coconut Milk 4 40.2 5.1 1647/393 10.2 51
Coconut Milk fat reduced 1.5 18.2 2.8 742/177 12.7 38

Dairy free (DF)yoghurt

These DF products also tend to be lower in protein than the those based on cow’s milk protein and are mostly based on soy bean or nuts

Food Protein Fat Carbohydrate Energy Calcium Sodium
100g g g g kJ/Kcals mg mg
Meadow Fresh® Kalo Greek yoghurt 9.5 2.8 2.7 310/73 130 35
DF Good Boost® Almond yoghurt 2.9 8.4 13.1 595/141 N/A 9.9
DF Raglan® Coconut yoghurt 1.9 22.6 2.8 924/220 N/A 10
DF No Moo®Dairy free soy yoghurt 3.2 2.2 7.4 262/63 N/A 3.6
DF Easi Yo yoghurt 4 3.7 14.1 433/104 144 0.036

Dairy free cheese

These cheeses tend to be based on modified starches such as pea, maize or potato and some also contain coconut oil. They can be grated and used in cooking.

When thinking about any hard cheese do watch your quantities over the course of a week as it is very easy to overdo the grated cheese on pizza or in macaroni cheese and wined up eating more fat, salt and energy than in the meat you may be trying to avoid.

Food Protein Fat Carbohydrate Energy Calcium Sodium
100g g g g g g mg
Edam Cheese 26.4 26.7 0 1460/347 770 708
Cottage Cheese 12.4 4.7 2.3 424/100 N/A 301
DF Zenzo® Cheddar 0.22 19.6 19.4 1100/261 N/A 739
DF Vessey® Mozzarella 1 24 23.1 1263/300 N/A 500
DF Angel Food®Mozzarella 0.5 20 18 1070/254 300 550

Meat replacement foods

The real fillet steak and chicken are naturally lower in sodium than the processed foods.

The Sunfed® chicken is based on yellow pea protein and the remainder on soy protein and modified starch.

Ideally we should all be trying to reduce our intake of processed meats such as bacon, ham, sausages, luncheon meat, salami etc whether real or man made, in an effort to reduce our intake of preservatives and sodium.

Food Protein Fat Carbohydrate Energy Iron Sodium
100g g g g kJ/Kcals mg mg
Fillet Steak 21.9 63 0 608/145 2.1 56
Craft Meat® No meat mince* 7 2.3 14 439/104 N/A 174
Bacon 30.1 10.6 0 906/216 1.4 2430
Vegie Delight®Bacon style* 23.6 7.1 16.4 951/226 3.5 924
Beef Sausages 14.8 22.2 2.7 1136/271 1.04 543
Vegie Delight®Hot dog* 18.8 8 10.7 807/192 N/A 685
Chicken 22.3 1.6 0 438/104 0.4 41
Sunfed® Chicken free pieces* 36 6 4 940/224 9 530

*Meat replacements

Protein and Carbohydrate

Just one thing to be aware of is that, except for fish, egg and tofu, most vegetable protein sources are also a source of carbohydrate and dietary fibre which will increase once the diet is rounded out with cereals, bread, fruit and vegetables.

Parents of young children and athletes need to be aware that this extra fibre load can lead to gastro intestinal upset if taken in excess.

Food Protein Fat Carbohydrate Energy Iron Sodium
100g serving g g g kJ/Kcals mg mg
Fish, Cod 15.3 0.4 0 275/65 0.16 30.3
Egg No 5 x2 11.8 7.2 0.5 480/114 1.5 8
Tofu 12 2.3 0 502/119 2.9 40
Tempeh 18.5 10.8 7.8 858/204 2.7 9
Hummus 6.1 13 8.7 791/189 1.7 169
Falafel 4.5 0.4 8.8 480/114 1.5 126
Lentils 7.6 0.5 15.5 441/105 2.4 12
Red kidney beans 7.8 0.5 9.1 364/87 1.7 8

Mind the serving sizes

It is usual when comparing foods to use 100g servings to ensure uniformity and fairness, but the reality is that servings sizes can be very different.

For instance if comparing the protein of 100g peanut butter (no added salt or sugar) with 100g chicken the protein levels are identical. However the reality is few people eat 100g peanut butter (almost ½ cup) as it is usually taken in a sandwich or on toast.

See below the result if we use an average serving 1 ½ Tbsp peanut butter (22.5g) to make a sandwich using 2 slices wholemeal bread and 2 tsp polyunsaturated margarine) the protein level of the choice is a lot lower despite the protein in the bread.

Nutrients Peanut butter Chicken Peanut butter sandwich
  100g 100g  
Protein (g) 22.3 22.3 9.2
Fat (g) 52 1.6 19
Carbohydrate (g) 10.7 0 22.9
Energy (Kj/Kcals) 2610/623 438/104 1306/312
Sodium 5 41 364

Plant-based diets come in different shapes and sizes

In an attempt to define the level of dependence a person may have on plant-based foods for sustenance various cateogories have sprung up over the years. Alongside eating fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains they also eat in the following styles:

  • Flexitarians: are people who include small amounts of lean meats and dairy products some days and not on others.
  • Pescetarians: include fish but not meat
  • Mediterranean-style dieters: include fish and small amounts of meat and low fat cheese often based on goat or sheep milk
  • Lacto-vegetarains: milk and milk products
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarains: milk, milk products and egg
  • Semi-vegetarains: milk. eggs, fish and/or chicken
  • Vegans: exclude any food of animal origin from their diet

Which ever end of the spectrum you are currently at, the important thing is that we all try to include more plant foods into our diet each day. That we have fun trying and learning about new things and that we take the time to really enjoy what we eat and share it with the people we love.

If you would like to check the nutrient adequacy of your current diet then do contact me for a nutritional assessment.



  1. Lifestyle/CINZIA FIGUS 375 million vegetarians world wide. All the reasons for a greener lifestyle.
  2. Eating plenty of plants. Fresh Inspiration Issue 26 Winter 2019
  1. Food works 10 Xyris software

More articles by Lea on similar topics

Get into fruit and vegetables for optimal health
Milk matters
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6 Tips to help athletes eat more plant foods
Vegetarians face extra hurdles
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About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

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