There is no single eating pattern for a plant-based diet, defined as a regimen that encourages fruits, veggies, nuts and whole grains and recommends limiting processed foods, lean meats and dairy. Vegans choose to eliminate all animal products from their diet. Others, known as lacto-ovo vegetarians, skip the meat, but eat eggs and dairy. Those who eat fish but eliminate other meats are known as pescetarians.
People have different reasons for adopting a plant-based diet, and despite their reasons, the benefits of eating a diet that consists primarily of produce, whole grains, nuts and seeds are the same.
Plant products are naturally lower in fat than meat and animal products, making a plant-based diet typically lower in saturated fat and cholesterol. Plant-based nutrition is also associated with lower risks of heart disease, diabetes and even some cancers.
Don’t be fooled, plant-based diets aren’t all cherries and bell peppers. A healthful veggie-rich diet takes careful planning. It can be hard to get some essential nutrients, like vitamin B12, which is found only in animal products, and protein. It is possible to consume the recommended vitamins and nutrients while eating a plant-based diet—it’s just a matter of knowing what (and how much) to eat.
Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean you have to swear off meat—simply choose lean cuts and enjoy in moderation. Lean proteins include skinless chicken and turkey breasts, and fish, like tuna and salmon.
Reap the benefits
Heart disease: Heart disease is the leading cause of death among both men and women in the United States. An analysis of several studies suggests the risk of heart disease-related mortality was lower in vegetarians than in those who regularly eat meat. Some sources suggest adopting a plant-based diet eliminates much saturated fat and cholesterol from your diet, two fats that, in excess, can lead to heart disease.
Two risk factors of heart disease include diabetes and obesity, both of which are more prevalent in non-vegetarian diets. One study suggests diabetes is twice as likely to occur in an individual who does not follow a plant-based diet. Likewise, studies suggest there are lower rates of obesity among vegetarians than non-vegetarians.
Food undoubtedly plays a role in your heart health, but it’s not the only factor. Plant-based eaters tend to be healthier in other ways, too, so all these benefits may not be solely due to diet. Those who eat less meat often drink less alcohol, smoke less and are more physically active.
Digestion: Fruits, veggies and some non-animal proteins are loaded with fiber. One cup of black beans contains about 60 percent of the daily recommended value of fiber. Neither a serving of beef nor chicken contain any fiber at all. So, what’s the big deal? Fiber-rich diets help maintain bowel movements and normalizes bowel health—both of which are imperative for healthy digestion.
A serving of chicken breast won’t send your bowels for a loop, but healthy digestion does rely on consuming enough fiber. Load your plate first with produce and plant-based proteins, before slicing up a serving of meat.
Variety of nutrients: Expanding your diet to include more plant-based nutrition adds a plethora of vitamins, minerals and good-for-you fats. A cup of broccoli, for example, contains 11 percent DV of vitamin A, which boosts immune function; 135 percent of vitamin C, also beneficial for immune health; and 116 percent of vitamin K, which helps blood clot properly.
Packing your plate with a variety of produce will help your body get all the nutrients it needs.
Less waste: Not only is a plant-based diet good for your health, it may also benefit the environment. Plant-based diets, in comparison to diets rich in animal products, use fewer natural resources and are less draining on the environment. Grass-fed animals contribute to a small portion of animals raised for human consumption. Most livestock are fed grain, which could be consumed by humans instead!
Join the veggie train
Whether you are ready to give meat up entirely or thinking about cutting back, start by adding more fruits and veggies to your diet.
Beans are a good source of protein, making them an excellent alternative to red meat. Swap the meat in some of your favorite dishes with beans—your body (and your wallet) will thank you.