Whether it is out of concern for the environment, the treatment of animals or for health reasons, plant-based diets have become increasingly popular. Is it a better way to eat? Some research shows that plant-focused diets like the Mediterranean and vegetarian diets are associated with lowered risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and increased longevity.
While eliminating animal products from your diet may be more environmentally sustainable and may ease your concerns around cruelty to animals, it does not automatically equal a healthy diet. Here are some things to consider before you embark on this eating style:
1) A plant-based diet is more of a direction rather that a specific diet. It encourages a greater consumption of minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs, and spices and less or no consumption of animal products. There are many variations on the theme:
a. Vegan – eliminates all animal food sources.
b. Vegetarian – eliminates most animal foods; may include eggs, dairy products.
c. Flexitarian – mostly vegetarian but allows occasional meat and other animal products.
d. Pescatarian – eliminates meat but includes fish and seafood.
2) Going strictly vegan can make getting enough high-quality protein into your diet a challenge. Consider including sources like tofu, tempeh and seitan. Tofu and tempeh are made from soy and seitan is made from wheat protein.
3) Will you lose weight on a plant-based diet? Do not assume because an item is animal free that it is lower in calories. Plant-based burgers are a good example. They can be quite high in fat and have the same number of calories as a beef burger.
4) To maximize your nutrient intake, strive for four cups of non-starchy vegetables per day. Pasta, potatoes and corn are plant-based, but they are calorie dense and nutrient poor by comparison.
5) If you are going strictly vegan, you may need to supplement your diet with Vitamin B12 as this vitamin is found primarily in animal products. Some cereals and nutritional yeast are fortified with this nutrient.
Plant-based diets can be healthy when done correctly. Making gradual changes toward your goal may also maximize your long-term success. If you are ready to make this lifestyle change and are not sure where to start, consider working with a dietitian or nutritionist who can help customize a plan that best meets your needs.
Danette Peterson is a registered dietitian with Profile by Sanford.