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Tips for Plant-based eating

By: Ashleigh G. Whittington | Mar 8, 2024

What is plant-based eating?

The popularity of "plant-based" eating has grown in recent years, and although that term has often been used to describe vegetarian and vegan diets, now it is used to describe an eating style that still includes animal products but prioritizes a higher number of foods that come from plants. These can include fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds, beans, and dairy & meat alternatives. Folks might choose to adopt a plant-based diet for a number of reasons, including:

  1. Health benefits associated with eating more plant-based foods. Studies have shown that this dietary approach can reduce some of the risks for cardiovascular disease, including lowering blood pressure and LDL cholesterol. Additionally, increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables introduces a wider variety of important nutritional components into the diet that aren't freely available in animal products, like magnesium, potassium, fiber, and antioxidants like vitamins C & E. 
  2. Concerns for the environment. It has been confirmed by many studies that excessive  meat production and consumption, as well as factory farm conditions, impose an obstructive burden on the environment. It has been projected that transitioning to plant-based diets has the potential to reduce land use by 76%, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 49%, and improve water quality by 49%.
  3. Potential lower grocery bills and food costs. Opting for plant based sources of protein can often be a cheaper option than animal-based proteins. For example, a meatless chili using dried or canned beans is less expensive than a chili containing meat, or even a meat substitute.

Are plant-based foods more nutritious?

A plant-based product doesn't always equal a healthier food. Premade plant-based foods can vary in the nutrition they provide, so checking labels for things like added sodium or sugar is important when thinking about purchasing a plant-based product, like yogurt or milk alternatives. It can be easier to "eat the rainbow" when following a plant-based diet because fruits and vegetables are notoriously colorful! A grain bowl topped with sweet potatoes, red cabbage, spinach, and tofu or beans makes for a visually stunning meal full of flavor, variety, and nutrient-dense foods.

While a variety of nutrients can be obtained from plant-based foods, this type of eating style may require some additional planning to make sure you're getting all the vitamins, minerals, and protein you need. Animal foods, like meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs, are innately complete proteins, meaning they contain all nine of the essential amino acids your body cannot make itself. These amino acids contribute to the building of proteins necessary for many daily functions like tissue regeneration, energy production, and immune system function. Sources of whole soy (like tofu, edamame, and tempeh) and quinoa are two complete proteins in the plant-based sphere, but you can easily achieve your protein goals and ensure you're getting all the amino acids your body needs by combining protein sources. Combinations of grains + legumes, and nuts and/or seeds + legumes are considered complimentary proteins because when they are eaten together they provide all nine of those essential amino acids. Examples of these combinations include hummus + crackers, rice + beans, whole grain bread + peanut butter, and pasta + peas.

How to get started

  • Designate a certain night or nights for meatless meals
  • Try substituting some or all of the meat in recipes with plant-based protein, like beans, tofu, tempeh, or nuts and seeds
  • Make a colorful plate with fruits and vegetables: aim for 3 or more colors in each meal
  • Allow the plant-based foods to star in your meals, and cast animal products in the supporting role

Remember, if you enjoy eating foods that come from animals, and they make you feel good, more power to you! But if you're noticing that you aren't getting as many plant foods into your diet as you might like, or if you just want to mix it up and try something different, why not give it a trial run and see how you like it. To get you started, here's a delicious recipe from one of my mentors, Abra Pappa, CNS, LDN, that can be used as a side, or as a main dish topped with a plant-based source of protein. Enjoy!

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