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The Benefits of Plants

I live in the Mid-West, now, which means that I'm about to tackle a topic that can ruffle a few feathers here in the heart of the dairy and beef industries. But let's be honest, I moved from Texas, where big steaks reign supreme. It's a topic that is increasingly in the media, and one that has become more a part of my own life over the past few years: the plant-based diet.

About 6 years ago, a friend of ours wanted to see if eating vegetarian would impact his running. We joined him in cooking a vegetarian dinner every night for a month. Then, about 3 years ago while I was working at Whole Foods, we participated in the Engine2 Diet 28-Day Challenge. Essentially we've flirted with vegetarian and vegan diets as friends have invited us to the challenge. I embrace challenges like this. My husband endures them with me :)

As we broke the fast from both of these stints, we definitely enjoyed our meat and cheese. But we both agreed that a meal didn't have to have meat in it to be enjoyable. The experience caused us to reduce our reliance on meat pretty significantly, and got my culinary creative juices flowing with new recipes options and adventures.

[Photo credit: EKG Technician Salary]

[Photo credit: EKG Technician Salary]

One of the reasons that I wanted to do this - aside from the fact that I love a good challenge - is that I like to understand other people's diets better. Six years ago it was more about how to cook for friends. Now it's about knowing my clients. Being able to address their needs better, and understanding what it's like to be asked to follow a restrictive diet. Dietitians out there, or RD2BE, if you've never tried following a way of eating different from your own, I highly recommend it. You'll be able to talk to your clients in a whole new way as you help them make changes.

Others have different reasons for choosing a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle - environmental reasons and treatment of animals are pretty significant ones. They are all valid, but I'm focusing on the health aspects in this post.

What does it mean to follow a plant-based diet?

Let's get a working definition of this term, now that I've lured you into reading more. Harking back to 7th grade biology, you may remember that all living organisms can be classified into one of the five kingdoms – Protists, Monerans, Fungi, Plants, or Animals. (Also, apparently things have changed since I was in 7th grade - a simple Google search will tell you that there are now seven kingdoms, and that kingdoms aren't the first level of classification.)

[Photo credit: Ted Drake]

[Photo credit: Ted Drake]

Almost everything that humans eat falls into either the plant or the animal kingdoms. At this point, you're probably connecting the dots pretty well. The plant-based diet is one that focuses on the plant kingdom – it includes grains (especially whole grains!), beans and lentils (also called pulses), fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds.

Eating more plants – and therefore less meat – is becoming increasingly popular. Once considered just a Whole Foods hippie thing, it is now embraced by scientists, chefs, celebrities, ex-presidents, and athletes alike.

What are the benefits to following this way of eating?

As I said above, there are benefits to a plant-based diet aside from health, but I'm excited about the health aspects. Also, I'm looking out for your bank account. You’ll probably find yourself saving money by eating this way - rice, beans and lentils are WAY cheaper than meat!

In general, plant-based and vegetarian diets are associated with lower chronic disease rates and risks. These favorable outcomes are one of the most consistent findings of nutritional epidemiology. Why is this? I can't point to one specific thing, but plants are nutrient-dense foods, providing the following:

  • Fiber
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Antioxidants and phytochemicals
  • Low in saturated fat and cholesterol
[Photo credit: stephanebenito]

[Photo credit: stephanebenito]

Getting a little more specific, plant-based diets are associated with less risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, elevated blood pressure, and certain kinds of cancers. I would recommend Plant Based Research as a resource for looking up the plethora of studies that are out there – the links above are simply a place to start!

Not only are you lowering your risk of chronic diseases, but when you eat more plants, you get to eat more! For real?! Plants tend to be less calorically dense than animal foods, with many veggies having only 25-50 calories per cup. This means you get to eat a greater volume of food, while keeping the calories in check and the hunger at bay.

To represent this fact, let’s take a burger, fries and coke as an example. If you ordered this American classic at McDonalds (other fast food chains would be similar), you’d consume 1,200-ish calories for the following:

  • Quarter Pounder with Cheese
  • Medium order of fries + ketchup packets
  • Medium Coke

For the same 1,200-ish calories, you could eat the following:

  • Salad: 3 cups greens + 3 cups of raw veggies (tomato, cucumber, peppers, jicama, etc) + 2 Tbs vinaigrette dressing
  • 1 cup of beans + rice
  • ¼ cup of hummus + 1 ½ cups carrot and celery sticks
  • 1 slice wheat toast + 1 Tbs almond butter
  • 3 cups fruit salad + 3 Tbs unsweetened coconut flakes

I don't know about you, but the second list of foods seems like it would keep me full much longer. It feels more like two or three meals, not just one. I think that the psychology of eating plays a big role in things - and no one likes feeling hungry. If you ate this second list of foods, I guarantee you're not going to be hungry again for awhile!

Do I have to eliminate ALL animal products to get the benefits?

The short answer is NO! (Hooray, I love cheese!) The point of this is that you’re following a diet BASED on plants. Plant-based diets can include a range of eating styles – from strict vegan to all out omnivore. A relatively new term is flexitarian - which basically means you focus on the plants and a vegetarian lifestyle, but don’t stress about adding in quality sources of meat or seafood.

This is all about putting more emphasis on plant foods rather than animal products in your diet. But even making a shift towards more plants will provide health benefits.

Are there nutritional concerns with a plant-based diet?

Strict vegans need to supplement vitamin B12.

Strict vegans need to supplement vitamin B12.

Potentially. Part of the issue comes with strict adherence to a plant-based diet. Strict vegans will need to supplement vitamin B12. And they will need to be intentional to get enough calcium, iron and zinc. If this is a concern for you, please contact me to set up a consultation, or find a dietitian near you.

Many people freak out about protein when a plant-based diet is brought up. Take a deep breath. It will be ok, and it’s not nearly as hard as you think. If you’re eating dairy and eggs, you’ve got a huge source right there. Nuts and seeds, lentils and beans, and tofu and tempeh are the standbys for strict vegans. The major difference is that you’re not getting food that is primarily protein like you do with meat. Instead, your protein comes with either a healthy dose of fat (nuts and seeds, especially) or carbohydrates (lentils and beans, especially).

From a dietitian perspective, there is also the junk food or processed food factor. French fries are vegan. So are Jolly Ranchers. Just like "organic" and "gluten-free", the "vegan" label does not necessarily guarantee health. Of course, not all of the examples are that extreme - or obvious. For instance, I’d rather see a client enjoy 4 oz of grass-fed ground beef in their tacos than 4 oz of vegan meat crumbles. The amount of additives, processing, and overall “fake-ness” in most of the meat alternatives is no bueno.

My general recommendations for choosing whole foods or less-processed foods still stands. Also, you still need to be mindful of the guidelines for overall calories, fat, sugar and salt with a plant-based diet. However, if you're choosing high-quality whole foods, you'll probably fall within the guidelines just fine.

Making the switch

You're educated and motivated to change. Now you need to be equipped!

MyPlate

First step – evaluate. Where do you currently fall on the spectrum of vegan to omnivore? Take a look at your meals, and make a note of their composition. How many sources of plant-based foods do you see? How much of your plate is filled with meat, seafood, eggs or dairy? The "MyPlate" guidelines are still a good place to start! Remember, we're looking at the goal of adding more plants, not necessarily the goal of overhauling your diet.

Second step – reduce. There are so many ways to make this happen. A few of my favorite suggestions follow.

  • Practice Meatless Mondays (follow them on Pinterest page for tons of ideas!)
  • Limit meat consumption to 4 ounces at one meal (about the size of a deck of cards)
  • Aim for 5-7 meals per week without any animal protein
  • Think of meat as a supporting act, not the star of the show
  • Once a week, try a new vegetable – have your kids pick something out to increase the likelihood that they eat it
  • Try vegetarian meals when you eat out – not only is it usually cheaper, but you'll also get new suggestions to try at home!

What are your favorite plant-based recipes? What are your struggles with adding plants to your diet?