If you make one change to your eating habits for 2015, you can’t go wrong with eating more whole plant foods: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs and spices. Simply put, adopting a plant-based diet is one of the best moves you can make for your health.
“Research links a number of benefits to a plant-based diet, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity,” says Sharon Palmer, registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and author of “Plant-Powered for Life.”
“People who eat a plant-based diet tend to have lower levels of cholesterol, blood pressure, inflammation — as well as a lower body weight,” Palmer said. “No wonder they have a lower risk of chronic disease, and they also tend to live longer.”
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Do you need to go vegan to eat a plant-based diet? No. Plant-based diets can take many forms, from vegan to vegetarian to flexitarian to omnivore. The common denominator is that they make plant foods the focal point of your plate. If you also choose to eat animal-based foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy) they play smaller, supporting roles.
How many servings of vegetables and other whole plant foods do you eat each day? If your answer is, “Not as many as I could,” take heart. Shifting in the direction of a plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean a wholesale lifestyle change. In fact, Palmer recommends starting with small steps.
“You could start with Meatless Monday, and eat vegetarian one day a week. And then perhaps you can add a few more vegetarian meals during the week,” she said. “Another strategy is to use meat as a seasoning — this is what many cultures do around the world. You can use one portion to flavor a whole family-sized meal in dishes like stew, casseroles, pasta dishes and stir-fries. Try to get away from the “meat as the center of the plate” eating style. Instead, choose more veggie-rich dishes, such as entree salads, vegetable stews, whole grain dishes, curries, etc.
Palmer also suggests basing more meals on beans and lentils (chili, bean burritos, lentil stew), and converting favorite classic dishes like lasagna, spaghetti and tacos to meatless versions.
While the benefits of a plant-based diet come from the combination of its various parts, Palmer says that if you had to pick one plant food group to focus on, make it vegetables.
“I think the benefits of a plant-based diet are the result of the overall eating plan — a diet rich in whole plant foods in a diverse array,” she said. “However, the single most effective part of it in my mind is an abundance of vegetables, which are low in energy (calories), packed in nutrients, and rich in phytochemicals — compounds that reduce inflammation, oxidative stress, and risk of disease. I suggest eating six servings of vegetables a day as part of a plant-based diet.”
If you’re concerned that cutting back on meat and other animal foods will mean missing out on certain nutrients, rest assured that eating a wide variety of whole and minimally processed foods, with an emphasis on plant foods, will provide you with what your body needs for optimal health. It’s about what you are eating, not just what you aren’t.
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Northwest Natural Health in Ballard. Her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com and her website is carriedennett.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.