Plant-Based Diet Guide

A plant-based diet moves away from animal-based foods (meat, eggs, and milk) and incorporates more fruit, vegetables, legumes, and grains. The less meat and dairy you eat, the less fat you consume. Immediate benefits include maintaining a healthy weight and lowering your cholesterol levels.

Plant-based diets focus primarily on fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. These foods contain all the essential nutrients that your body needs to promote healthy digestion, cell function and repair, heart health, bone health, and mental health. Plant-based foods are low in calories, fat, and cholesterol. They help in maintaining weight while providing abundant amounts of fiber, vitamins, carbohydrates, and antioxidants.

Many plant-based foods are often consumed raw, adding to their nutrient value, but can also be lightly cooked or steamed.

Plant based foods include:

Fruits – Fruits are tasty and contain only natural sugars. Once your taste buds begin to recuperate from all the processed sugar in your current diet, you will be able to taste the same sweetness from a banana as most people taste in their ice cream or banana cream pie.

Vegetables – Vegetables, especially leafy green vegetables are said to be one of the healthiest foods on the planet. Raw leafy green vegetables can be bitter and may not be appealing when you first transition to your plant based diet. A dressing of apple cider vinegar, lemon and a dash of virgin olive oil may help.

Herbs – Savory herbs are also bitter, but as with leaf vegetables they are extremely healthy and are often used for medicinal purposes. Use your fresh herbs to flavor your dishes.

Nuts – Nuts are high in protein and other healthy (Omega-3) fats, and are a great substitute for meat. You can add nuts to your salads or whole grain cereals, or you can take them along in a small container and snack on them between your meals.

Vegan vs. Plant-Based vs. WFPB

Many people new to plant based diets are confused by their variety. Here are five of the most popular:

1. Vegetarian Diet – Vegetarians may choose to eat dairy products and eggs but not meat. According to the Vegetarian Society, a vegetarian is a person who lives on “a diet of grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of slaughter.”

2. Flexitarian Diet – Think of the flexitarian diet as semi-vegetarian. The flexitarian follows a plant-based diet but occasionally eats meat. This diet is especially helpful during holiday meals with family or dining out with friends.

3. Vegan Diet – Vegans do not eat any animal products. Many vegans go further and choose not to use any animal products at all, including leather or wool clothing. 

4. Raw Vegan Diet – Raw vegans combine veganism with raw foodism by eliminating all animal products and not cooking food above 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Followers of this diet believe that heat destroys foods’ micronutrients and that cooking foods produces dangerous chemicals. 

5. Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet (WFPB) – A WFPB diet eliminates meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs. WFPB diets are not, however, the same as a vegan diet, which is defined only by what it eliminates (animal products). A WFPB diet is defined by what it adds – a large variety of whole foods, foods that are minimally processed. This includes an unlimited quantity of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. It also includes nuts, seeds, avocados, natural sweeteners and few soy or wheat products in moderation.

How To Meet Your Protein Needs On A Plant-Based Diet

Critics of plant-based diets often point out the difficulty of meeting dietary protein requirements. Most people associate protein with animal products, meat, dairy or fish, or all three. While these are all rich in protein, people who follow a plant-based diet ARE able to meet their protein needs from plant-based sources.

Every lentil, bean, nut, seed and whole grain and most vegetables and fruit are made up of at least 10% protein. Soybeans (Glycine max) are the highest at 54%, pumpkin seeds 21% and Quinoa 16%. Not only do these plant-based foods contain plenty of protein, the protein is actually healthier and of better quality than that found in meat.

Plant based foods also contain amino acids, various vitamins, protein, fiber and magnesium. Some plant based foods are high in some nutrients and low in others, which is why variety is highly recommended for a plant based diet. 

Vegans, for example, must combine various sources of protein throughout the day to ensure consumption of all of the important and essential amino acids for optimal health.

To increase your protein intake with plant-based foods, choose these foods:

Hemp Seeds – Hemp seeds contain 10 grams of protein per 2 tablespoons, and this comes with plenty of healthy fat to help the protein absorb. Hemp seeds also contain more fiber than their hulled version called hemp hearts. You can add hemp seeds to your smoothies, use it on top of a salad or oatmeal, add it to any dessert or you can even use it to make hemp seed milk.

Lentils – One cup of cooked lentils contains 18 grams of protein, which can already be enough for an entire meal! You can eat lentils on their own, added to salads, you can even turn lentils into vegetarian or vegan burgers.

Quinoa – Quinoa contains 8 grams of protein per cup, which makes it perfect to add to your meals. Use it as a substitute for rice, add into your salads, or make a vegetable quinoa bowl for lunch. Quinoa has a slight nutty taste but be sure to rinse before cooking to remove the saponins that cause a bitter taste. Quinoa is very versatile, you can find a way to add it to nearly any meal.

Nuts – Choose walnuts, almonds, pistachios, and cashews. One fourth of a cup of nuts contains about 8 grams of protein. Tree nuts are also rich in minerals, vitamins, and healthy fats. You can eat a handful as a snack or incorporate them into all sorts of dishes. Be sure to watch your portion sizes though as a small handful of nuts can add many calories very quickly.

The Science Behind The Plant Based Diet

The relatively recent growth and popularity of plant-based diets can be attributed to one of America’s best-selling nutrition books, The China Study : The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss and Long-term Health by physician T. Colin Campbell and his son, Thomas M. Campbell II. 

The China Study examines the link between the consumption of animal products (including dairy) and chronic illnesses such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and bowel cancer.

The book’s primary conclusion: there are thousands of associations between diet and disease. Those who ate the most animal foods were the most likely to develop chronic diseases, while those who ate the most plant foods were the least likely to develop chronic diseases. The more animal protein they ate, the higher the risk of developing prostate, breast, and bowel cancers, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, autoimmune disease, degenerative brain disease, and macular degeneration.

If you eat animal products, you increase your risk for many diseases, but if you eat a plant-based diet, you lower your risk for the same diseases.

Advantages Of A Plant-Based Diet

There are many health benefits associated with the natural plant based diet. One of the main benefits is that you can avoid many health conditions and serious diseases, allowing you to enjoy a long and healthy life. Benefits include:

Lower Cholesterol – Following a plant-based diet can dramatically lower the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood – the bad kind that can lead to heart disease and stroke. Eliminating butter and fatty meats and opting for plant-based foods makes this possible. Dairy and animal products are loaded with fat and have no fiber. Plant based foods contain no cholesterol! A recent study by St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, found that a low-fat plant based diet can lower LDL cholesterol by an average 28 percent.

Lower Blood Pressure – Eating fatty meats and dairy products increases the viscosity of your blood, placing more pressure on the blood vessels. A plant based diet of vegetables and fruit increases your potassium level which modulates blood viscosity. According to the Nutrition Review, this explains why vegetarians and vegans have lower rates of hypertension when compared with carnivores.

Improved Cardiovascular Health – The American Heart Association reminds us that 83 million Americans have some form of cardiovascular disease. As we have seen, a balanced, low-fat, plant based diet can help reduce cholesterol, lower your blood pressure and contribute to weight loss and reduce obesity. All of which lead to heart problems.

Reduced Risk Of Cancer – Cancer has been widely associated with red meat. High-fat meat based diets have been linked to higher rates of cancer according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s Cancer Project. This study showed vegetarians to be 40 percent less likely to develop cancer than meat-eaters. Meat is high in saturated fat and low in fiber. Fiber plays a key role in keeping your digestive system clean and healthy, removing cancer-causing compounds before they can create harm. Plant based diets are high in fiber, low in saturated and trans-fats and include more fruit, vegetables and healthy phytochemicals.

Reduced Risk Of Diabetes – The plant based diet can help you to avoid and even reverse the symptoms of diabetes as plants do not spike your sugar levels as most other foods will. Plant based diets reduce your risk for obesity and are low in fat, which allows your body’s insulin to function properly. You will also be replacing simple carbohydrates (sugar) with more complex and lower glycemic carbohydrates.

Helps Maintain Healthy Body Weight – People who follow a plant based, vegan or vegetarian diet consume fewer calories and have lower body weights than those who don’t, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, a plant based diet doesn’t guarantee weight loss, you will need to keep your intake of sweets and fatty foods low, choose whole grains over processed grains, eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, and choose fat-free and low-fat dairy products if you continue to consume dairy. Remember that cooking methods count, steam, broil, grill or roast instead of frying.

Disadvantages Of A Plant-Based Diet

As mentioned previously, it can be more difficult to consume the high quality protein your body needs when eliminating or drastically reducing meat. Most plant based food proteins do not contain all essential amino acids, which help the body to properly function. Additionally:

  • If you eliminate dairy products, calcium deficiency can be another disadvantage, but can be addressed with natural calcium supplements. 
  • There is a possibility of too much fiber leading to indigestion and frequent loose stools as your body may not be able to fully digest the overabundance. 
  • If your diet does not include fish, an Omega3 deficiency may occur, but can be addressed with supplements or olive oils and avocados.
  • Your vitamin D and iron intake may be low and may require supplementation.

While switching to a plant based diet, you may find that going out to eat may become more challenging for you. Finding a variety of plant-based meals may be difficult, however, many restaurants are providing more vegetarian and vegan options. Preview restaurant menus online to check for vegetarian options and make sure there is enough variety for you. Home cooking won’t be an issue as there are endless vegetarian cookbooks and online resources to help you adapt to your new plant based lifestyle.

Losing Weight On A Plant-Based Diet

People who follow a plant-based diet normally consume about 500 fewer calories per day than meat eaters. If your main goal in following a plant based lifestyle is for body weight concerns, the abundance of fresh vegetables and fresh fruit in your meals will naturally result in the loss of excess weight, without feeling hungry.

Following a plant-based diet rich in raw fruits and vegetables, such as you find in salads 

and similar dishes, allows you to eat just about all you want and still lose weight!

Losing weight and getting healthy is really about changing your food consciousness, eating a clean, natural diet. The food you will be eating has not gone through any manufacturing or chemical processing. The grains you eat are not refined, choose brown rice rather than white rice, whole grain pasta, choose sweet potatoes over regular white potatoes. Learn to avoid high glycemic foods that immediately turn into sugar in your system.

A 3-Day Sample Plant Based Menu

Day 1:

Breakfast: Rolled oats with walnuts, banana, and a sprinkle of cinnamon.

Lunch: Greek salad: Chopped mixed greens with fresh tomato, Kalamata olives, fresh parsley, crumbled feta cheese, extra virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Whole-wheat pita on the side, fresh melon for dessert.

Dinner: Grilled vegetable kabobs with grilled tofu, and a quinoa and spinach salad.

Day 2:

Breakfast: Breakfast wrap: Fill a whole-wheat tortilla with scrambled egg, black beans, peppers, onions, Monterey jack cheese, and a splash of hot sauce or salsa.

Lunch: Vegetarian pizza topped with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, broccoli, onions, peppers, and mushroom. Fresh strawberries for dessert.

Dinner: Vegetarian chili with a spinach salad.

Day 3:

Breakfast: Whole-wheat English muffin topped with fresh tomato and avocado slices, and blueberries.

Lunch: Tomato basil soup, whole-grain crackers with tabbouleh, and an apple.

Dinner: Whole-wheat pasta with cannellini beans and peas, and a romaine salad with cherry tomatoes, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Foods To Avoid On A Plant-Based Diet

Foods you avoid will be determined by the style of plant based diet you choose to follow. For example, a whole-food, plant-based diet (WFPB) eliminates or minimizes all animal products and highly refined foods. While a vegan diet avoids all animal products or exploitation in food, clothing, shoes, or any other aspect of their lives. Vegans do not necessarily eat only whole plant foods; they may eat refined and processed foods, although health conscious vegans choose not to.

Generally speaking, all people on plant-based diets eliminate or eat less of the following:

  • Fast foods and “junk” foods.
  • Sugar filled desserts and sweetened beverages.
  • Refined grains including white rice, white bread, refined pasta, etc.
  • Packaged foods, especially cookies, chips, sugar coated cereals, etc.
  • Processed meats including deli meats, hot dogs, bacon, sausage, etc.

Environmental Impact Of The Plant Based Diet

Plant-based diets are eco-friendly. For example, vegans make ethical food choices commonly called “cruelty-free” due to the fact that it has no connection to manufacturing facility farming and their inhumane living conditions for animals. All plant based diets are sustainable and plants require less water and resources to produce than animals and animal based products. Cattle are responsible for emitting more greenhouse gases into our atmosphere every year than automobiles. It is estimated that eating one less hamburger patty can save up to two pounds of carbon dioxide emissions and 133 gallons of water!

References:

Center for Nutrition Studies: What Is a Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet? https://nutritionstudies.org/what-is-a-whole-food-plant-based-diet/

Forks Over Knives: The Beginner’s Guide to a Plant-Based Diet https://www.forksoverknives.com/how-tos/plant-based-primer-beginners-guide-starting-plant-based-diet/

Healthline: Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/plant-based-diet-guide

Healthline: What’s the Difference Between a Plant-Based and Vegan Diet? https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/plant-based-diet-vs-vegan

Harvard Health Publishing: What is a plant-based diet and why should you try it? https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-a-plant-based-diet-and-why-should-you-try-it-2018092614760

Wikipedia: The China Study
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_China_Study

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