Plant-Based Diet: What Plant-Based Eating Is All About
By: Julie Mancuso, owner of JM Nutrition, Registered Dietitians & Nutritionists at JM Nutrition, Sarah Jabeen, MD
In this post:
Plant-based diet and sustainability
What is plant-based eating? What plant-based eating is not
Plant-based diet and the environment
Plant-based diet health benefits
Challenges and cons of plant-based eating
How to start plant-based diet
Plant-based meals & recipes
It’s a fact that many of our clients follow a plant-based diet. It’s also a fact that many more continue to inquire about plant-based eating, asking about the pros and cons of a plant-based diet, seeking plant-based meals and recipes, and so on.
For this reason we decided to take an in-depth look at plant-based eating and what it’s all about.
Plant-based diet and sustainability
What is sustainability?
According to Wikipedia, sustainability is the capacity for the earth’s biosphere and human civilization to co-exist.
What is the goal of sustainability?
In short, the long-term goal of food sustainability is to produce enough food to maintain and sustain the human population. In other words, we have to be able to meet our own needs today without sabotaging the needs of future generations.
Factors that affect long-term sustainability
Before examining the relationship between plant-based eating and sustainability, it’s important to take a look at some of the primary factors that affect this long-term sustainability.
- land fertility
- water use
- use of fertilizers
- climate stability
The relationship between factors that affect sustainability and our food choices
The choices we make as humans with regard to food consumption greatly affect the aforementioned factors. Although we often place great emphasis on the effect food has on our health, we also need to think about the health of the environment.
Want to help the environment? Try plant-based diet
There are numerous ways of helping the environment. One of those ways is through plant-based eating, which is our focus here. This is largely because what we put on our plates affects land use, water supply, gas emissions and more.
About the plant-based diet
What is plant-based eating?
Plant-based eating is a diet that consists of mostly or entirely plant-based foods.
What plant-based eating is not
Following a plant-based diet doesn’t mean you’re a vegetarian or vegan, and that you never eat meat or dairy. Rather, it means you proportionately choose more of your foods from plant sources.
How does plant-based eating benefit the environment?
1. Plant-based eating contributes much less to large-scale habitat loss
The single largest driver of habitat loss is livestock production.
Why is that?
For one, a great deal of land is needed for the animals. And two, vast amount of land is also needed to produce crops to feed the animals.
According to Forks and Knives, the vast majority of cropland in the United States is not used to produce food that people will eat. Instead, the land is used to produce crops that animals will eat.
A staggering 77% of agricultural land use is dedicated to livestock (meat and dairy products). Despite this high number, only 18% of global calories are yielded by livestock production. That’s quite inefficient.
2. Plant-based eating uses less water
To produce 1 pound (about ½ kg) of vegetables, it takes approximately 39 gallons (148 L) of water.
How does this compare to water needed to produce beef?
To produce 1 pound (½ kg) of beef, it takes about 1 847 gallons (6 992 L) of water. That’s over 12 times as much!
- Fruit: 1 pound or ½ kg requires 115 gallons or 435 L
- Beans & lentils: 486 gallons or 1 840 L
- Chicken: 518 gallons or 1 960 L
- Pork 718 gallons or 2 718 L
For a more complete list, visit Forks & Knives.
After looking at these numbers, it is clear that a plant-based diet is an effective way of addressing water scarcity as it is more conducive to water conservation. The only exception being the production of nuts, which can use a great deal of water, too: 1 086 gallons.
3. Plant-based eating causes less water pollution
Here are just a handful of ways in which animal agriculture causes water pollution:
- Grazing cattle speeds up soil erosion
- Waterways are interrupted
- Animal excrement contaminates water supplies
- Fertilizers contaminate water
- Increased algae production can kill off marine life
4. Following a plant-based diet reduces greenhouse emissions
Reduced greenhouse emissions is another significant benefit of following a plant-based diet.
Animal agriculture is an enormous contributor of greenhouse gases. In fact, in the United States, cows (beef, cheese, dairy) are responsible for about 65% of livestock greenhouse emissions. Lamb, pork and poultry are next on the list of the largest contributors.
Plant-based agriculture, on the other hand, is much more conducive to reducing greenhouse emissions.
Is eating seafood a better choice when it comes to sustainability?
Yes and no.
Yes, in some ways it is better. Reason being, many of the problems associated with animal agriculture generally do not apply to the fishing industry.
And no. The commercial fishing industry is beset by its own problems. Overfishing and the enormous amount of plastic from discarded nets and fishing lines are just two examples.
Plant-based eating health benefits
Following a plant-based diet also has a number of health benefits.
1. Eating plant-based and phytonutrients
Following a plant-based diet paves the way for people to consume more phytonutrients.
Phytonutrients play an important role in fighting various diseases such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension, heart disease, irritable bowel disease (Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis) and many types of cancer.
These phytonutrients, in turn, contain antioxidants that have numerous benefits. They keep the body in an anti-inflammatory state such that no cellular replication occurs (which leads to cancer), anti-aging by way of reducing the oxidative stress caused to cells, energy boosting due to the large quantities of vitamins and nutrients readily available in them, weight management and immunity boosting, to highlight a few.
2. Plant-based diet may reduce cholesterol
An advantage of eating plant-forward can significantly reduce cholesterol buildup in arteries. Specifically, it can reduce LDL, or “bad” cholesterol.
This is the type of cholesterol that is deposited in arteries resulting in plaque formation, thereby reducing the amount of blood flow supplied by a particular artery. We can think of plaque formation being equivalent to a hollow tube that becomes blocked with deposits that impede blood flow. When this happens, blood doesn’t flow well in arteries and by extension, to necessary organs. Therefore, this is the type of cholesterol we want to have less of.
HDL cholesterol, on the other hand, is “good” cholesterol. This is the type of cholesterol that protects us from various heart diseases and medical conditions such as high blood pressure, which in turn, can pave the way for more serious conditions like stroke.
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine states that “In 2017, researchers reviewed 49 studies that compared plant-based diets with omnivorous diets to test their effects on cholesterol. Plant-based diets lowered total cholesterol, LDL, and HDL levels when compared to omnivorous diets. Low-fat, plant-based regimens typically reduce LDL levels by about 15 to 30 percent.”
3. Plant-based eating adds more fibre to your diet
Typically, plant-based foods are higher in fibre.
Stanford Health Care states that, “Plant-based, high-fiber diets that are moderate to low in red meat with minimal processed meat and alcohol have been shown to reduce colorectal cancer risk.”
A diet rich in vegetables and fruits provide both soluble and insoluble fibre that allows us to have more regulated bowel movements. The lack of constipation and regularity of bowel movements avoids formation of polyps in our intestines, which are small pouches of intestinal lining.
These, among many other factors such as family history, genetic mutations, alcohol use, smoking and so on, play an important part in developing colon cancer. When these polyps are asymptomatic, they do not pose a threat. However, if they become symptomatic (bleeding from the rectum, abdominal pain, change in bowel habits), then further evaluation is warranted.
Either way, the verdict remains the same. Cleveland Clinic reports “Eat at least 3-5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Avoid fatty and processed foods and red meat in excess” to prevent colorectal cancer. Though following a plant based diet isn’t a be all and end all solution, it definitely is a precautionary step that we can take to ensure optimum gut health.
4. Plant-based diet may help those suffering from IBD
Plant-based eating can potentially benefit those who suffer from Crohn’s Disease and irritable bowel disease. This is one of the recommendations our digestive health practitioners make.
These are a group of diseases whose pathology involves intestinal inflammation. Therefore, it follows that anti-inflammatories and immunosuppressive agents are the go-to in managing these diseases since they play an important role in decreasing inflammation.
National Centre for Biotechnology Information states that, “Overall, westernized diets tend to decrease microbial diversity (dysbiosis) and a plant-based diet (PBD) tends to increase microbial diversity. This difference in microbiota results in differences in microbial metabolites. Westernized diets result in increased production of ammonia, indoles, phenols, and sulphide that may be detrimental to our health. In addition, they result in decreased production of short-chain fatty acids like butyrate. These metabolites have diverse beneficial effects in nutrition, immunity, and epithelial barrier. PBD results in increased production of short-chain fatty acids.”
Thus, by incorporating a more plant based diet, we can increase these beneficial phytonutrients that help in fighting chronic diseases, thereby targeting the root cause of inflammation.
5. Plant-based diet can assist with weight management
Perhaps the most influential impact of plant-based eating centres around obesity. It is well known that obesity can lead to many cardiovascular diseases as well as diabetes.
The Harvard Gazette states that, “a diet rich in healthy and plant-based foods is linked with the presence and abundance of certain gut microbes that are also associated with a lower risk of developing conditions such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, according to recent results from a large-scale international study.”
With obesity on the rise, especially with a meat-heavy diet, it is obvious that eating a plant-based diet can result in weight loss and even a lower BMI. When we function at the desired BMI, we also eliminate the possibility of developing conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Plant-based eating and weight management studies
National Academy of Sports Medicine reports that, “One study had people switch from a normal way of eating to a plant-based diet and tracked their results for 18 weeks. In this study, the people who switched to a plant-based diet lost 5 pounds more than people who did not change their diet(4).
Other studies have found similar results, wherein adopting an energy-restricted, plant-based diet for nine weeks resulted in 10 pounds more weight loss than in the control group (4,5).
It is no wonder then, that diabetics are recommended to follow the Mediterranean Diet. That is, a diet rich in healthy fats, nuts, olive oil and lean protein such as fish and chicken.
In addition, Cleveland Clinic reports that, “If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, choosing to be a vegetarian can be a healthy option.”
Cleveland Clinic goes on to say that research shows that following a vegetarian or even a plant-based diet can help you better manage diabetes. These types of diets have also shown to help prevent or reverse type 2 diabetes. Reason being, foods high in fibre are slower to digest, so elevations in your blood sugar are less likely to occur. Fibre also provides a feeling of fullness. This usually reduces the overall number of calories eaten and may help you lose weight too.
6. Plant-based eating and its impact on Alzheimer’s
Another promising benefit of eating a plant-based diet is evident in the effects it has on developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is a type of neurodegenerative disease that affects memory. In some instances, it can also affect behaviour. Although there is no specific cure, there are some preventative measures we can take to decrease our chances of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
The DASH Diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This is one of the first management steps advised by physicians to bring blood pressure under control.
What’s that got to do with Alzheimer’s?
It has been studied for years that our overall health is determined by a multitude of factors: what we eat, how much we exercise, how well we control our blood pressure and stress to name a few. The list goes on.
Another study found that the more blood pressure varied over an eight-year period, the greater the risk of dementia.”
The Mediterranean diet, discussed earlier, also has a similar effect. As such, it has been gaining popularity in recent years due to the numerous benefits associated with it.
Mayo Clinic states that, “Born as a hybrid of two existing eating styles with decades of research at their backs — the DASH diet and Mediterranean diet — university researchers developed the MIND diet to emphasize foods that impact brain health.”
Researchers tracked eating logs in an older adult population for an average of 4.5 years to uncover trends among the diets of those who developed dementia versus those who didn’t. Their discovery was interesting. “Older adults whose diets most closely resembled the pattern laid out in the MIND diet had brains as sharp as people 7.5 years younger. That’s a substantial difference, since delaying dementia by just five years has been suggested to cut the cost and prevalence of the disease in half.”
Challenges and cons of plant-based diet
1. Plant-based diet may lead to Vitamin B12 deficiency
One of the more significant challenges associated with eating a plant-based diet is that we may not get the appropriate amounts of Vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 is a vitamin that is readily available. It is present in high quantities in meats and various dairy products.
Health and Food Supplements Information Service outlines that, “Vitamin B12 is an essential micronutrient that contributes to normal energy metabolism, functioning of the nervous system, homocysteine metabolism (which is important in order to not develop anemia), normal red blood cell formation, immune function, cell division and reduction of tiredness and fatigue. Low vitamin B12 levels have also been linked with poor cognitive function.”
2. Plant-based diet and insufficient protein
Protein intake is yet another challenge associated with plant-based eating.
When eating plant-based meals, it’s important to include various legumes and lentils in your diet to off-set the lack of protein. This may not be an ideal thing to do because legumes and lentils are also really high in fibre. When you suddenly increase fibre intake without also increasing fluid intake, you can become constipated, especially when you are prone to it.
That’s why Harvard Health Publishing recommends, “A few important tips as you increase your fibre:
- Do so gradually to give your gastrointestinal tract time to adapt.
- Increase your water intake as you increase fibre.
- If you have any digestive problems, such as constipation, check with your physician before dramatically increasing your fibre consumption.”
3. Potential Calcium and Vitamin D insufficiency
Another potential disadvantage to eating a plant-based diet is that you may not be getting the right amounts of Calcium and Vitamin D.
Both, Calcium and Vitamin D, play an important role in bone and teeth health. They are also instrumental in muscle, heart and immune function.
In addition, you actually need Vitamin D in order to absorb Calcium in your body. This is the reason why most calcium supplements have Vitamin D added to them. When we don’t get enough of these, we are hindering the functions of important tissues in our body.
Purdue University conducted a study that found that, “four-and-a-half servings of broccoli offer the same amount of calcium as one cup of milk. A person forsaking dairy products would need to eat as many as 20 servings of broccoli each day to get enough of the nutrient.”
4. Getting enough iron on a plant-based diet
Some people who follow a plant-based diet can experience low iron levels.
Iron is the basic building block required to make Hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a molecule that is responsible not only for carrying oxygen in our body, but also in forming red blood cells. Lack of hemoglobin can present in many ways. The most common of these are excessive fatigue and lethargy.
There is also a concern regarding the bioavailability of iron. Bioavailability means how much of a particular substance is directly absorbed for the purpose and benefit it serves.
Health and Food Supplements Information service reports that, “Animal-derived foods, in particular, red meat, are a rich source of highly bioavailable iron. Whilst plant sourced foods such as fortified grains and bread also provide iron, the iron (non-haem iron) in plant sources is not as bioavailable to the body as animal-derived iron (haem iron). Iron bioavailability is reduced with increased dietary fibre and phytates (found in wholegrain or bran-based cereals and breads).”
5. Obtaining enough fatty acids
Attaining the right amounts of fatty acid levels is also an area of concern with a plant-based diet.
National Centre for Biotechnology Information states that, “Essential fatty acids are fatty acids that humans must ingest for good health because our bodies do not synthesize them.
Only two such essential fatty acids are known. One, Linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid), and two, Alpha-Linolenic Acid (an omega-3 fatty acid).
Deficiency in essential fatty acids may manifest as skin, hair and nail abnormalities. The fatty acids that vegans are most likely to be deficient in are the omega-3 fats. Adequate intake of omega-3 fats is associated with a reduced incidence of heart disease and stroke.”
For this reason it is important to consume foods that are good sources of omega-3 fats. They include ground flax seeds, flax oil, walnuts and canola oil.
6. Can be difficult to navigate for beginners
Following a plant-based diet can be a challenging experience for beginners. This is especially true for those who want to eat plant-based foods, while making sure that they acquire all essential nutrients.
For this reason, and as with many special diets, it is important to seek the help of qualified nutrition professionals. Nutritionists and dietitians can assist in creating nutritionally-balanced plant-based meal plan. And this is very important for overall health.
7. Social situation challenges
Navigating certain social situations can also form an obstacle for those keen on plant-based eating. For example, some restaurants do not offer many plant-based meal options. This often leaves plant-based dieters with limited options. Similarly, this can be true if a plant-based dieter finds him or herself at a party where choices are few.
Of course, it is always a wise decision to do a little research and find out if the given restaurant offers plant-based meals. Likewise, contacting the host of the party and asking him or her to modify the menu slightly can go a long way in helping those who insist on eating plant-based foods at all times to be able to enjoy both, the party and the food.
Plant-based diet for beginners
How to get started on a plant-based diet
1. Eat whole foods
Select unrefined, unprocessed or minimally processed foods.
2. Eat more vegetables
Get into the habit of adding more vegetables into your diet.
A good way to do this is by introducing rules. Rules provide structure. Adopt the half-plate rule. In other words, half the plate consists of vegetables. In addition, you can add more vegetables to a stir-fry, a pasta dish or even an omelet. You can even try zoodles or cauliflower rice.
3. Introduce legumes
Peas, chickpeas, lentils and beans often form an important part of those on a plant-based diet. In fact, they are often staples. As such, they cannot be overlooked.
4. Eat more good fats
Fats in olive oil, olives, nuts and nut butters, seeds (chia, hemp, flax, pumpkin), and avocados are particularly healthy choices. Add them in whenever and wherever you can.
5. Eat leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables
Try a variety of green leafy and cruciferous vegetables such as kale, collards, broccoli, Swiss chard, spinach and other greens each day.
Steam, grill, braise, or stir-fry to preserve their flavour and nutrients.
Many of these vegetables are rich in Folate, Vitamin A, Calcium and Vitamin C. They are also high in fibre, and naturally low in fat and sodium.
Furthermore, dark green cruciferous vegetables contain phytonutrients. These plant-based compounds may help lower inflammation and reduce the risk of cancer.
6. Try plant-based milk
Almond, cashew, oat, soy, coconut should become your close friends.
Add these to smoothies, protein shakes, cereal and even coffee. You can even purchase plant-based milk that’s flavoured. Vanilla flavour is one such example. Just make sure it’s unsweetened.
7. Include whole grains for breakfast
Start with oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat, or barley. Then add some nuts or seeds along with fresh fruit. This is a wholesome, nutritious and delicious breakfast.
8. Eat fruit for dessert
Without a doubt, fruit forms a large part of those interested in plant-based eating. Eat fruit such as an apple, banana or berries, for dessert. You can also turn to fruit when you get a craving for something sweet.
9. Build a meal around a salad
Fill a salad bowl with salad greens such as romaine, spinach or red leafy greens. Introduce other vegetables along with fresh herbs, beans, peas, or tofu. Add a little extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Salads. too, are staple on a plant-based diet.
10. Shift focus off meat
This may require some getting used to. Perhaps a little reprogramming.
At first, simply eat in smaller amounts. Implement half-and-half (half protein portion of meat and half a plant-based protein). Instead of meat forming the centrepiece of meals, it can be a side.
11. Limit or avoid
While adopting a plant-based diet, it’s important to make sure it’s healthy and nutritionally-balanced.
To do so limit or avoid:
- refined white carbs,
- processed foods,
- fried foods,
- processed vegan or vegetarian options (Processed vegan or vegetarian options that contain preservatives, sodium, sugar, etc. Just because it says it’s vegan it doesn’t mean it’s healthy.)
12. Purchase plant-based snacks
Having a variety of plant-based snacks on hand can help ensure the transition to plant-based eating is sustainable in the long-term. Today there are countless plant-based products that you can buy at the supermarkets or health food stores, so locating them should not be too much trouble.
Plant-based meals & recipes
Here are a few good resources from which you can obtain plant-based meal ideas:
Is the plant-based diet for you?
If you have an open mind, care deeply about sustainability and the environment, and health is of utmost importance, then perhaps you should strongly consider plant-based eating.
In the end, the choice is yours.
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