To many, the thought of giving up barbecued chicken, steak and pork chops doesn’t sound too appealing. But if you’re trying to eat better, that doesn’t necessarily mean you must pass up your favorite main course to fill up on a salad.
Some research shows that when plant-based foods are the star of diets — with meat, fish, dairy and eggs playing supporting roles — people (sometimes called flexitarians) may lead healthier lives than meat eaters.
“Evidence shows that a plant-based diet can help prevent against heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Christen Cupples Cooper, founding director of the nutrition and dietetics program at Pace University in New York City. “Some of the healthiest populations in the world eat a plant-based diet.”
Fulfill your own needs
Different than a vegan diet — which excludes meat, eggs and dairy altogether — a plant-based diet centers on mainly fruits, vegetables, legumes, tubers (think yams and potatoes) while just minimizing consumption of meat, dairy products and eggs.
“A plant-based diet is not an all-or-nothing proposition,” says Chanté Wiegand, a naturopathic doctor and director of education at the Synergy Co. in Jackson, Wyoming.
Cooper agrees, adding there’s no reason to give up anything on a plant-based diet. “That is part of its beauty — it is a moderate approach to eating,” Cooper says.
Plants are packed with valuable nutrients in the forms of vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, fiber and phytonutrients. “All the things your body needs to radiate health from the inside out.” Wiegand says.
Plant diets also support healthy guts and digestion and may lower the risk of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis. “Most health authorities agree ... eating mostly plant foods lowers rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer,” Cooper says.
According to Wiegand, by eating more plant foods, you’re also consuming less refined and processed foods and sugars. “This will help to balance your blood sugar to support healthy energy and mood all day long,” she says, adding that it can also help decrease cholesterol levels and aid in weight loss.
Start with simple favorites
Transitioning to a plant-based diet can be confusing and intimidating, says Dr. Stacy Mitchell Doyle of Los Angeles-based FoodTherapyMD. It’s best to ease into it.
“For those who are not used to eating vegetables and most of the diet consists of meat and processed foods, I suggest first trying to add one or two fresh fruits and vegetables to the diet a day,” Doyle says. “I like to start with something simple, like adding a fresh cup of berries or a berry and spinach smoothie to breakfast. This slowly helps to adjust the palate to fresh produce.
“Then I add a vegetable salad before lunch and dinner. Not iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing but a salad with a mix of green leafy veggies, red and orange produce and nuts and seeds.”
This introduces more plant variety and a good supply of phytonutrients, according to Doyle.
You don’t have go completely cold turkey on all animal-based foods, either, Wiegand says. She has some patients who eat highly plant-based diets but avoid grains and even most beans for gut health reasons, and others who feel better eating mostly plant-based diets with grass-fed meats, wild fish and pastured eggs serving a supporting role. “Tailor it to suit you — there is no one right way,” she says.
Although there’s some controversy about whether some meat and certain types of fat are good or bad, “most everyone ... agrees on one thing: Plants are good,” Wiegand says.