with Head of Nutrition for Huel, James Collier
So you’ve been thinking about switching to a plant based diet, but are unsure of how sufficient it is to your overall health and nutrition. I’m excited to have had a plant based diet chat with head of nutrition for Huel, James Collier. James has over 26 years of experience working in nutrition and dietetics, including seven years as a Clinical Dietitian in the National Health Service (NHS), where he worked with patients with a range of medical ailments and food intolerances. James also provides advice to top level bodybuilders and strength athletes, as well as regular gym goers on their nutritional needs for optimum performance. Continue reading to learn more about James’ work and how he thinks a plant based diet can fuel your healthy lifestyle.
Can you begin by explaining what Huel is and what its goal(s) is (are) as a company?
Huel’s mission is to make nutritionally complete, convenient, affordable food with minimum impact on animals and the environment. Huel powder is made from six main raw food ingredients: oats, brown rice, pea, flaxseed, sunflower, and coconut – blended into powdered form and usually mixed with water.
How did you get started with Huel and what is your current role?
I became one of the co-founders of Huel when Julian Hearn approached me in 2014 with an idea – to create a nutritionally complete meal in shake format that contained a balance of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and fats, as well as all essential vitamins and minerals required for a complete meal. Within two weeks, I had developed the first version of Huel powder.
My role at Huel is Head of Nutrition, and I lead the team of nutritionists. We continue to develop the formulas for the brand’s growing product range. Huel has been on an aggressive growth path since launch in 2015. We’ve introduced a variety of new products and flavors to meet customer tastes and preferences. We now sell over 1.5 million meals per month to customers from over 80 countries. It’s a really exciting time for us – we’ve recently achieved 50 million meals consumed by ‘Hueligans.’
Can you provide details about why a plant based diet is sufficient for our everyday health?
A plant based diet is a diet that consists mainly of foods from plants. Such foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. Animal products are minimal, if any.
A misconception with plant based eating is that it is not easy to consume the same quality of nutrients found in meat such as protein, iron, and vitamin B12. This is incorrect. It is possible to achieve the recommended vitamins and minerals through plant based eating. By focusing on plants as your main food source, you may actually find your plate will include a greater variety of nutrients.
There are many reasons why people eat a plant based diet, including environmental, ethical, and health concerns. I am not suggesting to eliminate meat from a person’s diet completely; however, reducing meat and animal food consumption is one of the quickest and simple ways an individual can reduce their carbon footprint. Taking the time to plan your meals is key. I recommend making small changes over time. For example, start by eating one plant based meal a day. This will be easier to stick with rather than making large, unsustainable changes overnight.
Would someone have to eat more to obtain a sufficient amount of protein and vitamins if they switched to a plant based diet?
Plant based eating provides a number of health benefits (and it’s good for the environment too). It’s important to ensure that with a plant based diet, you can get the recommended amounts of all nutrients. Taking the time to plan will also make plant based eating achievable.
Eat a variety of foods, especially different color foods, as these contain different levels of nutrients. For example, the phytonutrient lycopene, which is an antioxidant that protects against cell damage and gives tomatoes its red color. Other carotenoids also act as antioxidants and give fruit and vegetables their orange and yellow colors; for example, carrots.
Vitamin B12 plays a vital role in helping the body produce red blood cells and is perceived as tricky to get enough of with a plant based diet. The good news is it need not be. As a start, try incorporating plant based milks that are that are fortified with B12, as well as calcium and vitamin D. Cereals, meat alternatives, and some soy products are often fortified with B12 too. Taking a B12 supplement also rids any concerns.
Ensure adequate omega-3 consumption. If oily fish is not part of your eating plan, then foods such as walnuts, soy products, and flaxseed are ways to obtain a good intake of omega-3s. Flaxseed is one of Huel’s six main ingredients and is rich in the omega-3 essential fatty acid ALA. Omega-3 fats are generally low in a Western diet and adequate omega-3 consumption is crucial to support cardiovascular health.
Keep your intake of iron up. Iron is not just found in meat food sources. Dark leafy greens, nuts, and dried fruits are great sources of iron. Iron is crucial for oxygen transport, cognitive function, and the immune system. Iron from plant sources can be harder to absorb, but again, there’s no need to worry: iron absorption can also be increased by the presence of vitamin C, which is found in lots of fruits and vegetables such as oranges and peppers. It’s where the idea of having orange juice with breakfast comes from – to increase the absorption of iron that is in breakfast cereals.
There are many protein-rich foods available to a plant based diet, for example beans, lentils, soy products, hummus, nuts, and seeds. There are misconceptions about plant-based proteins in that people claim that they are inferior to meat, eggs, and dairy proteins, which isn’t the case. Although the amino acid profile of a single plant based protein source may be inferior to an animal protein, this is easy to get around simply by combining more than one source of plant protein in a meal. For example, beans and rice both contain good amounts of protein.
How does a plant based diet support an athlete or someone trying to gain muscle mass?
For athletic performance and muscle-building you need a good intake of all nutrients, especially protein and carbs. As described above, you can get a good protein intake with sufficient amounts of all the essential amino acids through combining protein-rich foods at a meal, like beans and rice, or nuts and seeds. Moreover, an adequate intake of starchy carbohydrate foods – like rice, pasta, oats, potatoes, sweet potatoes – reduces the need for such a high protein intake.
How does it support everyday health, even for those who aren’t athletes or want to gain muscle?
Diets rich in plant foods provide a number of nutrients that have health benefits. For example, fruits, oats, and pulses are rich in soluble fibers with benefits to cardiovascular health. Meals rich in fiber also typically support a steady blood glucose level, as long as they are also low in overly-processed carbs, like sugar. Plus antioxidant vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients are found in plant foods, including vitamins C and E, selenium, and carotenoids as discussed above.
Diets containing too much meat have been linked to bowel cancer, and diets rich in fiber have been shown to massively lower the risk, so there are obvious benefits here.
Is there anything else you’d like to add on about why a plant based diet is sufficient for athletes?
Athletes do require more nutrition than non-athletes. This applies to all nutrients – vitamins, minerals, fiber, fat, as well as carbs and protein. The key is to eat a wide range of different foods: tree fruits, berries, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, grains, and oils. Oils – due to their energy-density – can be the athlete’s friend as long as they are the right oils supplying healthy fats; great oils include coconut oil, canola oil, the right type of sunflower oil, and extra virgin olive oil.