Plant Based Diet Benefits

This is a guest post by Emily Martini. She is a student at UCLA and is pursuing a career in dietetics (woohoo!). In my year end survey there was quite a bit of interest in learning more about plant based eating practices so Emily tackled it for you!

Though a plant based diet is not appropriate for everyone in every circumstance, there are definite health benefits gained by increasing your plant food intake. Enjoy!

The Benefits of a Plant Based Diet

Today there is much debate over what diet is the healthiest. With so much controversy over what foods will be the best for your body it can be hard to determine which is best for you. The growth in fad dieting has resulted in so many different foods that people recommend that you should add or remove from your diet, which only makes finding the right diet for you all the more difficult! Many will agree that a healthy diet is full of a balanced variety of nutrients while minimizing processed foods that are high in sugar, fat, and preservatives. Recently one diet in particular that has been getting a lot of attention is a plant-based diet.

What is a Plant Based Diet?

A plant-based diet can be seen as less of a rigid diet and more so a healthy lifestyle. It is where a majority, if not all of your food is sourced from some kind of plant, while minimizing or completely avoiding animal products (meat, dairy, eggs). Although fruits and vegetables may come to mind this diet is also rich in a variety of other plant-based sources.

Plant-Based Foods:

  • Whole Grains: Brown Rice, Quinoa, Farro, Barley, Rolled Oats

  • Fruits: Berries, Bananas, Citrus, Apples, Grapes, Melons

  • Vegetables: Leafy Greens, Potatoes, Broccoli, Asparagus, Brussels Sprouts

  • Legumes: Lentils, Chickpeas, Peanuts, Peas

  • Nuts: Macadamias, Almonds, Pistachios, Cashews, Pecans, Walnuts

  • Oils: Coconut, Vegetable, Peanut, Olive, Avocado

  • Dairy-Free Milks: Oat, Almond, Cashew, Soy

  • Proteins: Tofu, Tempeh, Seitan

Although these do not include every plant-based food available, one can see that within the diet there is a great amount of variety and flavors to work with.

Health Benefits of a Plant Based Diet

There is a lot of research that has shown the various health benefits of a plant-based diet. One study done by the Dietetics Association of Australia found that a plant-based diet was associated with a lowered risk for Gestational Diabetes Melitus (developing diabetes when pregnant). There is also some evidence that shows that a plant-based diet may help some reduce their risk of developing Symptomatic Gallstone Disease (GSD). Although these are more specific ways that a plant-based diet is beneficial, there are more commonly known advantages to eating this way.

Major Health Benefits:

  • Lower Body Fat (Maintain a Healthy Weight)

  • Improved Vascular Flow

  • Better Tissue Oxygenation

  • Lower Oxidative Stress

  • Lower Inflammation

  • Reduced Risk of Heart Disease (lowers LDL Cholesterol levels)

  • Lowers the Risk of Diabetes

Plant-based diets are not only beneficial for those who are in poor health, but can help to improve the health of someone who is already in good shape. Endurance athletes, for example, can benefit from the high carbohydrate content of a plant based diet to improve their glycogen storage. This can help them to perform longer and stronger when they exercise.

Main Concerns For Plant-Based Diets  

When looking to transition to a plant based diet there are typically a few concerns the majority of individuals have. The most profound concern being that a plant based diet does not allow them to get the proper amount of protein. Although the most commonly known “protein sources” are meat (chicken, beef, pork) there are a lot of plant-based foods that are excellent sources in protein. The important thing to remember with plant based sources of protein is that you often need to combine multiple sources to create a complete amino acid profile. With the proper planning and awareness, you can absolutely meet your protein needs with a plant based intake.

Examples of Plant Based Protein Sources per serving:

  • Firm Tofu: 10 g

  • Edamame: 8.5 g

  • Tempeh: 15g

  • Cooked Lentils: 8.4g

  • Chickpeas: 7.3g

  • Peanut Butter (Tbsp): 8g

Along with protein many believe that a plant-based diet will lack in other nutrients found in animal products such as calcium, zinc, B12 and iron. Fortunately there are a wide range of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains that offer just as much, if not more of these nutrients than their animal product counterparts. The key to getting the proper amount of nutrients in a plant-based diet is ensuring you eat a wide variety of different plant-based sources.  

  • To improve iron absorption from plant foods, combine a source of vitamin C with a source of iron like adding lemon juice to your cooked or raw spinach.

  • Dark leafy greens are a great and often missed source of calcium.

  • Zinc is present in many legumes, nuts and seeds. The body doesn’t have specific storage for zinc so it’s important to continuously consume zinc-containing foods or consider supplementation if necessary.

  • B12 is predominantly present in animal products and is a commonly recommended supplement for those on a plant-based diet (see link at bottom of article for access to pharmaceutical-grade supplements).

Adopting a Plant-Based Diet

Although a lot of research needs to be done to fully understand the total effects of a plant-based diet, we are already seeing a lot of ways it can benefit a person’s overall health. Many healthcare professionals are beginning to recommend it to their patients with conditions such as high blood pressure and atherosclerosis. This is because there have been reports of how transitioning to a plant-based diet quickly reversed the symptoms of these health conditions.

For those looking to make the transition to a plant-based diet there are many ways to begin adopting this lifestyle in a manageable way. Rather than going full blown vegan, it may be easier to start with smaller steps that make it something maintainable.

Ways to Incorporate a plant-based Diet:

  • Reduce the use of animal products within your diet (only have them 2 or 3 days a week) by cutting back on the amount that you use regularly.

  • Make sure you are buying organic or local plant-based products to minimize the amount of pesticides and hormones that may be used to help grow them.

  • Find easy alternatives to foods that you already like that are plant based - for example my new favorite plant-based find is Trader Joe's Cauliflower Gnocchi rather than a regular gnocchi that contains eggs.

  • Make sure you are getting a lot of variety in your diet by eating a lot of different foods, which will ensure you are getting the right amount of macronutrients

  • Try as much as possible to avoid processed meat-alternatives which are typically full of preservatives and fat. Although these are plant-based they are usually less healthy than a local or organic meat product.

  • If you are completely removing any animal products from the diet make sure to take a vitamin B12 supplement - Vitamin B12 is an essential component to producing new red blood cells and it is only found in animal products naturally. Fortunately there are many brands and forms of the supplement that can be taken (oral, injected, sublingual).

A plant-based diet is not difficult to adopt, but it does take some research and practice to make sure you are getting the nourishment you need from your meals. Increasing the amount of plant foods is beneficial for all people, however a full blown plant based diet may still not be the right diet for everyone. As they say, the best diet is the one you will be able to maintain as a lifestyle!

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