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Diet & Nutrition | Digestive Health | Heart & Vascular Health | Heart Healthy Living
Plant-based-diet

Is a Plant-Based Diet Right for You?

How to get vital nutrients from a vegan-like diet

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Contributors: Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD & Julia Zumpano, RD, LD

The recent revelation about “pink slime” — processed animal scraps added to ground beef — has many of us thinking twice about eating meat again. Popular movies have given viewers an inside look at what goes on in animal and processed-food manufacturing. And this has generated buzz about plant-based diets.

These vegan-like diets eliminate all animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy and honey. Everything you eat — including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds — is derived from plants.

Research reflects that following a plant-based diet has health benefits, if you do it correctly.

A plant-based diet is also more likely to result in weight loss than a vegan diet. That’s because vegan diets eliminate animal products but do not restrict calories, fats or sugars. Plant-based diets use little oil, include few added sugars, avoid processed ingredients and focus on whole foods.

So is a plant-based diet right for you? To help you decide, let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons.

Plant-based diets: Pros

Plant-based diets are low in saturated fat, free of cholesterol, and rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Research reveals that following this type of diet will lower your risks of:

  • Heart disease
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Diabetes
  • Digestive disease
  • Colon and breast cancers
  • Obesity

In addition, studies show that a plant-based diet can help to lower body weight and reduce total and LDL cholesterol.

Plant-based diets: Cons

Following a plant-based diet means saying goodbye to all animal products — including lean meat and dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream. That’s easier said than done for many of us.

In addition, if you don’t plan your plant-based diet correctly, you may not meet all your protein, vitamin and mineral needs. And you won’t feel or look your best with a nutritional deficiency.

How to get enough protein

You’ll want to make sure that your diet includes enough protein to maintain muscle mass, strong bones and healthy skin. The following foods are packed with protein:

  • Beans, lentils and split peas
  • Quinoa
  • Soy products: tempeh, tofu, soybeans, soy milk, etc.
  • Nuts and seeds

How to get enough vitamins and minerals

You’ll also need to get adequate calcium and vitamin D in your diet to ensure healthy bones. This won’t be difficult if you:

  • Drink a milk alternative such as soy, almond, rice or hemp milk, which contain both calcium and the vitamin D needed to absorb it.
  • Eat plenty of dark green leafy lettuce and beans, which contain calcium.
  • Eat mushrooms and fortified cereals, which contain vitamin D. If you aren’t consuming fortified foods on a consistent basis, take a vitamin D supplement. Sunlight is another source of vitamin D.

In addition, you’ll need enough zinc in your diet to support a healthy immune system, enough iron to maintain energy and immunity, and enough vitamin B12 to produce red blood cells and prevent anemia. This means you will want to: 

  • Eat whole grains, beans and fortified cereals for zinc and iron.
  • Eat fortified cereals, soy products and nutritional yeast for vitamin B12.

How to get started

To start on a plant-based diet, keep it simple. Begin by cutting out one animal product at a time.

  • First, replace all milk and dairy products with soy, rice, almond and hemp alternatives. Use vegan cheeses, soy or rice yogurt, “vegannaise,” soy or coconut-milk coffee creamer, vegan sour cream, etc.
  • Next, replace chicken, turkey, beef, pork, veal, lamb and fish with plant proteins. Stock up on legumes, beans, nuts, seeds and vegan meat alternatives (tofu; veggie burgers, dogs or sausage; seitan; and tempeh).

A plant-based diet may seem restrictive, but you can look at it as a simpler way of eating. Be sure to include all four food groups at each meal — plant protein, fruit, vegetables and whole grain — as shown in the sample menu below:

Tags: Be Well e-News, healthy diet, nutrition, vegan
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  • Jay

    I noticed a lot of healthy nutritious fruit was left off of this information–bananas, oranges, nectarines, grapes, pears, raisins, to name a few. And what about the vegetables used in salads–lettuce, onions, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, I didn’t see them mentioned here. Maybe this information should be re-done.
    Thanks.
    Jay

    • Health Hub Team

      Including fresh fruit and vegetables as part of a plant based diet is definitely encouraged with meals or as snacks. Fruits are a great source of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Vegetables contain small amounts of carbohydrate and protein and large amounts of vitamins, minerals and fiber. — Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD

  • William Mooney

    I’m 190 lbs, and get about 85 grams of protein now from about 1500 calories. How much would I need to consume on a plant diet to get the same protein requirements. I exercise quite bit.

    • The_Beating_Edge_Team

      Julia and Kate, from our Preventive Cardiology Nutrition Program recommend:”If you are following a plant based diet, based on your weight, you need about 10% more protein since the plant based protein sources are higher in fiber, the fiber prevents some protein from being absorbed. If you plan to start a plant based diet, I would recommend 95 grams of protein.”

  • Pat

    “A plant-based diet is also more likely to result in weight loss than a vegan diet. That’s because vegan diets eliminate animal products but do not restrict calories, fats or sugars. Plant-based diets use little oil, include few added sugars, avoid processed ingredients and focus on whole foods.” Huh?
    Vegan uses NO animal products, vegetarian may or may not eat eggs and/or dairy. That’s the definition. Where are the studies that show your assertions? I started vegetarian and used olive and other oils, honey, agave, brown rice syrup, stevia; now I am 99% vegan, eliminating dairy and eggs; only downfall is parmesan cheese. How a person implements their diet is up to them — You don’t have to be a vegan or vegetarian to focus on whole foods, unprocessed foods. Anyone who has tried to lose weight knows they can’t eat more calories than they burn, no matter the source of those calories. In my opinion, losing weight is a separate aspect of your diet, whether your diet be traditional, vegetarian, or vegan.

  • Rebecca

    I switched over to plant-based and have never felt better!!! I lost some extra weight without restricting calories, counting carbs, or watching fats. I wish I would have known I would feel this good – I would have switched sooner. I don’t need caffeine anymore! I have so much energy, my skin is insanely smooth, I have increased mental clarity and my bloodwork is immaculate (even better than it was 5 years ago during my last physical). Not to sound corny, but I also feel better spiritually. Knowing that I can feel this good without harming animals or the planet as much makes me feel like a weight has been lifted. If you haven’t tried plant-based, give it a serious effort for a month. I doubt you will want to go back. Side-note: green smoothies are your friend! ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jody.l.butts Jody Lynn Butts

    The cereals fortified with Vit B-12, is that plant or animal based B-12?

    • hvacigar

      They are typically fortified with the same source nutritional yeast is fortified, from bacterial sources.

  • Jennifer Brake

    Definitely plant based diet is one of the most beneficial diet program that helps especially in weight loss program. Therefore most of the diet experts are used to prefer plant based diet plan to get more nutrition and protein value so in various occasion plant based diet foods are quite beneficial for a quality healthy lifestyle.

    https://twitter.com/gsplantfoods7

  • Julie J.

    I think this should be redone to better reflect the current research. Vegans who eat their green leafy vegetables (missing in this discussion) get plenty of protein. Most people get too much protein on the meat based diets so commonly consumed in society. And most people eating meat based diets do not do it right and have many nutritional deficiencies including Vitamin D. All vegan should supplement B12.
    My question is why do we always stress “dangers” of a plant based diet when it has so many health benefits as in it can CURE diabetes, heart disease, obesity and IGNORE all the dangers of meat based diets like diabetes, heart disease, many cancers, and obesity. sheesh.

    • LIly G.

      “My question is why do we always stress “dangers” of a plant based diet when it has so many health benefits as in it can CURE diabetes, heart disease, obesity and IGNORE all the dangers of meat based diets like diabetes, heart disease, many cancers, and obesity. sheesh.” Because they can’t legally state that something can CURE something else without violating federal regulations. As it stands, I think the article was written in a very positive and favorable light and leans towards plant based eating while staying within the regs. Kudos to whoever the author was.