Plant based food and nutrition

Article based on the special “Vegan Day” online conversation between nutritionist and dietitian Ms Lasika Jayamaha and Ms Suramya Hettiarachchi of the Meatless Monday team.

“Meatless Monday” is a worldwide project aimed at reducing meat consumption. One of the objectives of this project is to raise awareness about the benefits to the environment, health and the world at large through a plant-based diet. When it comes to the concept of veganism, it can be described as a lifestyle that is not limited to a diet. People who follow a vegan lifestyle avoid the consumption of meat, eggs, milk, honey and any other animal related foods and products. This is a wonderful lifestyle that is more sustainable, humane and free from cruelty, but it is not always an easy task. It is a process that requires physical and mental training.

The “Meatless Monday” project aims to provide maximum support for the transition from a meat – based diet to a plant – based diet. In that journey, “World Vegan Day 2020” was a special day for the “Meatless Monday” team, and the main reason for this was to provide an opportunity to discuss and resolve health issues or nutritional issues associated with a vegan or vegetarian diet. Lasika Jayamaha was invited by the Meatless Monday Sri Lanka team to a very important discussion on how to follow a vegan diet. She is a registered nutritionist and dietitian by profession and is registered with the Medical Council of Sri Lanka and the US Association of Nutrition-UK and is currently employed at Durdans Private Hospital, Colombo. She is involved in nutrition and related research, as well as conducting clinics on body weight control and raising awareness about body health. She is also an active member of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts and has been instrumental in guiding its health and nutrition.

“Plant-based foods” is not an easy topic to talk about. This is because, as we have heard since childhood, meat-based foods should be included in the daily diet. Therefore, we were able to discuss with Lasika Jayamaha, who has expert knowledge and experience in this regard, and resolve the following issues.

What are the daily nutrients required for a normal person?

A person’s daily activities mainly require energy, which we call calories. Also, meeting the nutritional needs of protein, vitamins, minerals and water is significant. The amount of nutrients that an individual needs to achieve varies according to the life stage of the person. For example, there are different types of nutrition that should be taken at different stages of life such as infants, children, early childhood, adolescents, adults, pregnant women and the elderly. Also, the nutritional requirement is unique to each individual and the nutritional requirement is determined by their daily activities. Although there are opinions on common nutritional needs in various sources, there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation. The nutritional needs of one person may not be the same as those of another. It determines the nutritional requirement of a person based on various factors such as life expectancy, body mass, body composition, socioeconomic status and beliefs.

  • What is meant by a vegan diet?

Primarily a vegan diet means adding only plant-based foods to the diet. The diet includes whole grains, vegetables, fruits, seeds and pasta.

  • The key problem that many people have with a vegetarian or vegan diet is meeting their nutritional needs. Is it possible to meet the nutritional requirements of a meat-based diet by following a vegan diet?

In fact, a person who follows a vegan or vegetarian diet has the potential to meet their nutritional needs. But it depends on how you do it. If you follow the right diet, you will definitely get the nutrition you need and you will be able to claim other additional benefits of a plant based diet. It is also important to keep in mind that if you do not follow the right diet, there is a risk that it will adversely affect your health.

  • What are the risks or challenges they face if they do not follow a proper diet or are not aware of it?

Primarily, the person may be at risk of missing essential nutrients. It is especially important to include protein in your diet. It is also important to be aware of the sources of vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, omega 3, zinc, calcium, iodine, and selenium that are included in the diet.

  • How do we know if we are getting all the nutrients we need properly?

The practical way is to make sure you include all of these nutrients in your diet regularly. Or, you can gain some understanding of how your nutritional needs are met through the signs and messages your body gives you. For example, symptoms such as fatigue and tiredness may indicate a lack of your nutritional needs. In such cases it can be tested. A blood test can be done for that. But you do not need to have regular blood tests without any symptoms or weakness. Also, iron, vitamin D12, and vitamin D tests are all measurable indicators of whether you are getting the nutrients you need.

  • What are the plant foods that provide these essential nutrients to the body?

Add nutritious milk and yeast extract with vitamin B12 to your diet once or twice a day, and take a diet supplement containing B12. By taking a multivitamin that contains vitamin B12, vitamin D, selenium and iodine, you will be able to follow a plant-based diet, supplementing your daily nutritional requirements.

  • If a person who eats meat wants to convert to a vegetarian diet, is it appropriate to convert immediately? Or what is the best way?

Gradual conversion is preferable to impulsive conversion. If you are a former meat eater, your vegetarian diet may be poor. Then gradually adding more plant foods to the diet will gradually reduce the meat diet and give the body time to adapt to that change so that it will be easier to follow that diet in a sustainable or long term and it will become your normal lifestyle. Otherwise, when switching from one diet to another quickly, it can become difficult for a while and have to be stopped halfway.

  • The purpose of the “Meatless Monday” project is to support that sustainable transformation. The current outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic threatens food security and limits the availability of food that is normally available. How does this condition affect the vegan or vegetarian diet?

People who follow a vegetarian/vegan diet may be capable of overcoming these limitations more easily than those who follow other diets. They can conveniently find foods as the plant-based solid foods such as whole grains and pasta can be kept for a longer period of time. They can also grow other vegetables, fruits and herbs in their backyard and add them to their diet to enable them to enjoy a nutritious whole meal. Growing food crops in the garden for one’s own consumption is a very valuable activity. If you go to the garden in the morning sun, you will be able to get the vitamin D you need as an added benefit.

  • There is a growing tendency for these vegetarian/vegan diets among young children. Parents in particular may have some problematic nature about meeting their children’s nutritional needs and their suitability. Would it be appropriate for school-age children to adopt a vegetarian diet?

If children have the desire and motivation to follow a vegetarian diet, there is no problem in adopting such a diet. It is more important as a parent to educate and support the nutritional needs and balanced nutrition of children than to influence and oppose them. This is because growing children have a high nutritional requirement. Awareness of the foods that should be included in the diet will enable them to get a nutritious vegetarian diet. 

The Vegan Society and the British Dietitians’ Association have a very close relationship and believe that a vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients a person needs at any stage of life. It is therefore advisable to allow children to experiment with it and as parents make sure they meet the nutritional requirements they need. It is important to be aware of the child’s nutritional needs and to focus on the foods that should be given to the child by identifying alternatives. At this point it is best to seek dietary and nutritional guidance.

  • Looking at Sri Lanka, how easy is it to get used to a plant-based diet? What is your idea as a dietitian and a nutritionist?

It is very easy to adopt a plant based diet in Sri Lanka. Compared to other countries, we have a large selection of food in our country. The nutritional value of the local food is incalculable. There are a large number of classifications of some food crops. Although not vegan or vegetarian in the Sri Lankan diet, there are many instances of unintentionally resorting to vegetarian diets due to the abundance of food crops and its convenience. For example, most of Sri Lanka’s traditional confectionery is vegan and it is a privilege to live in such a country.

  • Do you think it is a reality to follow a vegetarian diet sustainably or in the long run?

If you have an understanding of the foods to add to your diet and you make sure to add different types of foods to your diet, it can definitely be followed in the long run. In our country you can see a large number of species of one food and there are a large number of recipes that can be prepared. For example, one vegetable can be prepared in several flavors, such as curry, frying, baking, steaming and deep frying. Then even ordinary rice and curries can be eaten without any hassle and effort. Adopting a proper vegetarian diet enables required essential nutrients and other health benefits to the person. 

People who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet are often tempted to add more soy-based foods to their diet because of the lack of protein and meat alternatives. For example, soy meat, tofu, and soy milk are more common. Is it advisable to eat more soy?

There are different opinions about the good and bad of eating soy, but soy is a very nutritious food. Soy is a nutritious food that should be added to your diet whether you are vegan or vegetarian. In my opinion there is no general problem with adding soy to the diet unless you have a specific health condition or problem. If you like soy foods, you can add any type of soy food to your diet. But if you are not so fond of soy foods then you have no problem switching to other alternative foods.

What is the concept of “intuitive eating”? How is its suitability?

Intuitive eating is the process of understanding the needs of one’s body and consuming food. It is better to practice it consciously and in a balanced way. Otherwise you may be getting more or less nutrition than you need. Maintaining balance is very important.

  • We see different dietary recommendations daily from different sources. Are those recommendations appropriate for everyone? Is it appropriate to determine one’s diet based solely on such information?

Sources of information related to this are abundant. Many people understand nutrition as a normal and common thing. But it is not so. If you receive information from any source, you should be concerned about its accuracy and reliability. For example, it is advisable to use only information published by qualified and experienced nutritionists, dietitians and reputable organizations. Foods and quantities that are suitable for one person may not be the same for another and vary according to the physical characteristics and behaviors of each person.

Many of the most important issues for a Vegan or any vegetarian diet was discussed in this discussion and it was possible to solve some of the common problems of many people. The “Meatless Monday” team would like to thank nutritionist and dietitian Ms Lasika Jayamaha for providing such valuable advice. Finally, the discussion of plant-based foods and nutrition can be summarized in a sentence that emerges from this conversation. “One size does not fit for all” which means the foods we eat and the amounts we eat are not the same and vary from person to person. Understanding this and following any diet will give you the opportunity to live a healthier life while being kind to the environment and animals.

Please find the online conversation here:


Author: Chalani Marasinghe