2020 is officially the year of all things plant-based. Heck, practically every fast food joint in town even has plant-based burgers and other meat-free options on the menu!
Curious about the plant-powered way of life? This guide will break down everything you need to know—from some of the most appealing benefits of eating a plant-based diet to how to do it as healthfully as possible.
What Is A Plant-Based Diet, Anyway?
Though people often use the terms “plant-based” and “vegan” interchangeably, they’re not necessarily the same thing.
According to dietitian Charlotte Martin, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.O.W.M., a plant-based diet involves making plant foods the bulk of your meals—and eating animal foods either in moderation or not at all.
Just how much animal foods you incorporate is up to you—as long as your general focus is on loading up on plants.
Why Eat A Plant-Based Diet?
If you’re hesitant to cut down on animal foods (or give them the boot entirely), know this: Eating a plant-based diet can benefit you—and the world—in multiple ways.
1. It’s Great For The Environment
With climate change consuming headlines left and right, cutting down on animal products is a simple way you can make an impact.
“From both a water and greenhouse gas emissions perspective, the production of plants and plant-based foods is significantly better for the environment than the production of animal products,” says Martin.
In fact, the Institute for Water Education has long shown that plant agriculture requires less water—and preserves more land—than animal-centric agriculture.
2. It Could Save You Money
You may associate a more veggie-forward diet with pricey farmers’ markets and all organic price tags. However, plant-based diets can be great for keeping costs low if you shop smart.
“You’ll get much more for your money when comparing plant proteins, such as beans, lentils, peas, and whole grains, to high-quality meat products,” says dietitian Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.
However, if you dine out often or opt for fancy new vegan packaged products, costs can add up, she warns. To make plant-based eating as cost-effective as possible, limit packaged products and focus on whole foods, instead.
3. It’s Good For Your Health!
There’s not denying it: Eating more plants is just plain good for you.
“Plant-based diets are associated with lower blood pressure, lower total cholesterol, and increased HDL cholesterol, a.k.a. ‘good’ cholesterol,” says Martin. In fact, one study published in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases linked vegetarian diets with a 40 percent lower risk of heart disease.
Plus, “plant foods, like fruits and vegetables, are typically high in fiber, which can help fill you up for little calories,” says Martin. As a result, eating a plant-based diet can help you maintain a healthy weight.
Plants’ fiber and other nutrients can also help you feel more energized. “Many people see improvements in energy because of their increased consumption of vitamins, minerals, and large variety of phytochemicals, other compounds found in plant foods that benefit health,” says Jones.
Oh, and did we mention the potential mood boost, too? “Studies show fewer depressive symptoms in people who consume seven to eight servings of fruits and veggies per day compared to those who eat the two servings in the standard American diet,” says Jones.
How To Go Plant-Based In 4 Steps
Ready to put more plants on your plate? Just follow these four steps.
1. Look At Your Current Diet
Whether you plan to become a full-on vegan or to simply reduce your intake of animal products, you don’t have to go all-out all at once. Instead, slowly transition your current eats to suit your goals.
Look at your last week or so of meals. Are any of your go-to’s already plant-based? (Think oatmeal, bean-based chili, or hummus and veggie sandwiches.) Incorporate those meals more often or try out some of these plant-based recipes.
“If you are looking to improve your environmental footprint and your health, consider reducing your portion sizes of meats and dairy, and choosing at least one meal per day that is free of animal products,” suggests Jones.
From there, continue shifting away from the animal foods week by week.
2. Prioritize Protein
As you remove animal products, make sure to replace them with adequate plant protein sources—especially if you’re active.
Start by swapping plant-based proteins, like lentils, tempeh, and beans, into your favorite meat-based recipes, suggests Jones. “I often bake tofu while I roast vegetables to cut down on time, and use canned beans in crockpot chili,” she says.
If you still struggle to reach your protein goals, consider a plant-based protein supplement like plnt brand’s Plant Protein.
3. Consider Supplementation
“While plants technically could provide enough of all essential nutrients, our modern agricultural system and habits can make adequate intake of certain nutrients nearly impossible on a vegan diet,” warns Jones.
To cover any potential nutrient gaps, make sure a quality multivitamin is part of your routine, suggests Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N., dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe. (She likes the Rainbow Light Men’s One or MegaFood Women’s One Daily.) She also recommends letting your doctor know you’re eating plant-based so they can monitor your levels of certain nutrients.
A few specific nutrients plant-based eaters may need more of:
Though vitamin D is tricky to get from food, it’s primarily found in fatty fish, beef liver, and eggs, explains Martin. In addition to getting outdoors for some sun exposure, plant-based eaters may need to incorporate fortified foods and supplements (try The Vitamin Shoppe brand Vitamin D3) to meet their needs, she suggests.
Though plant-based eaters don’t necessarily need more vitamin B12 than meat-centric eaters, they may have a harder time meeting their needs, says Martin.
Why? We typically get vitamin B12 from animal foods.
To meet their needs, plant-based eaters can get vitamin B12 from fortified foods, nutritional yeast (a vitamin B12-rich seasoning), and supplements (try The Vitamin Shoppe Brand Vitamin B12.).
Iron, which we typically get from animal proteins can also be an issue for meat-free (or low-meat) eaters, says Martin. Menstruating women, in particular, have greater risk of falling short, since they have higher iron needs than men.
Thing is, we don’t absorb the iron in plant foods as well as that in animal foods, so plant eaters often need to consume about twice as much iron as their carnivorous counterparts, Martin says.
Vegetarians who do not eat meat, poultry, and seafood need almost twice these amounts because the body doesn’t absorb the iron found in plant foods as well as the iron found in animal foods, Martin explains. There are various sources though, like legumes (i.e. beans, peas), grains, nut, seeds, and dark leafy greens like spinach.
Luckily, this is pretty easily remedied. Many plant foods (like legumes, grain, nuts, seeds, and dark, leafy greens) are good sources of iron, says Martin. Green and brown lentils, for example, provide 30 percent of your daily value.
To increase your absorption of plant iron, Jones recommends pairing your iron-containing foods with vitamin C-containing foods, like peppers, kiwi, strawberries, broccoli, cauliflower, and even potatoes.
Since you can’t load up on fatty fish on a plant-based diet, you’ll need to find other ways to supplement your diet with omega-3s.
Martin recommends incorporating plenty of plant-based sources of omega-3s, like flaxseeds and walnuts, into your diet.
Even then, though, a supplement—like the vegan Nordic Natural Algae Omega — might be worthwhile, suggests Blakely.
4. Help Your Gut Transition
The increase in fiber and different types of fats and proteins that come along with eating plant-based may cause gas and bloating—especially at first. “Switching to plant-based can be upsetting to the digestive system,” warns Blakely.
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