Starting a Plant-Based Diet? Here's What to Know First
A plant-based diet is a common buzzword in nutrition topics these days, but actually defining it tends to cause quite a bit of confusion. Whether you’re a dedicated vegan or simply trying to eat less meat, you probably know that plant-based foods are full of health benefits. But how exactly do you categorize a plant-based diet? It’s vegan, yes. It’s also associated with the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension). However, a plant-based diet isn’t exclusive to one particular type of “diet.” Plant-based foods are part of a larger health movement that focuses on eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), nuts, and seeds, and less meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. Here’s another way to look at it: fill your plate with mostly plants and you’ll naturally edge out some of those animal products.
Why should you eat more of a plant-based diet? Packing more plant-based foods into your diet may just be the best thing you can do for your health and the environment. Here’s why:
1. Plant-based foods benefit the environment.
Adding more plant-based foods to your diet can help reduce your carbon footprint, or the amount of greenhouse gases that your diet and other lifestyle choices such as transportation methods and waste output produce. Raising animals for food takes a toll on the environment. And the meat and poultry industries negatively affect the environment in several ways—production facilities require a large amount of natural resources to operate, they increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and they can also pollute surrounding ecosystems. According to a 2016 report from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “70 percent of all water pollution in rivers and lakes in the United States is a result of pollution from animal farms.” However, simply eating more plant-based foods isn’t enough—choose local produce when possible to minimize the distance your food travels from the farm to your dinner table.
2. Plant-based foods pack fiber, an essential nutrient you can’t find in meat.
Fiber, a complex carbohydrate found in the cell walls of plant-based foods has many health benefits. Eating high fiber foods can help keep you feeling satisfied between meals and help you stay at a healthy weight, possibly even lose weight. A high fiber diet is also associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Lastly, high fiber foods promote a healthy gut by regulating digestion. Good sources of fiber include avocado, raspberries, sweet potatoes (skin included), and oatmeal.
3. Plant-based protein is just as beneficial as animal protein.
A common misconception of plant-based foods is that the protein they deliver isn’t as good for you as the protein found in meat. Protein provides the building blocks for muscle and while most plant proteins aren’t “complete” proteins the way that animal proteins are, a 2017 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that both plant- and animal-based proteins are equally beneficial to building muscle in your body. Yes, a serving of red meat is high in protein, but it’s also high in saturated fat. Plant protein, which is much lower in fat and rich in fiber, is a win-win nutrient. So, what are the best plant-based proteins? Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and soybeans are some of the best plant-based protein sources you can find, while leafy greens such as spinach trail close behind.
Keep in mind, though, that not all plant-based foods are healthy. Potato chips, gummy candies, and cookies are technically made with 100 percent plant-based ingredients, but most of us can agree they are not part of a healthy diet. Ideally, a plant-based diet should consist of whole, unprocessed foods free of added sugars and artificial ingredients. So go forth, and pile your plate high with whole plant-based foods such as leafy kale, vibrant berries, nutty quinoa, lentils, almonds, flaxseeds, and more.