Is a Plant-Based Diet Right for You?

How to get vital nutrients from a vegan-like diet

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

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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:

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

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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:

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