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The rise of Veganuary and benefits of plant-based eating according to a dietitian

If you're eating meat free a few nights a week, adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet full time, or opting for a plant-based milk in your morning coffee or smoothie, plant-based eating has widely increased in popularity through recent years. So much so that the month of January has been dubbed ‘Veganuary’ to encourage eating a diet free from meat, eggs, dairy and other animal by-products from 1 January through to the end of the month. 

Whether eating vegan is something you’re looking to try or you’re wanting to overhaul your diet entirely, you’ll be glad to know that plant-based eating is more commonly accepted across the food industry. Many restaurants and food manufacturers are making vegan and meat-free alternatives more readily available, with supermarkets often dedicating a section to these. If you’re unsure what the benefits are of plant-based eating or looking to learn more about making the switch we spoke with Accredited Dietitian, Nutrition Consultant and Recipe Developer Skye Swaney from Shift Nutrition to uncover just that. 

What was your journey to becoming a practicing dietitian?

As a kid I never really knew what I wanted to do for a career but always loved science at school. I did a Bachelor of Science initially and then decided I wanted to be a dietitian, so went on to do degrees in nutrition and dietetics. This was six years of study all up, then a year of being a provisional APD (Accredited Practising Dietitian) and eventually I became a full APD. My first job as a dietitian was at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, I then worked at hospitals in London and in the corporate sector, for a non-profit and then in private practice before starting my own business. 

How did you first develop Shift Nutrition and where does your interest in nutrition stem from?

I’ve always been really interested in the effect that what we eat has on our bodies, and I love that we can improve our health just by changing what and how we eat. I find the science of nutrition fascinating but also love the creative side, particularly creating recipes and showing people how to put the science into practice. I started Shift Nutrition in 2015 as I really wanted to be able to combine my knowledge and skills in nutrition with my love of being creative. I hadn’t managed to find a job which allowed me to do both so I figured I would make one for myself! 

What advice would you give someone wanting to incorporate more plant-based eating into their lifestyle?

Firstly, I would say, great idea! Secondly, remember it really doesn’t have to be anything drastic or complicated. Even just starting by aiming for two servings of fruit and five servings of vegetables each day can make a big difference to your health, particularly as most of us get nowhere near this target. 

Are there any benefits to reducing meat in our diets? 

The fact that you’re likely to eat more fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes is definitely one of the main benefits of reducing meat in our diet. It’s also likely that you’ll reduce your intake of saturated fat, as certain types of meat are high in saturated fat. Reducing saturated fat intake can help to reduce your levels of low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol, the type of cholesterol which can contribute to our risk of cardiovascular disease. 

What are some benefits of increasing plant-based foods? 

An increased fibre intake is what first comes to mind. Most Australians don’t eat anywhere near enough fibre which is essential to optimal gut health and in turn affects every aspect of our health, from our physical health to our mental health. The main sources of dietary fibre are fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and legumes, all foods which we tend to eat more of on a plant-based diet. 

What advice would you give someone concerned about energy levels and protein consumption when eating a plant-based diet?

While meat and other animal products such as eggs, milk, yoghurt and cheese are excellent sources of protein, there is also plenty of protein in plant-based foods such as whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. And in fact, protein requirements aren’t actually as high as many people think, so you should be able to meet your protein requirements fairly easily on a plant-based diet as long as you include plenty of the foods mentioned above.  

The same goes for energy. You can get plenty of energy from plant-based foods so meeting your kilojoule or calorie requirements shouldn’t be an issue, as long as you’re having balanced meals that contain protein from sources such as tofu, legumes, carbohydrates from fruit, starchy vegetables like potato and sweet potato or whole grains and healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds or avocado. If you’re following a plant-based diet you do need to be careful that you include plenty of iron rich foods such as tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds and legumes. It’s best to consume these foods along with a source of vitamin C to increase the absorption of iron. B12 is another nutrient to be particularly mindful of if you're on a vegan diet. It’s difficult to get sufficient B12 on a plant-based diet so you may need a supplement. 

What are your go to plant-based essentials when creating plant-based meals?

Lots of legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and beans like kidney beans or butter beans. Legumes are a great source of protein, iron and fibre, they’re really filling, so versatile and you can add them to so many dishes. I go for tinned ones as I find they’re more convenient but dried ones are also fantastic if you have time to cook them. Then a variety of different fruits and vegetables, and some great protein and iron sources such as tofu, nuts, seeds and whole grains. 

What are your favourite summer recipes? 

The Anicent Grain, Pomegranate and Almond Salad with freekah is a favourite in my house and one I love to make for barbecues, and then have as leftovers for the next couple of days. It’s so incredibly nutritious but not at all boring, with lots of different colours, textures and flavours. I always get asked for the recipe for this one! Another quick and easy recipe I love to make for summer is good old hummus — you can just blend a tin of chickpeas, some tahini, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and salt in a food processor and you’re done. It’s so tasty, so easy and very nutritious (and most importantly you don’t need the stove or the oven). 

If Skye has you wanting to adopt more plant-based eating into your every day, make sure to view her wide range of vegan recipes that you can easily incorporate come breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack time.  

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