Whether it’s to go entirely meat-free or transition to eating mostly plants, more and more Americans are sidelining a meat-heavy diet. In fact, a recent survey by YouGov found that some 32 percent of Americans are planning to consume more vegan foods in 2022.
There are all sorts of reasons people have been opting to eat more plants these days. For one, after two years of a global pandemic, many Americans are starting to focus more on longevity, says The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Rebekah Blakely, R.D.N. “Multiple studies have shown potential health benefits from eating plant-based foods, including a reduction in body fat, improved blood pressure and cholesterol, reduced risk of diabetes, and a lower risk of heart disease,” she notes.
Plus, with the climate crisis becoming a bigger and bigger topic as of late, more people are also choosing to go plant-based in order to reduce their carbon footprint. “Red meat, specifically, tends to use the largest amount of water to produce and comes with the highest greenhouse gas emissions,” explains Blakely.
In addition to the personal and planetary health perks, eating a plant-based diet can also be more cost-effective than going full carnivore. “Buying meat and animal products can get quite expensive, whereas foods like grains, legumes, and in-season fruits and vegetables can be very affordable,” Blakely says. “With a somewhat unstable economy and gas and food prices going up, this is also a priority for many people.”
Still, despite the many benefits, the prospect of eliminating (or at least seriously scaling back on) animal-based products can throw some people for a loop—especially if they’ve made up a significant portion of your diet for years and years. Here, dietitians share the answers to the plant-based diet questions they hear most.
Do you have to eat completely plant-based to experience benefits?
While many people are interested in trying out plant-based eating, they may not be ready to commit to living the lifestyle 24/7—and that’s okay! You don’t have to go all in to reap the benefits. “Incorporating more plant foods into your weekly routine while also decreasing the animal foods you consume can still have benefits for your overall health, wallet, and the environment,” says Blakely. “Consider starting with a goal of having one plant-based day per week or even each day.”
Will You Get enough protein on a plant-based diet?
Behold, one of the most common plant-based diet questions people ask. When many of us think about protein sources, we think of animal-based products like lean meats and dairy. However, there are a ton of high-protein foods that are entirely plant-based. “Plant-based foods can provide more than enough protein for most people, you just might need to be a little more mindful about where your protein is coming from,” says Blakely. “Most plant foods are complex, meaning they contain a mix of proteins, carbs, and fat, as opposed to meat, which is mostly protein (with some fat).”
The key to meeting protein needs without animal foods? Incorporating a wide variety of plant-based foods—including legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables—into your daily eats to ensure those grams of protein add up.
Of course, if protein is top-priority, you can always supplement. “If you find it hard to hit your protein goals with whole foods, you can also incorporate a plant-based protein powder,” Blakely adds.
Are concerns about plant proteins not being “complete” warranted?
It’s true, there’s a hefty list of plant-based foods that, when consumed on their own, don’t provide adequate amounts of at least nine essential amino acids that animal proteins do provide, explains The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N. “However, for the majority of individuals following a plant-based diet, concerns about plant proteins not being complete aren’t warranted,” she explains. The reason? As long as you include a wide range of plant proteins, you’ll end up getting adequate amounts of essential amino acids throughout the day. Remember, variety is key!
That said, certain plant foods are considered “complete proteins,” meaning they provide all of the essential amino acids we typically credit animal foods for. A few to munch on often: quinoa, soy, chia seeds, and spirulina.
Are “plant-based” and “vegan” the same thing?
Though these terms are often used interchangeably these days, they aren’t necessarily one and the same. “Vegan” refers to someone who does not eat any food that comes from an animal—including honey, which comes from bees, Blakely explains. “Some vegans also take things a step further by adhering to a strict non-animal policy in other areas of their lives, including clothing and skincare,” she adds.
Read More: The Best Supplements For Plant-Based Eaters
And though “plant-based” is often used in reference to a vegan diet, you don’t have to be completely animal-free to identify with the term. After all, it’s called plant-based not plant-exclusive. If you eat mostly plants, it’s certainly fair to say that you’re plant-based!
Still, since these terms can mean different things to different people, it never hurts to clarify.
Does eating plant-based cause indigestion?
If you’ve ever felt bloated or gassy after eating certain vegetables (namely the cruciferous kinds like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage), you might worry that eating more plant-based foods would just lead to more frequent indigestion. Don’t worry, though—your body will likely adjust to the fiber content over time, assures dietitian Michelle Routhenstein, R.D., owner of Entirely Nourished. She recommends easing into the change slowly and maintaining a balance of plant-based foods instead of heavily relying on one type over another. Try increasing how many animal-free meals you eat per week or day incrementally, instead of going all-in at once—and venture outside of that cruciferous veggie category often to give your belly a break.