In the quest to get healthy and eat foods that are good for your body, no doubt you’ve come across the term, “plant-based diet.” Maybe your young niece or your co-workers have touted the benefits of going plant-based. Maybe your favorite celebrity talks about why he or she chooses to eat plants instead of protein-based foods like beef or dairy.
A plant-based diet generally means that your foods come primarily from plants like fruits and vegetables, beans, seeds, oils, whole grains, nuts and legumes. The diet differs from a vegetarian or vegan diet in which meat or dairy is rarely eaten. Instead, the plant-based diet means the majority of your food comes from plant sources with a limited amount of animal protein.
The plant-based diet can look different for everyone. Some limit their protein to only one meal a day while others go all out with no meat, dairy or any foods that come from an animal. Is a plant-based diet healthy? What are the risks and benefits? We are breaking down what a plant-based diet is and whether or not it may be right for you.
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?
While the term plant-based diet may seem like a recent fad, a lot of research has been done on the nutritional benefits of eating more plants and whole foods.
Diets like the Mediterranean Diet have been shown in numerous studies and clinical trials to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers like colon and prostate, and metabolic syndrome.
The Mediterranean diet revolves around mostly plant-based foods but also includes fish, eggs, poultry and dairy products a few times a week with limited red meats and sweets. Researchers started showing interest after discovering that people in certain countries around the Mediterranean like Greece had dramatically lower heart disease compared to Americans. The researchers believed that the reason for their low heart disease rates was because of their diet.
In the Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet study, researchers found that the risk of combined heart attack, stroke and death from cardiovascular disease was reduced by 30% in a controlled group that ate the Mediterranean Diet with added olive oil and 28% in the group that ate the diet with added nuts.
Another study by Diabetes Care in 2011 found that the Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 52%.
For those who want to cut out animal products completely, vegetarian diets also show some health benefits, including a lower risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, diabetes and more.
Be aware that vegetarian diets come in many different forms including:
- Semi-Vegetarian – includes eggs, dairy and a limited amount of meat, poultry and seafood
- Vegan – includes absolutely no animal produces
- Vegetarian – includes eggs and dairy, but no meat, fish, poultry or seafood
- Pescatarian – includes dairy, eggs, fish and seafood, but no meat or poultry.
What are the risks?
It’s clear that eating more vegetables and fruit and reducing red meat is good for you. But, like everything else, there are some risks in going full-out vegetarian. More stringent vegan plans, when done incorrectly, can actually cause a higher risk of stroke, hair loss and depression.
One nutritional expert says vegetarian diets may lead to a “choline crisis.” Choline is found in meat and poultry and plays a role in brain health and other body functions. While vegetarian diets are lower in choline, choline supplements or eating a few eggs each week can help boost the choline in the body.
When vegetarians severely reduce their protein intake, they can suffer from hair loss due to the lack of iron, vitamin B and zinc. Adding dark leafy greens and beans is important to maintain iron in the body, but adding an iron supplement may also be necessary. Here’s how to eat complete proteins in vegetarian and vegan diets.
Another mistake that beginners make is thinking that all non-animal foods are allowed. For instance, fries deep fried in vegetable oil is not a sound choice, but a baked sweet potato with a little butter and cinnamon is. Many sweets and high-sugar, high-calorie foods are vegan, but that doesn’t mean they are healthy choices.
Learn more about plant-based diets
With an estimated 90% of the population of the United States eating meat, it’s unlikely the majority of Americans are going to give up meat altogether. The good news is that you don’t have to. Simply eating more plants and eating just 3% less animal protein can result in a 19% lower risk of death from any cause, according to a 2017 study published in JAMA.
If you are interested in a plant-based diet, there’s no shortage of information out there to help you get started. Most physicians support the Mediterranean Diet as the most well-rounded, healthier choice. Talk with your INTEGRIS Health provider about the plant-based choices available and what needs you may have.
For more information on healthy eating, check out more nutrition and weight loss articles.