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Optimising plant-based diets and ensuring nutritional adequacy with your menus

Following the rising trend of plant-based diets and the added weight of the recently published report on climate change, there will be yet more demand for sustainable diets in the future. In this article, Anna-Maria Holt RD tells us what sustainable diets are and how caterers can ensure nutritional quality in the context of plant-based meals

The climate crisis

Earlier this year, a monumental international scientific report on climate change found that the Earth’s climate is changing quickly and beyond repair.  The report calls for immediate and sustained reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to limit climate change in the future1.  

It is reported that agriculture and food production produce up to 30% of GHG emissions worldwide.  According to the British Dietetic Association’s (BDA) One Blue Dot project, addressing the environmental impact of the food we eat is one of the key changes we can make to tackle climate change2.  

National Food Strategy

Climate change is also one of the focus areas of the independent review National Food Strategy by Henry Dimbleby, which will shape government policy around food culture in the U.K in the coming years.  This report tells us that food is the second biggest contributor to climate change after energy3.

The report highlights the key changes needed to the national diet by 2023 to meet health, climate, and other environmental commitments.

These are:

  • 30% increase fruit and vegetable consumption 
  • 50% increase in fibre
  • 25% decrease in high fat, sugar and salt foods
  • 30% decrease in meat consumption

A shift to more plant-based eating among populations around the world would help reduce GHG emissions and therefore reduce our impact on climate change. 

To achieve this, the BDA’s One Blue Dot project recommends plant-based and sustainable diets where animal products are not eliminated but reduced, whilst more vegetables, legumes, and other plant derived foods are consumed.

Popularity of plant-based diets

Plant-based eating is growing in popularity with over 600,000 of the UK population now following a vegan diet; a dietary pattern that eliminates all animal products and substitutes these with plant-based alternatives4.  A traditional vegan diet is typically based on whole foods which includes fruit and vegetables, nuts, pulses and wholegrains5.

Benefits of plant-based diets

Vegan diets are said to produce the lowest emissions of carbon dioxide. In addition to being better for the planet, plant-based diets can be beneficial to health and support healthy living for people of all ages if planned well to include a variety of suitable foods6.

The Vegan Eatwell Guide

Plant-based eating patterns are not necessarily always healthy and those following a vegan diet can, like other diets, develop nutritional deficiencies in some key micronutrients such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, calcium iodine, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and zinc.  Good nutritional planning is essential to ensure people following a vegan diet, or other plant-based diets, get all the nutrients they need to avoid deficiencies7.

N.B.  The Vegan Eatwell Guide provides general nutrition guidance and is not suitable for everyone.

To help people following a vegan diet plan healthy and nutritious meals, The Vegan Society has published The Vegan Eatwell Guide, which based on the Government’s Eatwell Guide8.  This is a useful reference tool for caterers in all settings when planning meals and menus across the week.

Healthy eating guidelines for vegans

  • Aim for at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables daily
  • Include starchy carbohydrates, preferably wholegrain, at each meal
  • Ensure a variety of protein-rich plant foods with meals and throughout the day
  • Eat at least two portions of suitable calcium-rich foods daily
  • Include plant-based foods rich in omega-3 fat daily
  • Drink 6-8 glasses of fluid each day to stay hydrated
  • Limit foods with added fat, sugar and salt

(Source: The Vegan Eatwell Guide8

Examples of calcium-rich foodsExamples of omega-3 rich foods
One portion equals: A small handful of walnuts
200ml of fortified milk alternative e.g., oat or soya milkA tablespoon of linseeds
200g of fortified soy yoghurt alternativeRapeseed oil
70g calcium-set tofu (uncooked weight)Olive oil
X2 slices of soya and linseed bread fortified with calciumHighly unsaturated dairy-free spread
Sources of protein suitable for vegan diets
LentilsPeanut butter
Baked beans (low sugar and low salt options)Mixed plain nuts
Cashew nutsPumpkin seeds
Soya mince

Vegan products

The rise in popularity of plant-based diets has led to a growing market for meat-free and vegan-friendly manufactured products. A recent study found that ultra-processed (food that contains little or no whole foods) vegan food items such as vegan ready-made meals, snacks, sweets, desserts, sauces, condiments, and fats are more frequently chosen by consumers for convenience reasons9.  These products are usually high in saturated fat, salt, and sugars, and low in fibre and often offer limited protein and micronutrients.  The concern is that as consumers move to more plant-based foods the demand and consumption of these ultra-processed products will grow, which overall may not be beneficial to health or the planet.

A guide to choosing vegan products

Opting for a traditional vegan diet which consists of whole foods that have been sourced locally and in season, where possible, is ideal, however, convenience products remain popular and can help caterers meet a need7.

Here are 5 tips when selecting vegan products:

  1. Avoid or limit ultraprocessed foods
  2. Use labels to choose foods lower in fat, salt and sugars
  3. Choose foods higher in fibre
  4. Check that dairy alternatives have been fortified with calcium
  5. Ensure the product contains a source of protein e.g. beans, pulses, soya

We are here to help

If you are looking for suitable products, suppliers or need support with your menu planning – please contact our team at


  1. IPCC | Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis
  2. BDA’s Environmentally Sustainable Diet Project: One Blue Dot 
  3. National Food Strategy: An independent review for Government 
  4. The Grocer: Almost 600,000 sign up for Veganuary 2021 (01/02/21)
  5. BDA Fact Sheet: Vegetarian, vegan and plant-based diets
  6. Vegan and Thriving
  7. The Vegan Society: Nutrition & Health
  8. The Vegan Eatwell Guide
  9. Pattern analysis of vegan eating reveals healthy and unhealthy patterns within the vegan diet

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