As a gym owner and nutrition coach, we encounter a lot of clients who are interested in a plant based diet or who are already eating accordingly. With the release of the Netflix documentary “Game Changers'', we're seeing more and more people interested in this way of eating for health benefits, weight loss, or because they’re interested in doing something new with their health. We thought it would be fun and beneficial to co-write a blog with someone knowledgeable and experienced with the plant-based diet and lifestyle. Camille DeGabrielle is a passionate, self-taught woman in the field of nutrition and is also the co-author of Just Mushrooms. She’s been a client of Body Basics for several years, and we’ve been impressed with her level of knowledge, her balanced diet, and perspective on nutrition. Together we’ve come up with some common questions and challenges we’ve seen within plant-based diets and provided answers from two different perspectives--Camille, from the perspective of someone who’s practiced a plant-based diet for 3 years, and, James, from the perspective of a nutrition coach who coaches clients with a variety of diet preferences.
What are the greatest benefits you see from a plant-based diet?
Camille – The most noticeable benefits from eating plant based has been my cystic acne clearing up. When I deviate from eating plant based (because I’m human and love pizza), I have skin issues for about a week! Not feeling overly full or sluggish after a meal is also the most noticeable perk from eating plant based. Since I’m young, I haven’t benefited from the hallmark of eating plant based, which is noted to be decreased inflammation, but anecdotally, I can say that both of my parents have noticed decreased joint pain and weight loss.
James – When I hear a client tell me they’ve decided to become a plant based eater, I almost always notice their diet improves in quality. Meaning, most often they go from eating processed food to eating more whole foods. I love that! I’m a huge believer in eating whole foods instead of getting our “nutrition” from bars, shakes, or other processed foods. Flooding our body with nutrient dense vegetables, fruits, and other things that have grown is always a good idea. The other benefit is that vegetables, for instance, are super nutrient dense but not that calorically dense on their own. You can eat quite a bit of broccoli, carrots, sliced peppers, etc.… and not overeat. For someone looking to lose weight, making vegetables a staple in their diet is a great idea. The other benefit I see is that people diversify what they eat. When meat is the main staple, the entire meal is usually built around it. When you take meat out, all the sudden you must come up with substance in your meals. I have seen some super creative combinations with all sorts of varieties of beans, lentils, nuts, vegetables, oils, and as Camille has exposed… even mushrooms!
What are some challenges that you’ve encountered?
Camille – Initially, when I transitioned into plant-based eating, I wasn’t eating enough and found myself hungry an hour later. To feel satiated, you have to combine a fat, carb, and a protein. Salads are great if you’re loading them full of chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, & an avocado (for example).
James – I agree with Camille… I’ve seen some clients under-eat on occasion. I think it takes an adjustment to figure out how to make a balanced meal by adding healthy fats and proteins. I’ve also noticed that (depending on how some people comprise their diet) they may not recover from workouts--especially strength training. Also, they may be sore longer and just not be able to rebuild the muscle they’ve broken down. That’s not to say it can’t work for athletes. It certainly can. It is just important to fill in some commons gaps we see.
Is there anything you feel could be missing from a plant-based only diet?
Camille – In some ways, yes… Since I’m not eating fish or taking supplements for Omega-3’s, it’s very important to still get these from your food.
James – There are two big areas that we see commonly lacking in a plant-based diet: DHA and EPA, which are typically found in marine sources of Omega 3, and complete essential ammino acids (EAAs).
DHA and EPA are most commonly found in marine sources of Omega-3. The reason it’s important to get DHA and EPA is due to the benefit they offer in reducing inflammation and contributing towards eye and brain function. Just as Camille mentioned… if you’re not eating fish, adding a quality marine source of Omega-3’s to your diet via supplement will be very beneficial. If you’re a vegetarian and prefer not to consume a fish oil, you can also supplement with algae, which will help with DHA and EPA levels. I don’t know quite as much about algae and its role in helping to improve DHA and EPA, but from what I’ve read it does help bridge this gap and may be a great alternative to a marine source.
Here is what’s behind EAAs and why they’re important… Protein is broken down into amino acids, and there are two basic categories: non-essential amino acids (amino acids our body can actually make on its own) and essential amino acids (amino acids our body cannot make on its own, meaning we need to get them from food). Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) can be found in plant-based foods, but only three plant sources contain “complete” EAAs—soy, hemp, and quinoa. This is where animal products provide a great benefit as you’ll get the complete EAA profile from multiple sources. That’s not to say you can’t comprise a plant-based diet to provide all the EAAs your body needs. You just can’t get them as easily, and unless you’ve become familiar with all the EAAs and where they’re found in food, it can get tricky. So, we highly recommend taking a quality EAA supplement to make sure you’re getting the complete profile of amino acids your body needs. As a side note, we also do not recommend ‘soy’ as a staple food in our client’s diets due to it being a phytoestrogen, which can potentially increase estrogen levels.
How do you address these areas of a plant-based diet?
Camille – Fortunately, there are a few foods that make it easy to get your Omega-3’s in your diet. Some include flax seed, brussel sprouts, walnuts, chia seeds, and spirulina.
James – It’s very easy and common to find complete EAAs and marine sources of Omega-3 at your local grocery or nutrition store. They also make algae tablets as well. As with anything, there can be good quality and poor quality supplements, so do your research and choose a good source. Christine wrote a blog on protein which can be found here and will provide a bit more info on making sure you get enough protein and the right type.
Is a plant-based diet something you’d recommend to others? Why or why not?
Camille – As much as I’d like to advocate a plant-based diet for everyone for sustainability reasons, I think it’s more important to listen to your body. I don’t believe once size fits all for food. Intuitive eating is important and respecting your individual needs should be paramount. If you are considering making the change, realize that you do not have to be dogmatic; it’s okay to be a ‘weekday’ vegetarian or eat meat on special occasions. Our culture is too quick to ascribe labels to everything and being gentle with yourself without labels is an important part of this. With this said, I do have recommended reading that has helped build the foundation of my current plant-based eating:
- “Lifespan: Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To” by David Sinclair
- “Kiss the Ground: How the Food Can Reverse Climate Change, Heal Your Body & Ultimately Save Our World” by Josh Tickell, Terry Tamminen
James – I think it completely depends on the person. If someone is dealing with chronic inflammation, just doesn’t like consuming animal products, or has some type of issue with their liver function, then it could be a good idea. If someone is just looking for the easiest way to lose weight, then I’d much rather see them start with just eating a balanced whole food diet prior to taking on something like an plant-based only diet. So, it completely depends… I’m definitely not opposed to it, and I’ve seen it work quite well for some clients.
I’m also aware of my role and function as a nutrition coach. I try to stay unbiased and open-minded to a variety of lifestyles and diets. It’s personal, and what motivates or works for one client may not for another. I tend to not push my clients towards or away from something, but more importantly make sure they’re doing it for the right reason, and then help them to do it well.
Nothing in this blog should be used for medical advice, and we urge you to speak with your doctor before making any dietary changes.