What is a Plant Based Diet?
Hello friends! Today I wanted to spend a little time discussing what the term "plant based" or "plant-forward" plant eating means and how anyone can incorporate it into their lifestyles - regardless of their current diet. As the name implies, this style of eating focuses on eating mainly foods derived from plants. This includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and the oils derived from plant foods.
If someone says they are eating a plant based diet, it does NOT necessarily mean that they are vegetarian or vegan. Rather, it means that the majority of their diet is made up of plant foods as opposed to animal sources. The exact percentage is pretty subjective though.
I personally have always eaten a plant centered diet, but over the last few months have been experimenting with not eating meat. For some reason, my body just started gravitating towards plant proteins versus meats, eggs, and seafood. And I have to say, I feel SO good.
I've been inspired to cook a lot of new foods, my energy is great, my skin is clear, and the best part? I get to eat a LOT! Big plates of sweet potatoes, all sorts of beans, tons of fresh veggies and fruit, whole grains, and some yummy vegan treats like cheeses and homemade sweets! I'm going to be sharing a lot of the recipes I've been cooking over the past few months on the blog, so stay tuned!
Evidence for Plant Based Eating
There is a MOUNTAIN of scientific evidence to support plant based eating patterns. Lots of nutrition research has been done on not only vegetarian/vegan diets, but also those such as the Mediterranean diet and the Flexitarian diet, which are both centered around a foundation of plant based foods but are not strictly vegetarian or vegan.
While it is based around plant foods, the Mediterranean diet also includes modest amounts of fish, lean poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt, with less of an emphasis on meats and dessert foods. This diet has been studied over years in large population studies and also randomized clinical trials - a gold standard in research terms to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer (colon, breast, prostate), and even lift depression. In the aging population, it has been linked to a decrease in frailty and improved metal and physical health.
Vegetarian and vegan diets have been studied for decades as well, and have been proven to slash the risk of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. They also have been linked to increased longevity.
But What About Protein?
Many people have concerns about protein on a plant based diet. I understand this, we typically we associate protein with animal foods. However, as a registered dietitian, I can 100% ASSURE you that with the proper planning and a focus on eating whole, real foods (as opposed to packaged "junk" foods), that a plant based diet can easily satisfy the protein needs of any individual - even professional athletes!
Properly executed plant based diets provide all of the necessary macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). They are often MUCH higher in fiber, antioxidants, and disease preventing phytonutrients.
Types of Plant Based Eating
With plant based eating comes a lot of variety. Let's take a closer look at some different versions.
Flexitarian diets include eggs and dairy products, but also occasional meats, poultry, and seafood. Pescatarian diets include eggs, dairy, fish and seafood but no meat or poultry. Lacto-ovo vegetarians include dairy products and eggs only; no meat, poultry, fish or seafood. Vegans do not eat any animal products whatsoever, including foods derived from animals such as honey (from bees) and foods containing gelatin (collagen extracted from meat, poultry).
How to Incorporate Plant Based Eating into Any Diet
1) Increase your vegetable intake. This one may seem rather obvious, but it can have a profound impact! Aim to make half of your plate vegetables at lunch and dinner. This translates into between 4-8 servings per day, depending on whether your veggies are raw or cooked. When my clients are just starting to do this, I don't worry about variety! If the only veggies they like are green beans and carrots, so be it. With time and exposure comes more diversity and willingness to try different vegetables.
2) If you are eating meat, eat the recommended serving size. For most women and men, this translates into between 3-5 oz per meal. Meat can be used as the garnish, rather than the main part of a meal. Additionally, when you decrease meat, you will want to increase the amount of whole grains, starchy vegetables, beans and legumes, all of which are extremely nutritious and satisfying.
3) Add healthy plant based fats. These include avocados, and a wide variety of nuts, seeds, and nut butters.
4) Embrace "Meatless Monday" or strive to cook a plant based meal at least once per week. Not only will this improve your health, it will also save money. This cookbook is one of my absolute favorite resources for simple, plant based recipes. I recommend it to all of my clients, regardless of their eating style.
5) Start your day with fruit. Add fresh or frozen fruit to a smoothie, oatmeal, or yogurt. Its a great feeling knowing that you have already begun your day of healthy eating after your first meal! I often will make a shake with my favorite plant based protein powder, frozen banana or berries, and seeds. Its simple, quick and keeps me full until lunch time.
6) Aim for 1 large salad per day. Fill your bowl with leafy greens such as romaine, kale, or spinach. Top with lots of cherry tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, cauliflower...there are so many options! Add protein from beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds.
7) Experiment with Roasting. Veggies that is! I can honestly say that roasting vegetables of ALL sorts has changed my life. Sweet potatoes, white potatoes, all types of winter squash, carrots, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, the list goes on and on! It is SO easy to roast veggies, just place them on a parchment lined baking sheet and cook at 425 degrees for about 30 minutes. I slow roast sweet potatoes on the weekends for an amazing, sweet addition to my lunches every day.
7) Snack on fruit. If you've had fruit for breakfast, try to incorporate a second serving later in the day. Fruit pairs well with nuts and/or nut butter for a satisfying mini meal.
Want to Know More?
Below I've listed some of my absolute favorite resources for learning more about plant based eating.