A plant-based diet focuses mainly on eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while limiting animal products such as meat and dairy. It is not an all-or-nothing approach. Think of it as plant-focused, which allows for flexibility. This lifestyle places importance on eating a variety of protein, fat, and carbohydrates from plant-based foods and benefiting from the many nutrients they provide.
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?
Plant-based diets are proven to be extremely helpful in weight loss and are associated with lower Body Mass Index (BMI) scores. Plant foods require more energy to break down. The increased calorie burn can make maintaining a healthy weight easier. Eating more plant foods may also reduce your risk of heart disease. Research has shown plant-based diets help improve blood pressure, weight, blood glucose, and triglyceride levels. They can also reduce inflammation in the body. These risk reductions can all be achieved through the plant-based diet due to increased fiber. Another benefit is preventing and controlling diabetes. Research has shown that a plant-based diet can decrease the risk for type 2 diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing insulin resistance.
Are there any concerns around following a plant-based diet?
Most concerns about a plant-based diet can be eased by focusing on eating certain foods. Here are a few specific nutrients to be mindful of along with where to find them:
- Protein: Many Americans rely on meats for their main source of protein, but enough protein can be found in a plant-based diet. Try to include plenty of these protein-rich meat alternatives in your daily diet: legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), soy products, nuts, and certain vegetables.
- Iron, Vitamin B12, and Vitamin D: Following a plant-based diet can lead to low levels of these important nutrients, but fortified foods can help! Fortified foods have added nutrients that would not be present naturally. Commonly fortified foods include milk, cereals, orange juice, and grains labeled "fortified" on the packaging. You can calculate the proper amount of nutrients you need by following this link (https://fnic.nal.usda.gov/fnic/dri-calculator/) or by talking with a registered dietitian.
- Calcium: If not eating dairy, it is possible to get enough calcium by drinking calcium fortified milk alternatives and eating calcium-rich plant foods, such as kale, turnip greens, Chinese cabbage, and bok choy. Talk to your doctor about whether a supplement may also be beneficial.
- Water: Having a diet rich in plant foods may increase your fiber consumption, which provides numerous health benefits. To avoid digestive discomfort, increase your fiber intake gradually over time while also drinking more water. Aim to drink at least 8 cups of water per day.
Following a plant-based diet doesn't have to mean not eating meat. Eating more plant foods is proven to have several health benefits including reduced risk for heart disease and diabetes, as well as weight loss.
Try eating a plant-based diet one day this week. Experiment with foods, use your creative side, try new things, and make the majority of your nutrients come from plant foods.
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- Levitan EB, Gutierrez OM, Shikany JM, Safford MM, Judd SE, Rosenson RS. Plant based diet associated with less heart failure risk. Welcome to the AHA/ASA Newsroom | American Heart Association. http://newsroom.heart.org/news/plant-based-diet-associated-with-less-heart-failure-risk. Published November 13, 2017.
- Meal Planning for Vegetarian Diets. American Diabetes Association. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/planning-meals/meal-planning-for-vegetarians/. Published May 14, 2014.
- Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016;116(12):1970-1980. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.09.025
- Tuso P. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal.2013;17(2):61-66. doi:10.7812/tpp/12-085