Plant-based diets seem to be all the rage. The Impossible Burger has been all over the news, with its recent appearance on Burger King’s menu (as well as countless other restaurants). And as campaigns like #MeatlessMonday continue to gain followers, this culinary movement isn’t going anywhere. But what exactly does a plant-based approach to eating mean?
We sat down with Atlanta-based Lindsay Hill, a Pilates and fitness instructor, board-certified health coach, founder of Inhabit Health, and author of The Get Real Diet, and we asked her to walk us through the ins and outs of plant-based eating. Keep reading as we spill the beans about what a plant-based diet actually is, why you should care, some do’s and don’ts to follow and everything else in a nutshell. (And yes, we will be using many more food idioms as we go!)
Plant-based Diet: Background and Concept
Before we get into the details of eating by way of a plant-based diet, let’s get into what this eating pattern means (and what it does not). According to Harvard Medical School, following a plant-based diet means just focusing on foods primarily from plants: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes and beans. It does not have to mean that you are vegetarian or vegan. We repeat: It does NOT mean you can’t eat grilled chicken or a cheesy pizza. It just means that you’re looking for more plant-based food sources; the majority of your sustenance comes from plants.
The concept of eating a colorful diet isn’t new — I’ve been telling my children for years to “eat the rainbow.” (Shhh, don’t tell the Skittles people I rebranded their concept for good instead of sugary evil.) Doctors have been spouting the benefits of a diet rich in fruits and veggies, and low in processed foods and animal fats, to their patients for decades. However, this way of eating has now become popular with many people, including those already in good health, younger generations and people concerned about the environment. It’s become a proactive way of maintaining good health — for the body and the earth.
Lindsay says, “What I like about ‘plant-based eating’ is that it’s a positive term. Rather than focusing on what you should avoid — like low-fat, low-carb and sugar-free diets do — a plant-based approach focuses on what you should eat more of: plants!”
She continues by explaining that many countries have long embraced plant-based diets, some because it’s tradition, others because meat is too expensive for the average citizen. The Mediterranean Diet, voted the best diet by U.S. News & World Report for two consecutive years, is a plant-based diet. So is the trendy Nordic Diet, which also ranked in the top five. However, these diets are notable and healthy, not just for their moderate to minimal meat consumption but also for their lack of processed, packaged foods.
America ranks at the top for meat consumption per capita (Australia, Argentina, Uruguay and Israel round out the top five). However, Lindsay says meat-eaters in these countries don’t have equivalent health outcomes. This is because many health professionals consider the amount of processed foods in one’s diet to have a more significant impact on health rather than the amount of animal products. Meaning? Eating factory-farmed beef burgers on white buns with a side of fries in America has an entirely different nutrition profile than eating grass-fed, grilled meats with a side of veggies in Argentina.
So remember, a plant-based diet isn’t just about forgoing animal products; it’s about focusing on colorful, wholesome fruits and vegetables and avoiding overly processed foods.
Plant-based Diet: Do’s and Don’ts
Following a plant-based diet properly can be a tough nut to crack (we warned you about the idioms). Luckily, Lindsay walks us through the do’s and don’ts of this way of eating.
- DO get enough protein, just make sure it’s the right kind. Lindsay says the average American only needs 15 to 20 percent of her daily caloric intake to come from protein. Healthy sources of protein for vegetarians and vegans include legumes, quinoa, brown rice and nuts. However, some vegetarians put on weight as they eat more cheese and carbohydrates since both are higher in calories per ounce than animal protein. This is not necessarily true for a flexitarian, for example, who eats a variety of plants and consumes lean animal products in moderation. “I personally follow a flexitarian diet because I find I can maintain my weight and feel like a responsible citizen by eating a mostly whole-food, plant-based diet with a moderate amount of lean protein from pastured, humanely-raised animals,” she says.
- DON’T fill up on the wrong plant-based foods. Remember, we said to make plants the basis of your meal and avoid the processed route. Lindsay says, “Vegans can live on bread and donuts without breaking the ‘rules.'” Since wheat, corn and potatoes are all technically all plants, some people following a plant-based diet may still skimp on the fruits and vegetables. They may miss major nutrients required for good health.
- DO your research and talk to an expert. Before starting any new diet, it’s always a good idea to consult your doctor, nutritionist or health coach. Everyone’s health is different, so make sure a new diet will work for your needs and that you understand the requirements for following it correctly.
- DON’T confuse ‘meat-free’ with ‘healthy.’ Lindsay says, “An Impossible Burger, which is made from a mix of soy and potato proteins and is highly processed in a lab, is not necessarily better for your health than a meat burger. But there is no doubt the Impossible Burger has a lower carbon footprint than an original Whopper. So if the health of the body is the goal, the choice may look different than if the health of the environment is the goal. Another good example is vegan cookies that are typically made with processed vegetable oil instead of nutrient-rich eggs. From a health standpoint, it’s not the better choice, even if it’s a better choice for someone who doesn’t believe in eating animal products. Remember, a cookie is a cookie, and fast food is fast food — a healthy plant-based diet wouldn’t contain much of either.”
Plant-based Diet: How to Start
The bread and butter of a plant-based diet is, well, limiting the bread and butter, and adding lots of plants (preferably colorful, fiber-rich ones).
- Lindsay suggests you start by upping your intake of spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, berries, avocados and lentils, instead of drastically restricting animal protein. The thinking is that you’ll start to eat less processed food/animal products because you will be filling up on nutrient-dense plants. She continues, “Then, depending on whether your goal is to be flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan, begin to remove the foods you want to cut out and see how you feel. If better health is your goal, most experts agree that moderate portions of animal protein can be part of a healthy diet — especially organic eggs and meat and probiotic-rich dairy foods. If you are moving toward a meat-free lifestyle for ethical reasons, team up with friends with similar convictions. Share ideas, recipes, menu items and social media feeds that will give you the information and motivation you need to stick to a healthy, meat-free lifestyle.”
- Remember to add proper plant protein. Replacing a nutrient-dense animal protein with healthy, plant-based counterparts — like avocados, lentils and green smoothies— will help you feel full, happy and satisfied without craving overly processed foods.
- Get the family involved by varying the types of meals everyone eats during the week. Lindsay says that besides exposing the kiddos to plant-based eating, variation helps expand palates, teaches about different cultures, prevents boredom and improves health. Eating more plants and less processed food will be a piece of cake (but not actually) by cleverly marketing dinnertime to your kids with Meatless Monday, Taco Tuesday, Wacky Wednesday, etc.
- Do your research by going online and hitting up the bookstore for sources that help newbies switch to, or follow, a plant-based diet. Lindsay recommends Meatless by Martha Stewart and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman for vegetarian recipes. Her book, The Get Real Diet, also contains lots of tasty plant-based recipes. If digital is your thing, she recommends the websites Forks Over Knives, Love & Lemons and EatingWell. She also frequently posts plant-based meals on her Inhabit Health Facebook page.
Ease into a plant-based diet by following these tips, talking to your healthcare provider and/or nutritionist, and learning more about the benefits of eating a colorful plate — one that is full of wholesome items and has less of the processed ones. With a little bit of effort and some knowledge, we can all be smart cookies … without eating them, of course!
A huge thanks to Lindsay Hill. Visit her website, Inhabit Health, for more information.