The increased popularity of plant-based diets can be attributed to the myriad of health benefits ranging from improved longevity to chronic disease prevention. If you are considering adopting such a diet, it is important to learn about what plant-based eating looks like, potential risks, concerns regarding protein and digestion, as well as practical tips to increase your plant consumption.
What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
A standardized definition of a plant-based diet has yet to be agreed upon by governing agencies, making the recommendation of a plant-based diet ambiguous and open to interpretation. For example, the Mediterranean, vegan and vegetarian diets all could be considered plant-based.
Research suggests people who consume a majority of their dietary intake from plants tend to have a lower body mass index as well as lower rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease than those who consume diets not based on plants. Considering this data, an acceptable interpretation of a healthful, plant-based diet is rich in unprocessed whole foods including vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. It would not necessarily mean a diet devoid of meat, seafood or dairy, merely limiting these and other processed foods.
Although plant-based diets are promoted for favorable health outcomes, it is important to recognize the difference between consuming healthy, whole foods and unhealthy, processed foods, regardless of the origin.
Similar to the standard American diet, plant-based diets can include highly processed options of less nutritional value. A cross-sectional study comparing vegetarian and omnivorous adults found diet quality was more important than diet categorization. Simply stated, consuming a diet rich in processed foods, including plant-based processed options, will not lead to better health outcomes. To make a significant impact on health biomarkers, you need to consume a nutrient-dense diet of unprocessed, whole foods. If you choose to adopt a vegetarian or vegan plant-based diet, vitamin B12 supplementation may also be necessary to avoid deficiency.
What About Protein?
Consuming adequate protein while on a plant-based diet may be less challenging than you think. The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. It is important to note that this metric is not a recommendation for optimal health, but the minimum amount to prevent illness. For optimal health, research suggests protein levels between 0.8 to 1.0 grams per kilogram for average healthy adults and 1.0 to 2.2 grams per kilogram for training athletes.
Plant sources rich in protein include tempeh, tofu, lentils, beans, hemp, quinoa and nuts. Their prospective protein contents range from approximately 13 grams to 5 grams per serving. Consuming a wide variety of whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and fruit has been shown to render protein combining unnecessary, as it is more likely you will consume all your essential amino acids by eating broadly.
When done thoughtfully, people can consume their protein exclusively from plant sources; however, that is not a requirement for following a healthful, plant-based diet.
Digestion can be impacted when implementing new dietary choices. A few helpful considerations to improve the digestion of a plant-based diet include adequate hydration and soaking plant proteins prior to consumption.
Among many other essential nutrients for health, plants are rich in fiber. By increasing your daily consumption of plants, you also will be increasing your daily fiber intake. To prevent unpleasant bloating or constipation often associated with increased fiber, ensure you are adequately hydrated. Drink half of your body weight in ounces slowly throughout the day (i.e. a 150-pound individual would aim for 75 ounces of filtered water per day). This will assist in elimination as well as many other important physiologic processes.
In addition to adequate hydration, it is beneficial to soak plant proteins before consumption. In nature, dormant seeds require an energy source prior to sprouting. This vital role is played by phytates. Although essential for seed survival, phytates reduce the digestibility of starches, fats, and proteins. This undesirable effect can be avoided by soaking nuts, seeds, beans and grains prior to consuming them. When soaked, these nutritional inhibitors are reduced and digestibility is improved, reducing unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms.
Practical Ways to Increase Your Plant Consumption
- Reformulate your plate.
Challenge the thought pattern of centering your meals around an animal protein. Instead, focus on plant-based foods, allowing them to comprise ⅔ of your plate. This simple composition change will not only increase meal variety, but also help you reach your health goals.
- Eat more vegetables.
Vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients, making them the keystone of a healthful, plant-based diet. Get creative! Consider menu items like soups, salads, scrambles, smoothies and stir-fries to boost your vegetable intake without losing interest.
- Try a meatless meal.
Begin by planning a meatless meal once per week. This suggestion may seem challenging, but several cultures have been eating this way for centuries. Follow your palate and explore different cuisines. Fortunately, healthy plant-based recipes are easier than ever to come by via an internet search.
- Fruit for dessert.
Attempt to draw inspiration from the old adage, “Fruit is nature’s dessert.” Enjoying whole fruit desserts, like poached pears or spiced plums, can be decadent without thwarting your health goals. As winter draws to a close, try rhubarb or apple as a nutrient-dense and satisfying dessert.
In summary, plant-based diets are a great way to reduce your risk for illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Placing your dietary focus on vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains will broaden your food diversity and help you see greater health outcomes.