7 Steps to Go Plant-Based
Are you thinking about skipping your bacon habit for something a little leaner and greener—say a kale farro bowl with chickpeas? You are certainly not alone. There’s no doubt about it; plant-based eating is hot! This eating style tops just about every diet and food trend list in the country. In fact, a recent report found that veganism jumped 600%. According to Nielsen, 39% of Americans are trying to eat more plant-based foods.
Why has it become cool to put plants on a pedestal? That’s because over the past couple of decades, a convincing body of scientific evidence has emerged on the many rewards of eating plants over animals, with hundreds of studies pointing out important health and environmental benefits. The evidence is so clear that for the first time ever the Dietary Guidelines, the set of nutrition recommendations released by the USDA every five years based on an expert scientific committee, now recommend a vegetarian diet as a healthful diet pattern that all Americans might want to consider to keep in tip top shape.
Health Power in Plants
“There is now a clear consensus that plant-based diets prevent many chronic diseases,” says Joan Sabaté, MD, DrPH, a board-certified physician with his Doctor of Public Health in Nutrition from Loma Linda University, and Chair of the Department of Nutrition there since 1998. One of the leading researchers on plant-based nutrition around the world, his research team found that, compared to non-vegetarian diets, plant-based eating patterns were linked to a significantly lower risk of diseases like obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer, as well as death from any cause. Other benefits from plant-based eating found in research include higher intake of nutrients, lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, and lower risk of developing cataracts, kidney stones, and gout. These findings are now backed up by multiple large population studies in other countries, including the U.K., Taiwan, and India. Interestingly, studies are showing that, overall, the more plant-based you go—as in a completely plant-based or vegan diet—the bigger the benefit. But even making a shift to semi-vegetarian or flexitarian eating, with small amounts of animal foods in the diet, has shown a protection against these chronic diseases.
Plants Stand the Test of Time
It may seem like the buzz around eating plants—from “bleeding” veggie-burgers to vegan “power” grain bowls—is a new thing, but humans have been relying upon plants for sustenance since the beginning of time. They gathered plants, such as fungi, roots, stems, leaves, bark, flowers, seeds, and fruits for a source of nutrients, until they started cultivating plants, such as grains, pulses, and vegetables for a more consistent supply of nutrition at least 10,000 years ago. When you look around the world to places where people still eat traditional diets—the eating style of people in particular locations for centuries—these are primarily based on plants, which could be grown or foraged in their region. In Peru, staples are quinoa, potatoes and corn, in Japan there is a deep love for mushrooms and a multitude of vegetables, in West Africa leafy greens are an important feature of the diet, and the Mediterranean just wouldn’t be the same without chickpeas and olives. Sixty years ago, scientists began observing these so-called “poor man’s diets”, based on rustic, local plant foods, like beans, whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, were linked with the longest lifespan, compared to more wealthy diets with the highest animal food intake. Fast forward to today, and you can see how our wealthy diets, filled with highly processed foods and animal foods, such as red meat, poultry, dairy products and eggs, and low in whole plant foods, like whole grains, beans and vegetables, has led to a decline in our health. Americans are among the top consumers of meat in the world—consuming more than three times the global average.
What’s so Special About Plants?
Why is munching on apples, sunflower seeds, and spinach so healthy? It’s simple. When you fill your plate with whole plants—minimally processed and as close to the earth as possible—you are diving into a whole lot of “good” things, including different types of fibers, slow-digesting carbs, heart-healthy fats, a plethora of essential vitamins and minerals, and phytochemicals—plant compounds with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds. Most of these nutrients are found only in the plant world. These are health-promoting nutrients that most Americans simply don’t get enough of. In particular, phytochemicals are very powerful compounds, which plants developed over the centuries as a natural defense system. These compounds act like sunscreen and protection against diseases and pests for the plant. But now we know that they also provide protection to humans, as they fight the impacts of chronic inflammation and oxidative stress in the body, which are at the root of chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer. When you bite into a tomato, the lycopene antioxidants protect your heart and bones, and help fight cancer. When you pop blueberries into your mouth, the anthocyanins protect your brain from the affects of aging. Once humans ate pounds of whole plant foods in a rainbow of colors. Today, we’re missing out on all of those health-promoting, colorful plant foods, with only 9% of Americans eating their recommended amount of vegetables, and 12% eating enough fruit. Whole plant foods—rich in fiber and water, and modest in calories—make you feel full and satisfied, which is why eating them can lead to a healthier weight. Studies consistently show that the more plant-based you eat, the lighter you weigh; vegans have the lowest BMI compared to meat eaters, but vegetarians and semi-vegetarians also weigh less.
In contrast, animal foods can contain some nutrients of concern, such as higher levels of calories, saturated fats, dietary cholesterol, heme iron (which in excess may cause health concerns), and toxins related to the processing and preparing of meats. You’ve probably noticed in the headlines that red meat intake—especially processed meat, like bacon, sausage, and deli meat—has been the culprit behind numerous health risks. In one recent study, which followed more than half a million men and women for 16 years, red meat and processed red meat intake was linked to an increased risk of death due to nine different causes. People who ate the most red meat had a 26% higher risk of death from cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, diabetes, infections, kidney disease, and liver disease, compared to those who ate the least.
The Health of the Planet, Too.
It’s not just about your health, it’s also about the health of the planet, which we have a responsibility to protect for future generations. Our appetite for meat has posed environmental concerns, such as climate change, pollution, and overuse of land and water. Research consistently links plant-based diets with a lower environmental footprint, and the more plant-based the diet, the better. That’s because agricultural animals (especially ruminants, like cows and sheep) have a much greater impact on the environment over their lifetime, as they munch on plants (which are cultivated for them), drink water, burp up methane, produce polluting manure, and take up lots of land. It’s much more efficient to just eat the plants in the first place.
According to Sabaté, the act of eliminating or dramatically decreasing the meat in your diet, especially from ruminant animals, could be the single most important thing you could do in your lifetime to prevent the degradation of the environment. “Drastically decreasing meat, in particular meat from ruminant animals, is much more effective than changing your car from a SUV to a regular car, or a regular car to an electric car,” says Sabaté.
7 Steps to Go Plant-Based
1. Just Eat More Plants. What if I don’t want to become a total vegetarian? It’s a common question. Whether you want to simply cut back on animal foods, or whether you want to try a full on vegan challenge, the choice is up to you. There are benefits to be gained by making any change, big or small. According to a recent scientific review, switching to a flexitarian or semi-vegetarian diet can lead to multiple benefits, including lower risk of obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. So, make a goal and just do it!
2. Go Whole. Remember, the beauty of a plant-based diet is in eating more whole plant foods: whole grains, like oats and farro; pulses, including beans and lentils; tofu, vegetables, like carrots, spinach, and cauliflower; fruits, such as peaches, pomegranates, and berries; nuts and seeds, like almonds, pistachios, and pumpkin seeds. These are the foods that are rich in nutrients that fight disease. Many people switch to plant-based eating via highly processed foods, such as prepared entrees, snack foods, and treats, which are low in nutrients. Remember, cola, potato chips, and chocolate sandwich cookies are vegan! Sabaté says, “A plant-based diet full of processed foods is not as healthy as a plant-based diet with unprocessed foods, which focuses on eating unrefined products and cooking from scratch.”
3. Make Plant Proteins the Star of Your Plate. How do you make the switch to a plant-based diet? First, you swap animal proteins (like meat, fish, chicken, turkey, cheese, and eggs) with plant proteins. This switch is important, because plant proteins come packaged with lots of bonuses, such as fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. What are plant proteins? These are plants that offer especially rich sources of protein. A one-half cup serving of cooked beans, lentils, and dried peas, ½ cup of tofu, or 1 ounce of nuts or seeds (like peanuts, pistachios, almonds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds, and chia seeds) provides about the same amount of protein as 2 ounces of meat. While it’s ok to include processed, plant-based meat alternatives occasionally, such as veggie-burgers and faux chicken, the bulk of your diet should be based on these whole, nutrient-rich plant foods.
4. Put Together Plant-Based Meals. So, now that you have your plant proteins mastered, it’s time to put it altogether with a balanced plant-based meal, based on the formula: plant protein + whole grain + vegetables + healthy fat + fruit = healthy, delicious perfection. Just balance your plate with a serving of plant proteins, such as beans or tofu, a serving of whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa, a couple servings of vegetables, such as zucchini and mushrooms, some healthy fat, such as avocado or sesame seeds, and fruit, such as grapes or cherries, and you have a healthy plant-based meal. This is what that could look like in real time: A stir-fry with tofu, zucchini, mushrooms, and sesame seeds served with brown rice and grapes for dessert. Voila! You’ve got plant-based meal planning down pat.
5. Power up on Whole Grains. Don’t fall for the current fad of fearing carb-containing grains. Health experts agree that whole grains are packed with nutrients, such as protein, fiber, phytochemicals, B vitamins, and minerals. Eating these crunchy, nutty whole grains can lead to a healthier heart, digestive system, and weight. The focus is on whole grains over refined grains, which have their outer bran and germ layers stripped away, leaving only the starchy endosperm. Eating refined grains, such as foods made from white flour, can never compare in nutritional value and health benefits. Whole grains, such as millet, rye, whole wheat, oats, amaranth, buckwheat, brown or wild rice, teff, sorghum, and quinoa, are a key part of a healthy plant-based diet, so try to include one at each meal.
6. Fall in Love with Vegetables. If there’s one single thing you can do to improve your health, it’s to load your day, from morning to night, with veggies, in every color, shape, texture, and variety. You should be getting 2-3 cups of vegetables every single day to pack your diet with fiber, vitamins, minerals, protein, and especially phytochemicals. And don’t just limit yourself to the same standard peas and carrots, and boring salad greens. There are thousands of different types of vegetables around the world, from kohlrabi to bitter melon to yucca. Visit a farmers market to find new and unusual vegetables, or plant a few in your garden. Try to include deep green leafy vegetables in your diet every day (i.e., broccoli, chard, collard greens) for rich sources of vitamins and minerals, and deep orange-red vegetables (squash, tomatoes, yellow beets) a few times per week for carotenoid antioxidants.
7. Make It Interesting! Won’t I miss meat? That’s something most people wonder about. But if you think about the color, textures, aromas, and flavors that await you on a beautiful, delicious plant-based diet, you won’t have time to miss the meat! A plant-based diet is so much more than PB&Js and iceberg lettuce salads. It can be an earthy curried lentil skillet simmering with Indian spices and served with crunchy brown basmati rice. It can be a hand-crafted burger made with black beans, onions, and quinoa served with rich avocados and thick tomato slices on a whole grain bun. The sky is the limit! Start exploring the world of plants and you won’t miss a thing (except for a few pounds and points off your cholesterol level). Make it the year of the plants.
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