A plant-based diet?
You’ve probably seen the term many times. But books, articles, and interviews that discuss “plant-based diets” are often referring to different things. It seems as though everyone has their own definition of what plant-based means, and this can be frustratingly confusing when you’re trying to keep up with research on what kinds of choices you can make to create healthy eating habits.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is not necessarily a vegetarian diet. Vegetarian is what some people mean when they use the term. But when you see the term in research studies or as part of recommendations from major health organizations, a plant-based diet usually simply means that plant foods are the largest part of your plate — not necessarily your whole plate.
- Plant foods include vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes (dried beans and peas, lentils and soy foods), nuts and seeds.
- Diet simply refers to a big-picture view of overall eating habits. As we look at plant-based diets as a healthy choice, please don’t think of them as something with strict rules that you go on and go off. We’ll come back to this, because it is an important point in considering how to create eating habits that protect your long-term health.
Plant-based diets come in many forms. Eating habits that are vegan (no animal products at all) or other vegetarian types (which may include one or more of choices like dairy products, eggs, and fish) are plant-based diets. But not all plant-based diets are vegetarian. Plant-based diets also include traditional Mediterranean- or Asian-style eating patterns and those based on the DASH-diet originally developed to control blood pressure. In fact, a plant-based diet can be as individual as you are.
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Why a Plant-Based Diet?
Looking at eating habits in the big picture of overall research, plant-based diets of many types are linked with better health than typical American eating habits. But while being plant-focused is a good starting point, the ultimate influence on your health will depend on the specific choices you make.
Is a plant-based diet heart-healthy?
Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes like dried beans and lentils, and nuts each offer a unique package of nutrients, plant compounds and dietary fiber that can protect heart health. For example, dried beans and lentils offer viscous forms of dietary fiber that can help lower blood cholesterol and fermentable fiber that may help reduce inflammation that can lead to heart disease. Variety is the key, since other plant foods provide nutrients and natural plant compounds like polyphenols that may help lower blood pressure.
An analysis of observational studies involving more than four million people around the world links eating habits that most closely met characteristics of a traditional Mediterranean diet with less heart disease incidence and deaths. Scores reflect plant-focused diets, with points added for abundant plant foods and subtracted for meat or dairy products more than once a day. Many studies also link vegetarian diets with a lower risk of heart disease. Yet various versions of the DASH diet, which focuses on an abundance of plant foods, but does include lean meat and two to three servings daily of low-fat dairy products, have reduced LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and blood pressure in randomized controlled trials.
Does a plant-based diet help prevent cancer?
A plant-based diet is an essential foundation of recommendations to reduce cancer risk. Different forms of dietary fiber can each play a role in protection against colon cancer, and perhaps other cancers, too. And whole grains may offer protection beyond the fiber they provide. Laboratory studies show lots of mechanisms through which nutrients and compounds found in plant foods can steer cells away from developing into cancer, from changes in expression of tumor suppressor and other genes, to influences on cell signaling pathways, inflammation, and self-destruction of abnormal cells.
As research methods have advanced, human population studies are less consistent in support for individual antioxidant nutrients or specific plant foods for cancer prevention. But rather than concluding that these nutrients and compounds don’t matter after all, the big picture of research suggests that it’s how they work together that matters. And people may differ in the importance of specific choices within a plant-based diet based on individual differences in genetics and microbiota.
Will I lose weight on a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is an excellent approach to lose weight healthfully and keep it off. Because it includes substantial portions of foods like vegetables that are filling without being high in calories, it helps you cut calories without going hungry. Smart choices of plant foods, alone or in addition to modest portions of fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and meat, can provide enough protein to minimize loss of muscle when you reduce calories for weight loss. And although some plant-based diets are very low in fat, plant-based diets can include reasonable portions of fats from nuts, avocados, and healthy oils that also help to keep hunger at bay.
Plant-based diets don’t guarantee weight loss, however. Overdoing portions or snacking all day out of habit, or using food to deal with stress, can keep calories too high to allow weight loss. And excess calories can add up quickly even from plant-based drinks, whether juice, soft drinks, syrup-laden coffees or alcohol.
Plant-based alone doesn’t make it healthy.
Although highly processed foods like chips, crackers, and cookies may technically be plant-based, these foods won’t provide the health benefits you get from unprocessed and minimally processed choices. And large amounts of added sugars and fat can lead to eating more calories than you need.
When researchers scored eating habits in several large U.S. population studies as being more focused on plant foods or animal foods, plant-based diets were linked with lower risk of heart disease. But when they scored healthful plant foods separately from less healthful plant foods like sweets, sugar-sweetened drinks, and refined grains, people with healthy plant-based diets showed 25% lower risk of heart disease. But high scores for unhealthy plant-based diets had 32% higher risk of heart disease and increased risk of type 2 diabetes as well.
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How to Make Plant-Based Diets Doable
Plant-based diets on a budget
- Meat is one of the most expensive items in your grocery cart. So whether you choose to have a few meatless meals each week or simply keep portion sizes of meat, poultry and fish small compared to other foods on your plate, plant-focused eating is an excellent way to shave grocery costs.
- Dried beans, peas, and lentils, in contrast, are a bargain. Look beyond frozen convenience vegetarian meals and explore the aisles of canned and dried beans. If you’ve been using these only occasionally for baked beans or tacos, have fun exploring the many dishes in which they fit deliciously.
- Vegetables and fruits might seem too pricey to fit your budget, but that need not be so. Remember that as you boost portions of these foods, it should be a swap to replace or reduce the amount of something else. For example, choose a piece of fruit instead of donuts, cookies or ice cream. When choosing fresh produce, look for what’s in season. And don’t overlook frozen and canned options (without added salt or sugar), which can be just as healthy and may offer a better buy.
- Explore plain, unseasoned whole grains to season and serve with meals instead of high-priced flavored options. And choose simple cooked or ready-to-eat breakfast cereals like oatmeal or shredded wheat. Add your own nuts, fruit, and perhaps a sprinkle of cinnamon for flavor.
Cook at Home
Not only is cooking at home less expensive than eating out, it also gives you more opportunity to experiment with different ways to create plant-focused meals. Some people find that adapting familiar dishes is the most comfortable way to gradually change eating habits. For example, keep the same casserole or stew you love, and swap proportions to reduce meat and boost vegetables and beans. For other people, adapted versions always seem second best. Starting fresh with new and different plant-focused dishes becomes an adventure.
You aren’t alone exploring this new turf; explore the Resources below. Check organizations like the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) that recommend plant-based diets and showcase delicious recipes to put their advice into practice. Follow savvy registered dietitians on Facebook, Instagram or through their blogs for recipes that are delicious and healthy. Websites of producers and companies providing plant-based foods also offer menu ideas and taste-tested recipes (and often coupons) to help you step beyond a limited repertoire.
Make Plant-based Flavorful
If you’re afraid plant-based meals would be dull, think again! Some of the most flavorful cuisines around the world are plant-based. Take inspiration from traditional Italian, Greek, Chinese and Indian dishes that make vegetables, grains and beans delicious with garlic, onion, herbs, spices, and nuts.
Go at Your Own Pace
The goal is to find your way to a long-term plant-based style of eating. So it’s important to discover what works for you, rather than making dramatic changes that don’t feel comfortable. Gradually shift proportions of vegetables, grains, and meat in meals and add a few more meatless meals.
Find a Plant-Based Diet that’s Right for You
Many, many studies show that plant-based eating patterns as a whole are healthier ways to eat than the eating style that’s typical now in the U.S. (and many other parts of the world). Whether referred to as a Western dietary pattern in research or S.A.D. (Standard American Diet) in more informal discussions, they’re clearly behind plant-based diets for healthy eating. When looking at individual kinds of plant-based diets (vegetarian, DASH, etc.), studies conclude they are healthier than typical American fare. But that doesn’t mean that a specific form of a plant-based diet is better than another plant-focused approach to eating.
There’s room in the plant-based “tent” for everyone, whether you prefer vegan or vegetarian eating, or want to include moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and meat; whether you favor low-fat or relatively higher amounts of healthy types of fat.
[clickToTweet tweet=”Focus on making a healthy plant-based diet work for you, rather than worrying about which kind is “best”.” quote=”Focus on making a healthy plant-based diet work for you, rather than worrying about which kind is “best”.”]
Bottom Line on Plant-Based Diets:
Looking at the big picture of research, including laboratory work, short-term human trials and population studies that follow large groups of people for many years, plant-based diets make sense for health. Technically, a “plant-based diet” means plant foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts form the foundation of your eating habits, though they aren’t necessarily the only things you eat. If you choose to include meat, fish or dairy products, give them a supporting, rather than starring, role. I often use the term “plant-focused eating” to emphasize that there are many approaches to this healthy style of eating. Whichever path you choose, remember that the healthfulness of your eating is not based only on what you don’t eat, it’s also about what you do eat. Choose foods that offer nutritional benefits without excessive amounts of sugar or salt, and keep portions appropriate to your needs.
Want to find the sizzle in making vegetables a larger part of your meals?
There are many savvy registered dietitian nutritionists who offer easily accessible ideas to make plant-focused meals – including a variety of vegetables – delicious and realistic. Here are a few friends I know I can trust for creative ideas: They each provide a slightly different approach to plant-based eating, but they all love veggies and know how to prepare them well. You can find their recipes on their blogs and by following them on social media: Sharon Palmer, RDN (known as the Plant-Powered Dietitian); Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN; and Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, are all down-to-earth stars in the kitchen.
Want ideas for boosting dried beans, peas and lentils?
Lentils are an easy choice to keep on hand since dried lentils cook in just 15-20 minutes with no soaking and are can be stored in your pantry for a year (though you won’t want to wait that long to enjoy them). The lentils.org website, representing lentil growers, offers everything from basics of how to cook lentils to tasty recipes. Just pick the style of dish you want!
Canned beans are something I recommend always keeping on hand, because they are a perfect partner in so many dishes, and help you get a healthy meal ready in minutes. Check out the recipes offered by Bush’s Beans – yes, they offer a variety of options. And if you’re interested in using a slow-cooker to make healthy, home-cooked meals doable, there’s a section of recipes specially developed for slow-cookers. Note: As you explore these recipes, consider where you are in a journey to include beans regularly. Some recipes are a perfect introduction to including beans in meals. As you get more comfortable with this, feel free to juggle proportions in recipes. If there are more than 2-3 ounces of meat or poultry per person and only one 15- or 16-ounce can of beans to divide among six people, experiment with cutting back on the meat and adding an extra can of beans so that each serving includes a full half-cup portion. That’s a quick way to boost fiber and cut costs!
Half-Cup Habit is a program encouraging people to eat ½ cup of pulses (dried beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils) three times a week, based on healthy eating patterns outlined in USDA’s MyPlate. (And please consider that target as a starting point, and including them even more often as you discover more ideas for enjoying them.) USA Pulses offers free recipes, tips and shopping lists to support a Half-Cup Habit, and also has ideas for quick meals using pulses several different ways through the week.
Want ideas for interesting ways to include nuts in your meals?
If the only ways you can think of to eat more nuts involve desserts or sitting in front of the TV with a big can of peanuts, there’s a whole new world awaiting you!
Walnuts offer something for everyone. The recipe section of the California Walnuts website even offers you pre-categorized options based on meal, type of dish (main dish, side dish, snack, appetizer) and style (Mediterranean, small bites, seafood, calorie-conscious, kid-friendly, and more).
Savor variety. Have fun exploring the different flavor potential from a variety of other nuts, too. The International Tree Nut Council offers recipes using nine different kinds of nuts, and you can search by the type of dish you want to make.
Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Spiegelman D, Chiuve SE, Manson JE, Willett W, Rexrode KM, Rimm EB, Hu FB. Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2017; 70(4):411-422.
Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB, Spiegelman D, Chiuve SE, Borgi L, et al. (2016) Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies. PLoS Med 13(6): e1002039.
Sofi F., Macchi C., Abbate R., Gensini G., Casini A. Mediterranean diet and health status: An updated meta-analysis and a proposal for a literature-based adherence score. Public Health Nutrition. 2014; 17(12):2769-2782.
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