What nutrients do we get from plants?

By Froots

Do you eat salads regularly? Do you include fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet? These are the usual questions people ask. But, have you ever wondered what nutrients do you actually get from plants? Before knowing that, let’s understand the significance of plant nutrition.

Why nutrition in plants play a vital role?

There is a myth that plants lack many nutrients compared to animal-based foods. That’s absolutely wrong! In fact, there are few nutrients available ONLY in plants.

Let’s present few statistics to understand the significance of plant-based nutrients.

Studies show that nearly 70 percent of the undernourished people are mostly from India and China. Around 50 percent of the global population experiences micronutrient deficiency. Micronutrients include iron, zinc, selenium, iodine, vitamins, etc. Deficiency of any of these in your body can cause major complications like:

  • Weak immune system
  • Anemia
  • Improper growth and cognitive development
  • Increase in maternal mortality.

More than 3 billion people experience zinc and iron deficiencies globally.

Isn’t it high time to combat this global issue of nutritional deficiency? This is where plant-based nutritional foods gain huge significance. If you don’t adequately eat them, you may likely lack those nutrients. 

What are the benefits of plant-based nutritional diet?

Plants exclusively have two major nutrients: phytonutrients and fibers.

  • Phytonutrients include flavonoids, carotenoids, curcuminoids, and glucosinolates. They help in reducing oxidation and inflammation. These phytonutrients also provide protection from the initiation and transmission of infection. They have a positive impact on cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegeneration. They also reduce the risk of chronic diseases.
  • Fibers are available in all plants with multiple varieties. They significantly protect our immune, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal systems.

A plant-based nutritional diet has got many benefits listed below:

  • Cost-effective
  • Lower the consumption of medications that are used to treat chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, etc.
  • Reduce ischemic heart disease mortality rate
  • Supports proper weight management
  • Reduce the incidence and severity of hypertension, body mass index, obesity, hyperglycemia, and hyperlipidemia.
  • Reverse the advanced type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases

Moreover, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends a plant-based diet as they are nutritionally adequate. This diet also provides health benefits to prevent and treat certain diseases. Furthermore, it is appropriate for all stages of our life including infancy, childhood, adolescence, pregnancy, lactation, older adulthood.

Hence, physicians also recommend a plant-based nutritional diet to everyone, especially those with diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, or high blood pressure.

What nutrients do plants give us?

Let us go through the list of notable plant nutrients:

Plant Nutrients Sources and Functions
PROTEIN
    • Food sources such as legumes (beans, lentils, peas, peanuts), nuts, seeds, soy foods (tempeh, tofu), whole grains, and vegetables like spinach and peas are rich in protein.
    • Protein helps in bone development and body growth.
    • It effectively reduces the risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer.
CARBOHYDRATES  
  • Food sources such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes are rich in carbohydrates.
  • Carbohydrates help in increasing the energy level of our body.
IRON
  • Food sources such as spinach, raisins, cashews, oatmeal, cabbage, tomato juice, legumes (beans, lentils, peas, peanuts), leafy greens, soybeans and soy foods, quinoa, potatoes, dried fruit, dark chocolate, tahini, seeds (pumpkin, sesame, sunflower), sea vegetables (dulse, nori) are rich in iron.
  • Iron helps in reducing the risk of iron-deficiency anemia.
CALCIUM & VITAMIN D
  • Food sources such as mustard, turnip greens,
    low-oxalate leafy greens (bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, collard, dandelion, kale, watercress), calcium-set tofu, black beans, almonds, almond butter, fortified plant milk, sesame seeds, tahini, figs, blackstrap molasses are rich in calcium and vitamin-D.
  • Calcium and Vitamin D can reduce the risk of fracture and impaired bone mineralization
ZINC
  • Food sources such as soaked legumes, sprouting grains, soy foods, nuts, seeds, and oats are rich in zinc.
  • Zinc helps in immune function, wound healing, and growth in children
OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS
  • An omega-3 fatty acid is present in chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, leafy green vegetables, microalgae, soybeans and soy foods, and wheat germ.
  • It can reduce the risk of skin, hair, and nail abnormalities.
  • Furthermore, it increases the intake of good cholesterol.
VITAMIN B12
  • Vitamin B12 is present in plant milk, cereals, and nutritional yeast.
  • It can reduce the risk of neurological disorders, gastrointestinal problems, and megaloblastic anemia.
VITAMIN K
  • Vitamin K is present in leafy green vegetables, sea vegetables, asparagus, avocado, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and lentils
  • It helps in blood coagulation, cardiovascular health, and bone strength
IODINE
  • Food sources including sea vegetables (e.g., arame, dulse, nori) are rich in iodine.
  • It can reduce the risk of thyroid problems
CHOLINE
  • Choline is present in legumes (beans, lentils, peas, peanuts), bananas, broccoli, oats, oranges, quinoa, and soy foods.
  • It helps in various brain and nervous system functions including memory, muscle control, mood control, etc.
FOLIC ACID (VITAMIN B9)
  • Food sources including leafy green vegetables, almonds, asparagus, avocado, beets, oranges, quinoa, and nutritional yeast are rich in folic acid.
  • It helps in forming healthy RBC to carry oxygen throughout the body
SELENIUM
  • Selenium is rich in brazil nuts, whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and seeds.
  • Selenium has powerful antioxidant, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Hence, it helps in thyroid hormone regulation, reproduction, and DNA synthesis.

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Are there any nutrients you get ONLY from plants?

Yes. Here are the 7 vital nutrients you can get ONLY from plants:

Plant Nutrients Sources and Functions
VITAMIN C
  • Vitamin C is rich in citrus fruits, bell peppers, kiwifruit, kale, and various berries, Red peppers, spinach, papaya, and oranges.
  • It is a powerful antioxidant. Hence, Vitamin C helps in the growth, development, and repair of body tissues.
  • It can form collagen, absorb iron, heal wounds and improve our immune system.
QUERCETIN
LIGNAN
  • Lignan is present in seeds (flax, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower), cruciferous vegetables, fruit, bran, and whole grains.
  • It lowers the risk of severe illnesses like breast cancer, and heart disease.
BETA-GLUCAN
INULIN
  • Inulin is rich in asparagus, garlic, onions, leeks, and bananas
  • It can boost colon health by supporting good bacteria growth.
  • Inulin may also help in relieving constipation
PECTIN
RESISTANT STARCH

Is there any specific recommendation in terms of plant-based diet intake for optimal nutrition?

Recommended plant-based diet for patients with overweight/underweight

Patients Plant-based diet
Overweight Increase higher fiber leafy greens, starchy vegetables, and legumes. Limit nuts, seeds, and avocado intake
Underweight Increase seeds, nuts, avocados and eat together with lower fiber starchy vegetables and fruits

Recommend servings per day

An ideal plant-based food adds adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. However, it will have low calories and fat. One should consume the following each day for optimal nutrition.

Food groups Recommend servings per day
Vegetables As much as required (preferably 2-3 cups)
Fruits 2-4 servings
Whole grains 6-11 servings
Legumes (beans, peas, lentils, etc.) 2-3 servings
Leafy green vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, etc.) 2-3 servings
Nuts (almonds, walnuts, etc.) 1-2 ounces
Seeds (chia, flax, hemp) 1-3 tablespoons
Fortified plant milk (almond, soy) 2-3 cups (optional)
Fresh herbs and spices Optional

Is there any evidence to prove that plants have enough nutrition to improve your quality of life?

Here’s the case study of a 63-year-old patient with hypertension. This patient was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes as well. His physician prescribed him several medications. Additionally, the physician prescribed a low-sodium, plant-based diet. His physician recommended unlimited non-starchy vegetables, beans, legumes, and 2 ounces of nuts and seeds every day. His intake of bread, potato, rice, and tortillas became limited to a single daily serving. This patient showed significant improvement in his tests over a 16-week period. Most of his medications were stopped. The intake of the remaining medications was reduced gradually.

What’s the upshot?

Wilbur O. Atwater, a leading 19th-century nutritionist, wrote: “We need to observe our diet and regulate appetite by reason. In doing this we may be greatly aided by the knowledge of what our food contains and how it serves it’s purpose in nutrition.” This is still true today, in spite of knowing more about all foods.

Ultimately, it’s the whole plant-based food that provides a vital solution to the growing undernourishment and chronic diseases, especially in India. However, it requires the support of everyone to implement this dietary change in our society.

So, let’s not forget the famous saying by Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine.

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

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