Plant-based diets have gained popularity in recent years, and for good reason. This dietary approach emphasises plant-derived foods while reducing or eliminating animal products. A plant-based diet offers a wide array of health benefits, making it particularly beneficial for women at various life stages, like menopause.
Whether you’re already on a plant-based diet journey or considering making the switch to a plant-based lifestyle, The Women’s Journal explores the numerous health benefits of a plant-based diet as well as how it affects the hormones and possible downsides. We speak to Nutritionist, Menopause Coach and Founder of Women of a Certain Stage, Lauren Chiren, to gain a greater insight into the health benefits of a plant-based diet for women.
Understanding a Plant-Based Diet
An important step before delving into the benefits of a plant-based diet is to understand what it entails. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are the primary components to a plant-based diet; while meat, dairy, and processed foods are minimised or completely avoided.
What is a Plant-Based Diet?
A plant-based diet centres around whole, unprocessed foods that come from plants. This doesn’t mean you’re only eating vegetables; it includes fruits, nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans.
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are the primary components to a plant-based diet; while meat, dairy, and processed foods are minimised or completely avoided. A plant-based diet is not necessarily about eliminating all animal products but focusing more on plant sources of nutrition.
Plant-Based Diets & Women’s Nutritional Needs
To ensure optimal health, women need to pay special attention to specific nutrients when following a plant-based diet. Calcium, iron, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids are key nutrients that require careful consideration.
- Calcium: Sources like leafy greens, almonds, and fortified plant-based milk.
- Iron: Found in lentils, spinach, and quinoa, with vitamin C-rich foods to enhance absorption.
- Vitamin B12: Supplementation or fortified foods.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts.
What is the downside of a plant-based diet?
“The embrace of a plant-based diet brings with it a multitude of benefits, yet the nuanced downside often centres around Vitamin B12 deficiency,” Lauren says. “This crucial nutrient, primarily found in animal products, plays a pivotal role in nerve function and red blood cell production.”
“Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is a water-soluble vitamin that plays a pivotal role in various bodily functions, making it essential for overall health and well-being. As we explore the benefits and sources of this vital nutrient, it becomes evident why maintaining adequate levels of Vitamin B12 is crucial, especially for those embracing a plant-based lifestyle.”
Benefits of Vitamin B12:
Red Blood Cell Formation: Vitamin B12 is instrumental in the synthesis of red blood cells, aiding in the prevention of anaemia. Adequate levels of B12 ensure the production of healthy red blood cells that can effectively transport oxygen throughout the body.
Nervous System Function: B12 is vital for the maintenance of a healthy nervous system. It plays a key role in the formation of the protective covering of nerves called the myelin sheath. This sheath helps nerve impulses travel smoothly and efficiently.
DNA Synthesis: Vitamin B12 is involved in the synthesis of DNA, the genetic material present in every cell. This function is critical for cell division and the maintenance of healthy tissues.
Energy Production: B12 contributes to the conversion of food into energy, playing a role in metabolism. Individuals with sufficient B12 levels may experience improved energy levels and overall vitality.
Sources of Vitamin B12:
While Vitamin B12 is predominantly found in animal products, those adopting a plant-based diet need not despair. There are ways to ensure an adequate intake of this essential nutrient:
- Fortified Foods: Many plant-based products, such as plant-based milk (soy, almond, or oat milk), breakfast cereals, and nutritional yeast, are fortified with B12. Check product labels to ensure they contain a reliable source of B12.
- Supplements: Vitamin B12 supplements, available in various forms which may be an effective way for individuals on a plant-based diet to meet their B12 requirements. It’s advisable to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the appropriate dosage.
- Algae-Based Supplements: Some plant-based supplements derive B12 from algae. These supplements can be a suitable option for those looking for plant-derived sources.
- Fortified Plant-Based Meat Alternatives: Certain plant-based meat alternatives may be fortified with B12. Again, checking product labels is key to identifying sources of this essential vitamin.
- Eggs and Dairy (for Vegetarians): For those who include eggs and dairy in their diet, these animal products are good sources of B12.
Lauren says: “It’s important for individuals, particularly women embracing a plant-based lifestyle, to be proactive in ensuring they obtain adequate Vitamin B12.
“Regular monitoring of B12 levels through blood tests can provide valuable insights into your nutritional status, allowing for adjustments in supplementation or dietary choices as needed.”
What happens when you start eating a plant-based diet?
“Embarking on a plant-based journey initiates a holistic transformation, encompassing both the physical and mental realms,” says Lauren. “Beyond the anticipated surge in energy and improved digestion, women may find their skin complexion enhanced, experience better sleep quality, and even a boost in mood. Understanding these multifaceted benefits empowers women to embrace the plant-based lifestyle with confidence, knowing they are embarking on a journey of comprehensive wellbeing.”
What happens the first week of plant-based diet?
“The initial week of adopting a plant-based diet marks a crucial period of adjustment,” says Lauren. “Acknowledging potential challenges such as cravings and digestive changes, this section offers practical tips to ease the transition. By emphasising patience and gradual adjustments, women can navigate this phase with confidence, setting the stage for a sustained and enjoyable plant-powered journey.”
Plan Your Meals:
- Planning is key to a successful transition. Devote time to creating a weekly meal plan that includes a variety of plant-based foods.
- Experiment with diverse recipes to discover new flavours and textures. Engaging in the culinary aspect of plant-based eating can turn the transition into an enjoyable culinary exploration.
Stock Your Kitchen:
- Ensure your kitchen is stocked with a variety of whole plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Having these staples readily available makes meal preparation more convenient.
- Explore local markets or grocery stores for fresh, seasonal produce. The vibrant colours and flavours of fresh, whole foods can be both visually appealing and nutritionally enriching.
- Gradually substitute animal products with plant-based alternatives. For example, explore plant-based milk options, experiment with tofu or tempeh in place of meat, and discover the richness of plant-based oils instead of animal fats.
- Consider incorporating legumes, lentils, and beans into your meals for a protein boost. These versatile ingredients can add both texture and substance to a variety of dishes.
- Hydration is a cornerstone of good health. Ensure you’re drinking an adequate amount of water throughout the day.
- Experiment with herbal teas, infused water, or plant-based beverages to add variety to your fluid intake.
Listen to Your Body:
- Pay attention to how your body responds to the changes. It’s normal to experience shifts in digestion and energy levels during the initial week.
- If you encounter specific challenges, such as digestive discomfort or cravings, listen to your body’s signals. This awareness allows for personalised adjustments to make the transition smoother.
Connect with a Community:
- Join online communities or local groups dedicated to plant-based living. Sharing experiences, tips, and recipes with others on a similar journey can provide invaluable support.
- Engage with social media platforms, where you’ll find a wealth of inspiration and encouragement from individuals who have successfully navigated the initial stages of adopting a plant-based lifestyle.
Celebrate Small Wins:
- Celebrate your achievements, no matter how small. Whether it’s successfully preparing a new plant-based recipe or resisting the temptation of non-plant-based options, acknowledging these victories reinforces a positive mindset.
- Cultivate a sense of self-compassion, recognising that the transition to a plant-based diet is a personal journey with its own pace and rhythm.
Lauren adds: “Remember, the first week is a learning experience, and embracing a plant-based lifestyle is a gradual process. By approaching this period with curiosity, patience, and a willingness to adapt, women can lay the foundation for a sustained and enjoyable plant-powered journey.
“As they navigate the initial steps, the focus should be on building a positive relationship with plant-based foods and fostering a sense of empowerment in their nutritional choices.”
Plant-Based Diet and Weight Management
Many women turn to plant-based diets to manage their weight effectively. The abundance of fibre, low-calorie density, and natural satiety of plant foods contribute to weight loss and maintenance.
Plant-Based Diet and Weight Loss
By choosing whole, unprocessed plant foods, you can achieve and sustain a healthy weight. The high fibre content helps control hunger and reduces calorie intake.
Can you lose belly fat on a plant-based diet?
Lauren says: “In order to shed excess belly fat as part of their weight management journey, individuals may consider a plant-based diet to contribute to overall weight loss. But in addition to fibre, reduced calorie density, and improved metabolic processes, there’s often an overlooked issue of bloating, which can mimic belly fat. It’s also important to clarify that spot reduction of fat cannot be selectively achieved.”
Fibre’s Fulfilling Role:
- Plant-based diets are typically rich in dietary fibre, which plays a multifaceted role in weight management.
- Fibre enhances satiety, promoting a feeling of fullness that can curb overeating. This, in turn, contributes to a reduction in overall calorie intake, supporting weight loss.
Calorie Density Consciousness:
- Plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are often lower in calorie density compared to their animal-based counterparts.
- Consuming foods with lower calorie density allows individuals to eat larger portions while still managing their caloric intake. This aspect can contribute to a sustainable and satisfying weight loss journey.
- A plant-based diet has been linked to improved metabolic processes. Certain plant compounds, like phytochemicals and antioxidants, may positively influence metabolism and fat-burning mechanisms.
- While the impact may vary among individuals, incorporating a variety of plant-based foods can contribute to an overall improvement in metabolic health.
The Bloat Battle:
- One often overlooked factor contributing to the perception of belly fat is bloating. Bloating occurs when the digestive system struggles to break down certain foods, leading to temporary swelling and discomfort.
- A plant-based diet, particularly if high in fibre, can initially cause bloating as the digestive system adjusts. It’s crucial to distinguish between bloating and actual body fat to avoid unnecessary concern.
Spot Reduction Myth:
- Addressing a common misconception, it’s essential to emphasise that spot reduction of body fat is not feasible. Targeted exercises or specific dietary changes cannot selectively reduce fat in one area.
- Instead, weight loss, including the reduction of belly fat, is a holistic process that involves overall fat loss through a combination of a balanced diet, regular physical activity, and healthy lifestyle choices.
Mindful Eating Practices:
- Mindful eating is a cornerstone of successful weight management. This involves paying attention to hunger and fullness cues, savouring each bite, and eating with awareness.
- Adopting mindful eating practices, especially on a plant-based diet, can foster a healthier relationship with food and contribute to sustainable weight loss goals.
Balanced Plant-Based Diet:
- Maintaining a balanced plant-based diet involves incorporating a variety of nutrient-dense foods from different plant sources.
- By including a diverse array of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, individuals can ensure they receive essential nutrients while supporting their weight management journey.
“Understanding the intricate interplay of factors contributing to belly fat, including the role of bloating and the myth of spot reduction, empowers women to approach weight management with a holistic mindset,” adds Lauren. “As they embrace the benefits of a plant-based diet, it’s important to navigate these nuances, fostering not only physical well-being but also a positive and informed approach to achieving their health and fitness goals.”
How does a plant-based diet affect hormones?
“Gut microbiota and hormones are directly affected by diet,” says Lauren. “A plant-based diet has a unique effect on insulin production and satiety because the compounds in it influence metabolic hormone signalling in the gut and bloodstream.
“It is also important to remember that plant foods promote hormone balance which leads to a balanced weight. Insulin, thyroid hormone, cortisol, and estrogen, are all important to maintain a healthy weight. Whole plant foods support insulin, balanced blood sugar, and an appropriate thyroid hormone response.”
Plant-Based Diets and Menopause
Here are three key reasons why embracing plant-based nutrition can aid menopause:
Phytoestrogens Support Hormonal Balance:
- Plant-based foods contain phytoestrogens, naturally occurring compounds that mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. During menopause, when estrogen levels decline, incorporating phytoestrogen-rich foods like soy, flaxseeds, and legumes might help alleviate symptoms and support hormonal equilibrium for some people.
Anti-inflammatory Properties for Menopausal Comfort:
- Plant-based diets are inherently rich in anti-inflammatory components, which can be particularly beneficial during menopause. Reduced inflammation may contribute to managing symptoms such as hot flashes and joint pain, promoting overall comfort during this transformative phase. That said, we each react differently to food groups, how they are prepared and how and when we eat them!
Nutrient Density for Bone Health:
- Menopause often comes with concerns about bone health due to hormonal changes. Plant-based nutrition, when well-balanced, can provide essential nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and vitamin K, promoting bone strength and minimising the risk of osteoporosis associated with hormonal shifts.
“In embracing plant-based nutrition, women navigating menopause can find a natural and holistic approach to support hormonal harmony that sits well alongside medical options to manage menopause,” says Lauren. “The incorporation of phytoestrogens, anti-inflammatory properties, and nutrient-dense foods forms a powerful trifecta, offering women practical tools to enhance their well-being during this significant life transition.”
She adds: “Embracing a plant-based lifestyle during this transformative period offers a wealth of benefits, and strategic food choices become instrumental in navigating this journey with vitality and resilience.”
Foods to Include:
- Phytoestrogen-Rich Foods: Incorporate foods rich in phytoestrogens, such as soy products (tofu, tempeh, edamame), flaxseeds, and legumes. These plant compounds mimic estrogen’s effects in the body, potentially easing menopausal symptoms.
- Calcium-Rich Plant Foods: Prioritise calcium-rich plant sources like leafy greens (kale, collard greens), fortified plant milks, tofu, and almonds. Maintaining strong bones becomes paramount during menopause, and these foods contribute to overall bone health.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Include omega-3 fatty acids found in walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. These healthy fats support cardiovascular health and may help alleviate mood swings, a common concern during menopause.
- Whole Grains: Opt for whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and oats. These provide a sustained energy release, supporting mood stability and helping manage fluctuations in energy levels often experienced during menopause.
- Colourful Fruits and Vegetables: Embrace a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables for their antioxidant content. Berries, citrus fruits, and cruciferous vegetables not only support overall health but also contribute to skin elasticity and heart health.
Foods to Avoid or Limit:
- Processed and Sugary Foods: Minimise the intake of processed and sugary foods. These can contribute to weight gain and exacerbate hormonal imbalances, potentially intensifying menopausal symptoms.
- Caffeine and Alcohol: Consider reducing caffeine and alcohol intake, as these substances may disrupt sleep patterns and exacerbate hot flashes. Opt for herbal teas and limit alcoholic beverages for better sleep quality and overall well-being.
- High-Sodium Foods: Be mindful of high-sodium foods, as they can contribute to bloating and water retention. Opt for whole, unprocessed foods and use herbs and spices for flavouring instead of excessive salt.
- Fried and Processed Fats: Limit fried and processed fats that can contribute to inflammation. Instead, focus on plant-based sources of healthy fats, such as avocados, nuts, and olive oil.
- Dairy and Excessive Animal Products: Consider reducing or eliminating dairy and excessive animal products. Some women find that minimising these items can alleviate symptoms such as bloating and joint pain associated with hormonal changes.
“Navigating menopause with nutritional wisdom involves a balanced and varied plant-based diet,” says Lauren. “By incorporating these nutrient-dense foods and being mindful of potential pitfalls, women can optimise their health during this transformative stage, embracing menopause with resilience and vitality.”
A plant-based diet offers health benefits for women, ranging from improved weight management and heart health to hormonal balance. Why not try a plant-based diet today? And let us know how you get on.