When reading or hearing about what’s trending in health and nutrition news, it can sometimes be overwhelming to sift through all the facts and understand the basics—the plant-based diet is no exception. With the increasing popularity of the plant-based diet, there are many questions that need to be answered. What is a plant-based diet? Can you eat animal products, such as meat or dairy? What are the health benefits of a plant-based diet? Does it actually help in the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases? Let's find out.

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet generally focuses on eating mainly plants or all-plant foods—fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), whole grains and healthy oils, such as olive oil (in moderation, of course). Because this diet varies by person and can be as simple or as complex as someone wants, one may also choose to consume some meat proteins—there really isn’t any secret to the “best” plant-based diet.  

You may hear that a plant-based diet is referred to as, 'whole food' plant-based eating. The ‘whole food’ part refers to eating foods that come from nature and are not overly processed. For instance, an apple is plant based and not a processed or refined food, but when made into apple juice cocktail, it contains added sugars.

Better illustrated, think of your grandparents’ gardens. You know, the original ‘organic’ foods that you ate as a kid. Their produce was robust and full of flavor, nutrients, and fiber; the vegetables and fruits were unaltered, aka, ‘whole.’

What is the difference between a plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan diet?

A plant-based diet, which is focused on mainly eating plants or plant products, may contain small amounts of meat if people choose to do that. Someone who follows a vegetarian diet doesn’t eat any meat products including beef, pork, poultry, and often, seafood. And a vegan is someone who avoids eating any animal products, including meat, eggs, dairy, and even honey; in addition, they typically won’t wear or use products that come from animals as well.

What are the nutritional benefits of a plant-based diet?

Plant-based diets are usually low in total fat and saturated fats, and some foods aid in the reduction of inflammation in the body. A plant-based diet is rich in many nutrients, such as phytonutrients, vitamins, some minerals, and dietary fiber. In fact, fiber plays a great role in the management of cholesterol and reducing blood glucose levels. It also lends to providing a sense of fulness, thereby satisfying hunger and decreasing the chances of overeating. Phytonutrients, which are naturally occurring in our fruits and veggies, do a great job in protecting the DNA of our cells, as well as playing an important role in other health-supporting functions.

People who eat less refined carbohydrates and sugary foods and increase their veggie and whole grain intake, have a healthier overall blood sugar profile. Plant-based eating is also a contributor to better cardiovascular health, as well as improving blood sugar levels in Type 2 Diabetes (T2DM).

In addition, while dairy-rich foods are great for your bone health, so are many plant-based foods, such as almonds, kale, broccoli, calcium fortified soy yogurt and tofu, as well as calcium-fortified soy, oat and almond milks.

5 tips for starting a plant-based diet

If you want to embrace the plant-based diet lifestyle, start by making the plant-based foods the core of what you consume and how you fill your plate at mealtime.

1. Make the transition gradually
Because everyone has a unique way of eating and has different nutritional needs, it is important to slowly move over to an all plant-based diet.

2. Start by opting for healthier snack options
Include healthier whole food options, such as kale chips, fresh fruits, or a quinoa salad, and whole grains, rather than eating snack foods like cookies, candy, chips, and sweetened beverages. Dairy and eggs can be included but should usually be eaten in smaller portions.

3. Add color to your plate with produce
If you are considering adopting an all plant-based diet or just want to add more color to reap the health benefits of consuming whole fruits, veggies, and whole grains, you are still making an excellent choice.

4. Keep an eye on nutrient intake
When excluding certain food group from your daily diet intake, you may run the risk of not getting enough nutrients, therefore, remember that balance is also important.

5. Ask your doctor about any specific dietary needs
If you are a senior and have been contemplating a switch to a plant-based diet, it is best to check with your doctor before making any type of dietary changes. It may sometimes be difficult to tolerate a predominantly plant-based diet if you have chewing issues or any gastro-intestinal concerns. A Registered Dietitian can also help to assess and devise a personalized nutrition plan just for you.

About the Author

Maria Murphy is a registered dietician who has worked for BAYADA since 2007 in Pennsylvania.

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