August 12, 2020

What You Should Know About Plant-Based Diets

Learn the pros, cons and safe ways to remove meat products from your diet ​

eating veggies in a buddha bowl

Thinking about trying out a plant-based diet and want to know more? Here, dietitians Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, and Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, explore some details that can help you decide if it’s right for you — and if so, how to jump right in.

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What is a plant-based diet?

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

Are plant-based diets healthy?

Research reflects that following a plant-based diet has significant health benefits as long as you do it correctly.

“No matter when you start, a diet that is focused on plant foods will help you work toward the prevention of many illnesses and feeling better overall,” Zumpano says.

If followed properly, a whole foods, plant-based diet limits the use of oils, added sugars and processed foods, leaving only whole foods to provide nutrition. This maximizes nutrient intake and virtually eliminates foods that can lead to poor health outcomes.

These diets are low in saturated fat, free of cholesterol, and rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Research also 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.

Studies also show that a plant-based diet can help to lower body weight and reduce your LDL cholesterol.

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The cons of a plant-based diet

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,” Patton says. “But when you have the right guidelines and wrap in changes over time, replacing animal products in your diet is possible.”

Another thing to note — 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 if you develop a nutritional deficiency. But there are easy ways to make sure you’re getting the nutrients you need.

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 like tempeh, tofu, soybeans and soy milk.
  • 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 you’ll need to take a vitamin D supplement. Sunlight is another source of vitamin D.

You’ll also 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’ll want to:

  • Eat whole grains, beans and fortified cereals for zinc and iron.
  • Eat fortified cereals and soy products to get your vitamin B12.
  • Nutritional yeast is also a great source of vitamin B12.

How to get started on a plant-based diet

“To start your plant-based diet, keep it simple. Begin by cutting out one animal product at a time,” Patton says.

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  • First, replace all milk and dairy products with soy, rice, almond and hemp alternatives. Use nondairy yogurt or kefir and soy or coconut-milk coffee creamer.
  • Next, replace chicken, turkey, beef, pork, veal, lamb and fish with plant proteins.
  • Stock up on legumes, beans, nuts, seeds and vegan meat alternatives like tofu veggie burgers, nutritional yeast, seitan and tempeh.

Be sure to include all four food groups at each meal — plant protein, fruit, vegetables and whole grain — as shown in the following sample menu.

Sample One-Day Plant-Based Vegan Menu

Breakfast

  • 1 cup cooked steel cut oats mixed with 1/8 cup chopped nuts, ½ cup fresh berries, ½ cup pureed pumpkin or butternut squash and 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed.
  • 1 cup soy milk.

Snack

Dairy free yogurt or kefir.

Lunch

  • Veggie burrito (whole grain tortilla spread with vegan refried beans stuffed with mixed greens, tomatoes, peppers, onions and nutritional yeast).
  • 1 ounce of corn tortilla chips.
  • Fresh salsa or guacamole.

Snack

1 apple with 1 tablespoon of natural peanut butter.

Dinner

Tofu stir fry with brown rice and choice of veggies — snap peas, carrots, onions, broccoli, spinach, water chestnuts and/or sliced almonds, sautéed in vegetable broth or 1 tablespoon of olive, canola, sesame or peanut oil.

Dessert

½ cup of sorbet topped with 1 cup tropical fruit salad — mango, pineapple and melon.

“Once you begin, in time you’ll fill your kitchen with what you need and will get easier every day. A plant-based diet may seem restrictive, but you can look at it as a simpler way of eating,” Zumpano says.

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