A Top Dietitian Breaks Down What It Truly Means to Eat a Healthy, Plant-Based Diet
It seems like only yesterday that the wellness world was obsessed with all-things keto, but lately, a different way of eating has risen to the forefront of people's interest: a plant-based diet plan. Unlike some diets that are passing fads (anyone you know still doing the cabbage soup diet?), healthy eating experts say the popularity of following a plant-based diet plan is here to stay.
But despite its popularity, there's still a lot of confusion around what going plant-based truly means. Is it the same as being vegetarian? Is dairy off the table? Why are so many people into it in the first place? Here to answer all these questions and more is registered dietitian Julieanna Hever, RD, aka the Plant-Based Dietitian. Keep reading for her expert intel as well as to see a sample day of what eating plant-based actually looks like.
Scroll down to learn the benefits of a plant-based diet plan and what it looks like to follow it.
What is a plant-based diet plan?
While different healthy eating experts may define plant-based eating slightly differently, Hever, who has been writing cookbooks about the diet plan for 15 years, defines it as "a diet based on whole plant foods." In terms of what whole plant foods actually are, Hever explains it's a term that encompasses six different types of foods, listed below:
This one is self-explanatory. In fact, if any eating plan claims to be healthy but eschews vegetables, it's best to look at it with a skeptical eye. Hever says that vegetables of all types have a place in plant-based eating. Absolutely none are off-limits and there are no rules around any to minimize eating.
Similarly, Hever says fruit across the board is part of plant-based eating. Just like with veggies, none are off limits.
3. Whole grains
Whole grains describe foods made from barley, oats, sorghum, buckwheat, or wheat. Some popular whole grain items you likely have in your pantry right now: rice, oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, and whole grain bread.
Legumes refer to seeds that grow in their pod and, chances are, they are already a part of your meals, whether you recognize it or not. Some examples of legumes include lentils, peas, chickpeas, beans, soybeans, and peanuts.
5. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds of all types are included in a plant-based eating plan—including nut and seed butters.
6. Herbs and spices
Not only are all herbs and spices part of plant-based eating, their inclusion in meals instantly makes them healthier. Hever highly encourages incorporating them into your dishes as an easy way to elevate both the taste and nutrient value of meals.
In terms of foods that are off-limits, Hever says that she considers anything that isn't from a plant to be not part of the eating plan. For her, that includes meat, dish, eggs, and dairy.
However, she says that what sets plant-based eating apart from being vegan or vegetarian is that it isn't an all-or-nothing mentality. "Ideally, foods from animals are minimized, but if you look at Blue Zone regions, which are parts of the world where people regularly live healthfully to be over 100, they do have a small amount of animal products included in their diets," she says. So while they're not the main focus of a plant-based diet plan, there is still some small room for animal foods if you choose to eat them.
Since animal products aren't the starring attractions of a plant-based diet (and thus you're eating fewer of them, if not zero), Hever says there are a few important nutrients you want to prioritize since they're harder to get from plants. One is vitamin B12. "Many cereals and nut milks are fortified with this nutrient, but if you're finding it hard to consume 200 micrograms a day, you may want to consider a supplement," she says. Brain-boosting and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which are often found in fish, are another area that plant-based eaters should prioritize. Vegan fish products are starting to include omega-3s more, and there are some plant-based omega-3 sources like ahiflower oil, chia, and flaxseeds.
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet plan?
Hever recommends a plant-based lifestyle to literally everyone, regardless of age, gender, or activity level—even seriously athletes can live a healthy plant-based life. If you choose to do so, she says there are many ways it can benefit your health. The key, of course, is eating foods from her aforementioned list and not replacing animal products with overly processed foods high in sugar and refined carbs. But if you do stick to the six core food groups she highlighted above, here are some of the benefits you can expect:
1. Plant-based eating is good for your heart
"One of the most exciting benefits I've seen in terms of what scientific studies have to say about plant-based eating is that it's actually been shown to reverse type two diabetes and cardiovascular disease," she says. The reason for this is because whole grains, fruits, and vegetables all contribute to maintaining a healthy body mass index, which is linked to improved cardiovascular health and reduced risk of metabolic disease.
2. It's good for brain health
Besides benefitting the heart, plant-based eating has also been linked to improving cognitive function. One reason for this is because plant-based foods contain antioxidants, which benefit the brain by protecting it from free radical damage and also helping with oxygen flow.
3. Following a plant-based diet is good for your gut
Because plant-based foods are high in fiber, Hever says it makes the gut extra happy. Fiber keeps the good bacteria in the gut thriving while also protecting it from bad bacteria; vegetables, fruit, legumes, and whole grains are all key ways to get your fiber fill.
4. It's linked to reducing the risk of certain cancers
This is another major health benefit of eating plant-based that Hever points out. Scientific studies say that minimizing red meat in particular is especially beneficial in minimizing the risk of certain cancers. To this point, vegetarians have a lower rate of cancer than people who eat meat.
5. It's good for the environment
Not only is eating plant-based good for your health, it's good for the environment, too. Studies have found that plant-based foods have a lower environmental footprint than foods from animal products. It's a win-win!
What a sample day of plant-based eating looks like
If you're used to having eggs and bacon for breakfast, switching to a plant-based diet may have you wondering what you're going to eat for your morning meal, but Hever reassures that you won't go hungry. Some of her go-to breakfasts are oatmeal, vegan pancakes, and tofu scramble. "For the scramble, just use soft tofu and scramble them the same way you would eggs," she says. Get some more ideas below:
1. Overnight oats
These creamy overnight oats are full of both fiber and protein. They also are loaded with berries, which not only adds a sweet touch but also ensures you're starting your day with lots of antioxidants—great for some morning brain power!
2. Banana bread
While some banana breads contain more sugar per slice than candy, this recipe uses only good-for-you ingredients. As a result, it's a delicious comfort food that won't spike blood sugar levels.
3. Tofu scramble
Intrigued by that tofu scramble idea Hever mentioned? Here's a recipe to follow. Tofu is high in protein just like eggs are, so you'll still have the same energizing start to your day.
Hever says that many people who are new to plant-based eating tend to be worried about where they're going to get their protein now that their usual salad or sandwich order doesn't have meat. Besides the plethora of alt-meats on the market, she says legumes can really come in handy here. Work some chickpeas, beans, or lentils into your salad, wrap, or soup and you'll have enough protein and fiber to stay satiated until dinner time. Here are some other delicious ideas.
1. Sweet potato soup
One sweet potato contains over 300 percent of your recommended daily amount of vitamin A—and you can reap it all in the form of this creamy, sweet potato soup. Incorporate vegan cheese in it for added protein.
2. Hummus veggie wrap
Here, chickpeas sub out meat to up the protein (and fiber) in this easy wrap. Also inside are avocado slices (which add creaminess and healthy fats), and greens.
3. Anti-inflammatory salad
You can absolutely have a hearty salad without chicken, fish, or egg in it. This one is served warm and *loaded* with veggies, including Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower. The dressing is made with some key herbs, which is really where the anti-inflammatory benefits come in: turmeric, ginger, and garlic are all part of the recipe.
Similar to lunch, Hever says the biggest hurdle people who are new to plant-based eating have when it comes to dinner is that they are worried about the protein content. But she says that beans, legumes, and tofu can be used in creative ways here too. "There are also many vegan meat alternatives on the market, but just make sure you do your label reading when you're grocery shopping because they aren't all healthy," she says. Or, you can start by following one of the below three recipes:
1. Mushroom, beet, and quinoa burgers
These veggie burgers are higher in fiber than ones made of beef and are full of flavor, too. (Just don't neglect the herbs, they play an important role here.) After blending the ingredients in a food processor and forming the patties, you can grill or cook them the same way as you would beef patties.
2. Falafel pizza
Chickpeas strike again as a way to check off the protein and fiber dinner boxes. The crust is made with gluten-free flour and chia seeds, which ups the fiber even more.
3. Sweet potato chili
While you may be used to chili with beef, you certainly don't need it in order to make a tasty, healthy meal. Here, lentils and beans are the primary ingredients, which make sure your bowl covers your biggest nutritional needs. There's no shortage of anti-inflammatory spices included, too.
These recipes are just a sampling of what eating plant-based can look like on a regular basis. "Literally anything you want to eat, there's a way to make it plant-based," Hever says.
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