More and more people are asking me how important moving toward plant-based eating really is. Awareness is growing about avoiding animal products, especially processed meats. Media outlets are exposing the negative aspects of animal products and touting the potential health advantages of plant-based eating.
Abe came to speak to me about weight loss, but he wanted to do it within the framework of a very specific plant-based way of eating. Is there really a big advantage to shifting over to eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lentils, seeds and nuts? Let’s see what plant based eating is all about.
What is plant-based eating?
According to Katherine D. McManus, MS, RD at the Harvard School of Public Health, plant-based or plant-forward eating patterns focus on foods primarily from plants. This includes not only fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. It doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan. Rather, you are proportionally choosing more of your foods from plant sources. But what is the evidence that plant-based eating patterns are healthy?
Much nutrition research has examined plant-based eating patterns, like the Mediterranean diet and a vegetarian diet. The Mediterranean diet has a foundation of plant-based foods; it also includes fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt a few times a week. Meats and sweets are eaten less often. This diet has been shown in large population studies and randomized clinical trials to reduce risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, certain cancers (specifically colon, breast, and prostate cancer), and depression. In older adults, the Mediterranean diet can decrease the risk of frailty and promote better mental and physical function. That is quite a list!
Vegetarian diets have also been shown to support health, increase longevity, and lower the risk of developing coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Plant-based diets offer all the necessary protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals for optimal health. They are also often higher in fiber and phytonutrients. However, some vegans may need to add a supplement (specifically vitamin B12) to ensure they receive all the nutrients required.
Variety is important
Vegetarian diets come in lots of shapes and sizes, and you should choose the version that works best for you. Semi-vegetarian or flexitarian includes eggs, dairy foods, and occasionally meat, poultry, ﬁsh, and seafood. Pescatarian includes eggs, dairy foods, and ﬁsh, but no meat or poultry. Vegetarian (sometimes referred to as lacto-ovo vegetarian) includes eggs and dairy foods, but no meat, poultry, or ﬁsh. And finally, vegan diets include no animal foods at all.
Its two aspects
As I have written recently, research is clearly showing that we can greatly influence how our body functions through the food we eat. We can see positive changes in our microbiome (gut bacteria) even within days or weeks of making positive changes to our eating. We can see even more sustained encouraging results after a few months. I am talking about the kinds of changes that positively influence cholesterol, sugar and more. Just by adding plant-based foods, you are automatically eliminating more harmful foods. This is definitely the best preventative medicine you can practice. We are talking about prevention and even reversal of heart disease and cancer! Some preliminary research is showing possible improvement in those with auto-immune diseases, too.
We get used to eating a certain way and change is always difficult. But wouldn’t we want to work towards a few changes that can influence our health so greatly? The evidence is so overwhelming that healthy changes can improve your quality of life, extend your days, and keep you out of the doctor’s office. It’s not just that you will be cutting back on foods that can cause illness in the long term, you will be eating foods, very tasty foods, that will bring you good health.
Starting to make the changes
So how do we get started? Here are some tips to help you get started on a plant-based diet:
- Eat lots of vegetables. Fill half your plate with vegetables. Make sure you include plenty of colors in choosing your vegetables. Enjoy vegetables as a snack with hummus, salsa, or guacamole.
- Change the way you think about meat. Have smaller amounts. Use it as a garnish instead of a centerpiece. And when you can, use grass-fed beef. Although more expensive, it is available Glatt Kosher.
- Choose good fats. Fats in olive oil, olives, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and avocados are particularly healthy choices.
- Cook vegetarian meals a few nights a week. Build these meals around beans, whole grains, and vegetables.
- Include whole grains for breakfast. Start with oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat, or barley. Then add some nuts or seeds along with fresh fruit. If you like dry breakfast cereals, make sure you pick the no sugar, whole grain variety. And watch your portion sizes!
- Go for greens. Try a variety of green leafy vegetables such as kale, collards, Swiss chard, spinach, and other greens each day. Steam, grill, braise, or stir-fry to preserve their flavor and nutrients.
- Build a meal around a salad. Fill a bowl with salad greens such as romaine, spinach, or red leafy greens. Add an assortment of other vegetables along with fresh herbs, beans, peas, or tofu.
- Eat fruit for dessert. A ripe, juicy peach, a refreshing slice of watermelon, or a crisp apple will satisfy your craving for a sweet bite after a meal. Other alternatives are a small fruit with nuts or no or low-sugar natural sorbet.
You need not be 100% plant based to reap the benefits.
Abe wanted to be totally plant-based and our dietician worked with him to keep him within that framework. The biggest challenge is to make sure there is enough protein, but with proper planning, that can happen without any meat, poultry, fish, or daily products.
For most people, simply moving in a better direction will bring results. Think of your plate at any meal as half vegetables (a nice variety cooked or raw), a quarter whole grains (again use different grains at each meal) and a quarter can be an animal protein. When you have some meals that are 100% plant based, the last quarter of your plate can be beans, peas or lentils. Always garnish your food with olive oil and different seeds. Make sure you get 3 fruits a day, too.
If you switch more and more toward plant-based eating and add daily exercise, it’s only a matter of weeks until you feel a big difference and only a matter of months until those changes really take hold. Before you know it, your health and quality of life with only get better and better and will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”