What is a Plant-Based Diet?
A plant based diet refers to a diet that is focused mostly on plants. There are different types of plant-based diets depending on what foods are excluded. A vegan diet is the most restrictive plant-based diet that avoids all animal products. Vegetarians (or lacto-ovo vegetarian) include dairy and eggs, pescatarians include eggs, dairy, fish and seafood, and semi-vegetarian or flexitarian will occasionally include eggs, dairy and occasionally meat, fish, seafood and poultry (1).
There are many reasons why individuals choose to eat plant-based diets. Some eat plants to protest animal cruelty, others do it for health reasons, and some people may not like the taste of certain animal products. Whatever the reason, a plant-based diet can provide a number of health benefits, and switching to eating more plants is considered a more sustainable way of eating (2).
What are the Health Benefits from Eating Plants?
The benefits from eating plants has been studied extensively over the last several decades. Vegetarian and vegan diets have been linked to better cardiovascular health, lower cancer risk, weight loss, better blood glucose control, lower inflammation and a more diverse gut microbiome (3). What is it about plants that provide all of these benefits? Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are rich in fiber. Fiber helps slow down the digestion of carbohydrates to prevent blood sugar spikes. Fiber also keeps you full for longer and can help curb overeating. Fiber also helps with digestive help in keeping your bowels moving along. Certain types of fiber called insoluble fiber are food for your gut microbiome. These bacteria feed on insoluble fibers and produce a short chain fatty acid called butyrate. Butyrate is a key factor in reducing gut inflammation and may also play a role in cancer prevention (4).
Plants also contain a number of phytochemicals that play a protective role against cell damage. These substances are able to neutralize free radicals that are produced from both environmental factors (pollution, smoke inhalation, pesticides) and within the body (inflammation, processed foods, exercise). When free radicals become abundant in the body, they can cause chain reactions that damage tissues and cells. Antioxidants from fruits and vegetables can help stop these reactions from happening, and have also been shown to protect against the development of chronic diseases (5).
I Want to Eat More Plants….but How Do I Start?
Following a plant-based diet is not as overwhelming as it may seem. Remember, plant-based does not mean you have to cut out all animal products. Here are some tips and tricks to shifting your diet to include more plants:
- Choose 1 night a week as a “meatless” meal. An easy swap is using refried beans instead of ground beef for taco night.
- Aim to make half of your plate vegetables. Choose 2 vegetables to make for dinner as the main dish. You can roast a sheet pan of carrots, broccoli and/or cauliflower. Toss lightly in olive or avocado oil and season with fresh herbs, salt and pepper. Roast at 350F until tender.
- Start experimenting with plant based proteins like beans, tofu and tempeh. There are many online sources for recipes and ideas. Some of my favorites are here and here.
- If you choose to eat meat, make it a smaller part of your plate. Choose grass-fed meat and avoid processed meats. Click here to see my discussion on the benefits of meat and how to include them in your diet.
Choosing to be vegan does come with more careful diet planning to avoid micronutrient deficiencies. If you would like to learn more about veganism and make a healthy switch to avoid all animal products, please contact me for a free call. I work with plant-based and vegan clients to make sure they optimize their nutrition with this type of lifestyle.