By Rameck Hunt, M.D.
A plant-based diet – consisting mostly or entirely of nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds – can have many health benefits, including helping to control chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
In addition, eating a plant-based diet can help with weight loss and combat the adverse health affects associated with obesity.
However, the more restrictive the diet, the harder it is to get the proper nutrition.
That’s why if you’re considering a plant-based diet, you should work with your doctor to make sure you are meeting all of your nutritional needs.
Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Multiple studies highlighted by the National Institutes of Health have shown that following a plant-based diet reduces deaths due to heart disease, and has been shown to decrease the rate of developing certain cancers, including colon cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer.
Additionally, studies have shown that eating green also helps improve blood glucose levels in people who are diabetic or pre-diabetic.
Moreover, as the American Heart Association notes, a plant-based diet may help control several other chronic conditions, including:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
Plant-based diets can help people achieve and maintain healthy weight, as replacing sugars and refined carbohydrates with fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes typically reduces insulin levels and can help with weight loss.
Types of Plant-Based Diets
There are several types of plant-based diets. Here are the most common as described by the American Heart Association:
- A vegan diet is entirely plant-based. It excludes meat, fish, dairy and eggs—basically anything that comes from an animal.
- Vegetarians also eat a plant-based diet but may consume dairy and eggs.
- A flexitarian is a vegetarian that sometimes indulges in meat or fish, but mostly sticks to plant foods.
- Plant forward describes a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes plant-based foods, but is not strictly limited to them. Meat may be included, but not as the main feature of the meal.
Meeting Nutritional Needs
Sometimes, eliminating or greatly reducing the amount of meat and dairy you consume can result in deficiencies in protein and certain vitamins and minerals.
When protein intake is low, the body will use up the valuable protein stored in muscle tissue, where most of our daily calories are burned. This can deplete muscle and lead to decreased strength and mobility, especially in older people.
Plant-based dieters also are at risk for vitamin B-12 deficiency because this vitamin is only available in animal foods. For this reason, the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests that vegans take a B12 supplement to prevent a deficiency over time.
For people who eat a plant-based diet, especially vegetarians and vegans, protein needs can be met by including nuts, seeds, legumes and soy products in your daily diet.
Drinking milk alternatives, eating plenty of leafy greens, beans, grains and fortified cereals can help increase your intake of calcium, vitamin D, iron and zinc.
In general, the AHA recommends eating eight or more servings of fruit and vegetables daily, plus whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, dried beans and peas, as well as on-tropical vegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
However, knowing how much of one food constitutes a serving can be confusing. The general rules about serving sizes are as follows:
- Vegetables. One cup of leafy vegetables equals one daily serving. Eat a variety of colors and types of vegetables, such as spinach, carrots, broccoli and bell peppers.
- Fruits. A medium sized piece of fruit, about the size of a baseball, is considered one serving. Eat a variety of colors and types, especially deeply colored fruits like berries.
- Whole grains. A half a cup is considered one serving. These should be high-fiber whole grains.
- Nuts, seeds and legumes. Half a cup equals one serving. Add beans to soup, salads and pasta. Add unsalted nuts to salads, stir-fries and yogurt.
- Low-fat dairy. One cup of milk or yogurt is considered one serving.
- Poultry, fish and lean meat. A single serving is three ounces, about the size of a deck of cards.
Limiting salt intake, sugar-sweetened drinks, candy and desserts and red meat, is also advised.
How Do I Make the Switch?
Are you thinking about switching to a plant-based diet? The American Heart Association offers the following tips:
- Experiment with a meatless meal once a week, then add more days as you get used to it.
- Choose ingredients and flavors that you know you and your family will enjoy. Identify enticing vegetarian recipes that are simple to prepare.
- Instead of going cold turkey, start by changing the proportion of plant and animal-based foods on your plate. Move vegetables and fruits from a side dish to a starring role.
- If and when you do eat meat, choose the leanest cut available, reduce your portion size to no more than six ounces cooked, remove all visible fat, and cook in a healthy way to avoid excess saturated fats.
- Keep the refrigerator and pantry stocked with plant-based alternatives like vegetables, beans, nuts, whole grains and tofu.
It’s also important to remember that not all meatless meals are created equal. For example, while French fries or pizza may be plant based, they are still low in nutritional value.
If you’re thinking about adopting a plant-based diet, talk with your doctor. He or she can help make sure it’s balanced and nutritious.
To find a physician affiliated with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 1-888-742-7496 or visit www.princetonhcs.org.
Rameck Hunt, M.D., is board certified in internal medicine and specializes in obesity medicine. He is on staff with Princeton Medicine Physicians, Penn Medicine Princeton Health’s network of employed physicians.