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How Healthy Is a Plant-Based Diet?
By Stephen Thomas, MD
You may have heard the term “plant-based diet” and assumed it was just another way to describe a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. But the fact of the matter is you can follow a plant-based diet and still consume animal products, including meat.
What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
Plant-based simply means the majority of your diet consists of foods deriving from plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes. As far as how much plant-based food you should consume, a good rule of thumb is for two-thirds of each meal to be made up of plant-based ingredients.
Possibly the most well-known example of plant-based eating is the Mediterranean diet, which emulates the cuisines of countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, including Greece and Italy. The diet is made up of plant-based foods and olive oil, as well as seafood, dairy, and poultry in moderation. Small amounts of unprocessed red meats and sweets are also eaten on occasion.
Instead of meals being built around meat, as they traditionally have been for decades in the U.S., they’re built around vegetables, beans, and whole grains.
Is a Plant-Based Diet Healthy?
If practiced correctly, a plant-based diet can be highly beneficial to your health. Over the last several years, research has linked a plant-based lifestyle to a lower risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, compared to diets high in animal products.
Using the Mediterranean diet as an example, the olive oil, nuts, and seeds used in many recipes provides monounsaturated fat, which lowers total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. Fatty fish, such as herring and salmon, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are polyunsaturated fats that help fight inflammation in the body. These fatty acids also decrease triglycerides, reduce blood clotting, and lower the risk of stroke and heart failure.
A plant-based diet is also nutrient-dense and high in fiber, healthy fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Are There Any Downsides to a Plant-Based Diet?
With any plant-based diet, especially if you decide to go completely meatless or not eat any animal products, you have to take special care to make sure you’re getting all of the nutrition you need.
Good nonmeat sources of protein are beans, lentils, quinoa, tofu, nuts, and seeds. You can get adequate calcium and vitamin D from milk alternatives, such as soy, rice, hemp, or almond milk. Dark, leafy greens and beans are also rich in calcium. Good sources of vitamin D include mushrooms and fortified cereals. Zinc and iron are found in whole grains and beans, and soy products are a good way to get vitamin B12.
What Does a Day on a Plant-Based Diet Look Like?
Following a plant-based diet doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s really just a matter of decreasing the amount of animal-based ingredients and increasing the amount of plant-based ingredients.
A day on a plant-based diet might look like this:
Breakfast: Steel-cut oats with almond milk, walnuts, and berries
Lunch: Whole grain tortilla wrap with hummus, lettuce, onion, tomatoes, and bell peppers
Snack: An apple with natural almond butter
Dinner: Greek turkey burgers with spinach, feta cheese, and tzatziki
If you find yourself craving something sweet after a meal, opt for fresh fruit.
The findings from research on plant-based diets are overwhelmingly positive. If you’re searching for a way of eating that reduces your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and other medical issues, a plant-based diet may be right for you.
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