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Plant-Based: How To Healthfully Adopt a More Plant-Forward Eating Pattern

Written by Tori Schmitt, MS, RDN, LD

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans share that a healthful eating pattern includes a plate filled with at least ½ plant foods from non-starchy vegetables and fruits.  Despite this, recent data shares that only 12.2% of adults meet the recommendations for fruit and only 9.2% of adults meet the recommendations for vegetables! (1) 

Yet, plant-based diets are growing in popularity.  According to a Nielsen survey in 2017, 39% of Americans are trying to eat more plant-based foods.  And these intentions are leading to shifts in grocery store purchases, too.  (2) In fact, plant-based food sales grew 20% between 2017 and 2018, according to Nielsen retail sales data commissioned from the Plant-Based Foods Association.  (3) Plant-based products like plant-based milks, yogurts, creamer, and meats now line store shelves. 

In practice, I get a lot of questions about plant-based diets, so I’m here today to answer the top plant-based nutrition questions.

 

1.)  What is a plant-based diet? 

A plant-based diet is an eating pattern rooted in whole, plant foods.  Though the definition of a plant-based diet can vary, typically, those who enjoy a plant-based eating pattern focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds as the foundation of meals and snacks.  Animal based foods, like meat, fish, eggs and dairy, and ultra-processed foods are not present at all or only present in small quantities in a plant-based eating pattern.

 

2.) Is a plant-based diet healthy? 

Yes, a plant-based diet can be a nutritious diet!  Plant-based diets are associated with decreased total cholesterol, decreased LDL “bad” cholesterol and increased HDL “good” cholesterol.  (4)  Too, vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease.  (5) 

That being said, the type and source of the plant-based food should be considered.  For example, we know that whole grains feature more fiber than refined grains, and fiber is an important contributor to supporting heart health and digestive health.

 

3.) Does eating plant-based mean that I must eat a vegetarian or a vegan diet? 

No way!  While some people choose to eat a vegetarian or a vegan diet, eating a plant-based diet doesn't mean that you must eat a “plant only” diet.  In fact, the Mediterranean diet, which is associated with a reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, allows for the inclusion of a small amount of animal foods like meat, fish, eggs and dairy.  (6) 

Remember that it’s not necessary to take an “all or nothing” approach when trying to eat more plants.  Simply including more plants into your meals and snacks is a smart, healthy step – whether that meals you include animal foods or not!

 

4.) I heard that if I eat a plant-based diet, I will eat too many carbohydrates.  Is that true? 

Not necessarily.  While some plant-based foods like starchy vegetables, fruits and whole grains are sources of carbohydrates, other plant foods like beans, nuts and seeds feature protein and healthy fats.  A plant-based diet should focus on a balance of nutrient-dense carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats from a variety of sources.

 

5.) Can I get enough protein if I eat a plant-based diet? 

Of course!  For example, a salad for lunch made with 2 cups of kale, ½ cup of cauliflower, ½ cup of strawberries, ½ cup chickpeas, and 1 tablespoon of hemp seeds includes almost 18 grams of protein!  The amount of protein found in whole plant foods surely adds up.


6.) How can I start eating a plant-based diet?   

It’s simple: include more plants!  Remember, your plate at meals and snacks should be filled with at least ½ vegetables and fruits, so make sure your grocery store cart, your refrigerator shelves, and your plate for a packed lunch or a restaurant meals is also at least ½ plant foods. 

Start with small changes. Make strawberries the base of your breakfast and simply add drizzled peanut butter and hemp seeds overtop.  Serve leafy greens as the foundation of your lunch to use in salads, as a wrap, in a smoothie, or in a sauté.  Then, add in more plant-based proteins like beans and lentils to your favorite hearty foods, like chili, burgers and casseroles for dinner. 

 

A plant-based diet doesn’t have to be overwhelming or challenging.  In fact, it can be fun – and delicious, too!  Get in the kitchen and start experimenting with new foods, food combinations and recipes.  You’ll never know what meal or snack will become a new favorite!  In fact, Foxy has several easy, whole food, plant-based recipes to get you started.  Check them out here!


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References:

1.      Lee-Kwan SH, Moore LV, Blanck HM, Harris DM, Galuska D. Disparities in State-Specific Adult Fruit and Vegetable Consumption — United States, 2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2017;66:1241–1247. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmw....

2.      Plant-Based Food Options Are Sprouting Growth For Retailers. The Nielsen Company, LLC. 2018 June 13. Accessed from https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/....

3.      Plant-based Foods Association. Plant-Based Food Sales Grow 20 Percent. 2018 July 30. Accessed from https://plantbasedfoods.org/wp...

4.      Yokoyama Y, Levin SM, Barnard ND. Association between plant-based diets and plasma lipids: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutr Rev. 2017;75(9):683-698.

5.      Kahleova H, Levin S, Barnard N. Cardio-Metabolic Benefits of Plant-Based Diets. Nutrients. 2017;9(8):848. Published 2017 Aug 9. doi:10.3390/nu9080848

6.      Widmer RJ, Flammer AJ, Lerman LO, Lerman A. The Mediterranean diet, its components, and cardiovascular disease. Am J Med. 2014;128(3):229-38. 

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