How to Eat a More Plant-Based Diet and Why? – #1in the Best Eating Plan Series

In recent months preliminary reports have been released outlining what will be recommended by the panel of nutrition experts behind the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.  A plant-based diet is one of their recommendations.

When you hear the term plant-based diet, you may automatically think completely vegetarian and then think, not happening.  While being a vegetarian can be a perfectly nutritious, and very healthy option, eating a plant-based diet does not have to mean going vegan and swearing off meat and eggs forever.  It can simply mean trying to select most of your foods from whole, real, plant-based sources.

What Foods Are Included?
A plant-based diet is one that emphasizes nutrient-dense, whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, beans, peas, lentils, soy beans, seeds, nuts, and whole  grains, while minimizing processed foods, oils, and animal foods.  Plant-based foods offer a good, well-balanced variety of protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and minerals.  They are also good sources of phytochemicals, which are naturally occurring compounds present in plant foods that can help to protect our bodies from chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

A plant-based grocery cart will include plenty of vegetables (mostly of the non-starchy variety), and plenty of whole fruit (instead of fruit juice).  The emphasis should be on more-intact, less-processed fruits and vegetables and on true whole grains as opposed to white, refined grains.  Think fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables in their most natural state. When it comes to grains, look for 100% whole grain breads – brown rice, quinoa, oats, bulgur, etc.

Also included, healthy protein sources from a combination of plant-based foods like legumes (beans and peas), nuts, and seeds.  As Americans, when most of us think protein we automatically think meat, but you don’t necessarily need to rely on meat or animal products to get the protein you need.  Beans, peas, nuts, and seeds are great sources of protein.  Whole grains also contain a good amount of protein having up to 6 grams per 1/2 cup serving.  Even vegetables, such as broccoli, have up to 3 grams of protein per 1/2 cup.

The idea is to switch from basing our meals around the meat portion – as many Americans do - to more of a plan that is based around the non-animal, plant-based foods but can still include a modest amount of poultry, fish, and dairy, if that is your choice.  While vegetarian or vegan diets have been shown to have many health benefits, diets that are plant-based, but have some animal foods have also been shown to improve health.

What are the Health Benefits?
What if I told you I knew a diet that has been scientifically supported to lower your cholesterol, reduce your risk of heart disease, lower your blood pressure, reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, lower inflammation, help you manage your weight, lower overall cancer rates, reduce your risk for getting Alzheimer’s disease, and help you live longer and healthier?  Sounds too good to be true, right?  Well, there is a hefty amount of evidence to support that eating a diet based on plant-based whole foods can actually do all of that.  The following are just a few examples of some of those studies.

The EPIC study looking at 520,000 people in ten European countries showed that those participants that more closely adhered to a plant-based diet had longer lifespans.  That same study showed that vegetarians weigh less than non-vegetarians of similar height.  A review of five studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, including over 76,000 subjects, found rates of heart disease to be 34% lower in vegetarians than in non-vegetarians.

Intake of both processed and unprocessed red meat, in particular, has been associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.  A Harvard review of several studies looking at over 442,000 subjects showed that swapping one serving of nuts, low-fat dairy, and whole grains per day for one serving of red meat per day was associated with a 16“35% lower risk of type 2 diabetes.  Lastly, as published in Archives Neurology in 2009, high adherence to a plant-based diet was linked to a 48% lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

5 Ways to Follow a More Plant-Based Plan

  1. Go veggie at breakfast.  Skip the meat and pile your plate with fruits and/or veggies.  Many people completely skip fruits or veggies in the morning.  Make it your goal to include at least a 1/2 cup to 1 cup serving of fruits or veggies at breakfast.
  2. Go meatless one night a week.  Maybe you choose Monday and join the Meatless Monday campaign, or some other night of the week.  Need some ideas for recipes, go to
  3. Shop for plants first.  Hit the produce and grain section first and plan your meals around the plant-based foods on your plate instead of the meat.
  4. Keep it simple.  Non-meat meal options don’t have to be complicated or involve a new recipe.  Replace meat in your good old tried and true chili with beans instead or use 1/2 the meat and double up on the beans and add a veggie.  Making quesadillas?  Make them veggie based, think mushrooms, spinach, and black beans with cheese instead of ground beef or chicken.  Other menu options that are perfect for skipping the meat include pasta primavera, veggie pizza, and veggie lasagna.
  5. Switch from white processed grains to 100% whole grains.  Instead of white bread, pasta, and rice switch to 100% whole grain.  Better options include:  100% whole grain pastas – there are many varieties available; 100% whole grain breads, English muffins, bagels, and pizza crust; and brown rice.  If you aren’t sure whether you or your family will go for the the whole wheat pasta or brown rice, try a half and half combo of white mixed with the whole grain or brown rice first to ease into the transition.  Be sure to look at the ingredient label to make sure the first ingredient listed says whole, such as “whole wheat flour” or “whole oats”.  If it says “enriched” it isn’t whole grain.

A plant-based diet has many health benefits and can be simple to start to incorporate.  Even if you aren’t quite ready to go vegetarian, you can still reap the many health benefits of a plant-based eating plan by making just a few small changes.