If better health or weight loss are part of your New Year’s resolutions, then now is a great time to adopt plant-based eating. Making fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains the focus of your meals can reduce inflammation and protect your body from diseases down the road. We chatted with Natalie Leustek, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Vancouver Clinic, to discover why this approach to nutrition works.
Q: What is plant-based eating?
Natalie: It’s getting back to the basics with less processed food. Plant-based eating emphasizes eating whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy plant fats like olives and avocados. A lot of people feel like they have to become vegan in order to follow a plant-based eating style, but that’s not the case. While the foundation should be plant-based food, it doesn’t mean you can’t eat animal products. You just want to be wise about it.
Q: What are the benefits?
Natalie: Nutrition has therapeutic effects. It’s not just fuel for the body. It can help people manage their current health conditions by reducing their symptoms and need for medication. Many studies have shown that whole-food, plant-based eating can reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
Q: What do plants offer that other foods don’t?
Natalie: Plants contain phytonutrients—natural chemicals that protect them from various threats. When you consume plants, those nutrients help protect you, too. They can help bolster your immune system and reduce the risk of disease. Chemicals like flavonoids and carotenoids are only found in plants. Plants are also full of fiber, which stabilizes blood sugar and assists with cholesterol control. Fiber also helps you feel full, which means you don’t have to eat as much to feel satisfied. Additionally, it naturally cleanses the colon and helps prevent colon cancer.
Q: Can plant-based eating help someone who eats well already?
Natalie: Eating fewer animal products makes room on your plate for more plant products—and all the benefits they provide. Plus, animal products are the only foods that contain cholesterol. You don’t get it from any other food sources. It’s almost always a good idea to eat more fiber, especially from fruits and vegetables. However, people are unique and should talk to their doctor and a registered dietitian about what is best for them.
Q: Won’t a plant-based diet be low in protein?
Natalie: Most Americans actually get more protein than they need. Eating a variety of plant-based food throughout the day (vegetables, nuts, seeds, tofu, whole-grains, and legumes) can provide adequate protein for most people. One thing to be careful of, however, are the processed veggies and protein substitutes in stores. “Chicken” nuggets, vegetable burgers, and energy bars may technically qualify as plant-based foods, but most aren’t considered whole foods because of all the other ingredients manufacturers add. A good rule of thumb is that a minimally processed food should contain five ingredients or less.
Q: What if I’m interested in plant-based eating but have trouble sticking with it?
Natalie: Changing eating habits can be challenging. It takes time to adapt. A realistic goal for most people is to follow a plant-based eating plan most of the time versus having the “all or nothing” mentality. The body is resilient and tends to recognize usual habits. Straying from a healthy eating plan on occasion is less likely to cause long-term damage for most people if they return to their healthy eating habits. On the flip side, eating healthy only occasionally will not lead to long-term benefits. I think the 80/20 rule is a realistic approach for many people. Aim to eat plant-based meals 80 percent of the time and treat yourself 20 percent of the time. You want to develop a lifelong habit that can be sustained. You don’t have to be perfect with eating. Allow yourself to have those treats on occasion, but follow your healthy eating plan a majority of the time.
Natalie Leustek is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Vancouver Clinic. She enjoys helping patients use nutrition to become their healthiest selves.