Eat your fruits and veggies. It’s the advice parents have been giving their kids for decades. But now there’s more evidence than ever to support loading up on foods that come directly from the ground.
Many health conditions can be prevented—or better managed—with proper nutrition. People who eat a plant-based diet have a lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obesity, and certain types of cancer. A plant-filled plate can help individuals manage diseases and reduce symptoms, just like medication. It can also help with weight loss and weight maintenance. Here’s what plant-based eating looks like and why it works:
Put phytonutrients and fiber on the menu
Individuals who adopt a plant-based eating style consume whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy plant fats like olives and avocados. They limit animal products such as cheese, eggs, chicken, and beef. By reducing meat and dairy they make room to eat more plants and all the good nutrients they contain, specifically phytonutrients and fiber.
Phytonutrients are natural chemicals in plants that protect the plant from various threats. Flavonoids and carotenoids are two examples. When people eat plants they absorb phytonutrients, which help boost the immune system and protect the body from various diseases. Phytonutrients occur only in plants—people can’t get them from other food sources.
Plants are also full of fiber, which stabilizes blood sugar, assists in cholesterol control, and regulates bowel movements. Eating fiber reduces the risk of colon cancer because it helps clean out the digestive tract. It also helps people feel full, reducing overeating and increasing weight loss.
Another benefit of replacing animal products with plants is that it reduces the amount of cholesterol people ingest. Animal products are the only foods that contain cholesterol.
Whole, non-processed foods are best
Of course, just because a food was once a plant doesn’t make it healthy. That’s why a plant-based diet is centered on whole foods (items that haven’t been processed). Most vegetable burgers, “chicken” nuggets, and energy bars don’t count as whole foods because manufacturers added lots of other ingredients to them.
When shopping, a good rule of thumb is to choose products with the fewest ingredients possible. A minimally processed food should contain five ingredients or less. Also, just because a product is labeled vegetarian or vegan doesn’t make it good for you. Many vegan desserts contain just as much, if not more, sugar and fat than their non-vegan counterparts. For example, Oreos are vegan but contain lots of sugar.
Stay healthy by eating a variety of plants
Enjoying a variety of plant-based foods helps ensure people get enough of every nutrient type. Most people in the U.S. get more protein than is required, and those on a plant-based diet still get plenty. Plant-based protein sources include vegetables, nuts, seeds, tofu, whole grains, and legumes. Eating a variety of these foods throughout the day provides an adequate amount of protein for most people. Another benefit? Plant proteins are extremely cost effective compared with meat. For example, one pound of uncooked ground beef costs an average of $4.09 and yields 12 oz. cooked ground beef, whereas one pound of dry beans costs an average of $1.35 and yields 6.5 cups cooked beans.
Getting enough calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids can be a concern for those following a plant-based approach. Calcium is found in dark leafy greens, fortified milk alternatives, and soy products. Many milk alternatives contain more calcium than actual milk. Vitamin D and B12 are in fortified cereals and milk alternatives. Nutritional yeast is also a good source of vitamin B12. Iron is in beans, dark green vegetables, dried fruit, blackstrap molasses, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and fortified cereals. Omega-3 fatty acids are in seeds, soy, and walnuts. Some people may benefit from taking these nutrients as a supplement, especially if they already have deficiencies or if they are not eating a balanced diet.
Make the change gradually
For individuals transitioning to plant-based eating, my recommendation is to do it gradually. For instance, a person who eats animal protein with all or most meals can replace an animal protein with a plant protein during at least one meal weekly. Once that becomes a habit, add on. It’s better to make a small, positive change that sticks than to rethink every meal at once.
I believe a realistic approach is the 80/20 rule, which encourages plant-based meals 80 percent of the time and treating oneself 20 percent of the time. This gives people the flexibility they need and keeps them from feeling restricted. The goal is to avoid a diet mentality and develop healthy eating habits that can be maintained.
Natalie Leustek is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Vancouver Clinic. She enjoys helping patients use nutrition to become their healthiest selves.