First let’s get clear about what we are talking about. The term plant-based diet is one that emphasizes vegetables, beans, peas, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds. There are different types of plant-based diets: vegan with no animal products such as meat, eggs or dairy; lacto-ovo vegetarian with no meat but including dairy products and eggs; and lacto-vegetarian with no meats or eggs but including dairy products. You can also eat a plant-based diet without going completely vegetarian. Some people call themselves “pescatarian” if their plant-based diet includes fish or “flexitarian” if they occasionally eat animal products. While vegetarian diets are usually defined by what they exclude, think of what they include—lots of vegetables, grains and fruit. The whole foods plant-based idea does not require complicated instructions – just start to eat more whole, unprocessed foods that come directly from plants.
So if we decide to eat this way, what are the benefits? There are many. There are numerous health benefits (see below), there are environmental benefits such as reduction of greenhouse gases and pollution, and there are ethical considerations regarding cruelty in raising animals for consumption.
Some of the key health benefits of plant-based eating include:
- Heart health
- Reduction in risk of developing Type 2 diabetes
- Reduction in the risk of colon and other cancers
- Weight loss
- Processed meat has also recently been linked to esophageal, bladder, breast and lung cancer
- In addition, eating large amounts of meat and dairy expose us to excess antibiotics, hormones and toxins such as dioxin like compounds (DLCs)that have adverse effects on reproductive and heart health as well as increasing risk of cancer.
I can’t write an article on vegetarian and vegan choices without addressing protein. With meat-eaters, protein typically isn’t an issue since meat is a good source of complete protein and key vitamins and nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamins B-12, B-6 and niacin. If you are vegetarian and consume eggs, dairy or fish, you will be eating enough protein. If you are vegan, protein is found in beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, grains and soy products.
Although each of us varies with the amount of protein we need to eat, the Dietary Guidelines recommend that 10-30% of your daily calories come from protein, or about .3-.5 grams per pound of ideal body weight. If you eat ¼ cup nuts or ½ cup seeds, 1 cup or beans or lentils and a serving of soy or veggie burger, you will be getting enough protein. If you are vegan, make sure to get enough of the amino acids Methionine (found in soy, sunflower seeds, peanuts and whole wheat) and Lysine (found in soy, pistachios, cashews, quinoa, lentils and whole wheat), since these are only found in small quantities in certain plant foods. Also, consider a Vitamin B12 supplement since B12 is found exclusively in animal products.
From the environmental perspective, the EWG (Environmental Working Group) has published a report comparing the environmental impact of plant vs. animal foods. Producing meat and dairy requires large amounts of pesticides, chemical fertilizer, fuel, feed and water. It generates greenhouse gases and toxic manure and wastewater that pollute groundwater, rivers, streams and the ocean. And did you know that lamb, beef, cheese, pork, turkey and farmed salmon generate the most greenhouse gases? Chicken, canned tuna, eggs, plants and milk and yogurt produce less. This is due mostly to the high methane (CH4) emissions from digestion, manure as well as the nitrous oxide from fertilizers generated from growing feed. It takes about 15 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of beef and about 5 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of chicken. Scientific American reveals that the amount of beef the average American eats in a year creates as much greenhouse gas as driving a car over 1800 miles!
There are many documentaries about the ethical implications of eating meat and animal cruelty, and if you’re interested, I would encourage you to check them out. For the purpose of this post I’ll avoid delving too deeply into a potentially politically charged discussion.
So what do you do if you would like to shift towards a more plant-based diet?
- To increase the plants and decrease the animal protein, start slowly inverting the proportions of each. Try “Meatless Monday” or one or two meatless days a week for dinner. Make a resolution to try one new veggie recipe a month.
- Start to shift from meat being the main part of the plate to some small amounts of meat around grains, fruits and vegetables.
- Find recipes so you can convert your favorite meat-based dishes such as lasagna, Mexican food or stir fry into vegetarian versions. Buy a good vegetarian cookbook.
- Use whole foods instead of processed foods. A good example are our whole food snacks!
- Get inspiration from vegetarian restaurants—try new dishes then make them at home.
- Eat organic and local produce when possible to cut down on fertilizer pollution and food transportation fuel use.
Lea Basch is a registered dietitian and has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years, most of which she spent at Longmont United Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, where she was one of the founders of the facility’s nutrition program. Longmont’s Planetree philosophy of caring for the body, mind and spirit of patients is very much in line with Lea’s interest in both traditional and alternative therapies for treating chronic illnesses. Gluten-intolerant herself, Lea now focuses much of her time on the latest research and issues relating to gluten-free diets and other food intolerances. She is a diabetes educator and is a Registered Dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. Lea’s lifelong passion has been combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.
Lea received her BS and MS in Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University and BA in Education at University of Florida. Ask Lea your nutrition questions at DearLea@tastefulpantry.com