Ready to Try a Plant-Based Diet? Here’s How
April 29, 2021
As a registered dietitian/nutritionist at the Ann B. Barshinger Cancer Institute, I often educate patients about the health benefits of plant-based eating. Following a plant-based diet can help reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Contrary to what you may have heard, it isn’t necessary to completely eliminate meat or dairy in order to reap some of the benefits of a plant-based diet. By replacing some meals with plant-based choices, you can still improve your health.
What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
People have different ideas of what constitutes a plant-based diet. Some associate it with vegetarian or vegan choices. The most broad definition of a plant-based diet is one that is high in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. It also involves reducing or eliminating animal-sourced foods from the diet.
Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Among the health benefits of a plant-based diet are:
- Increased fiber intake—A plant-based diet is rich in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, which are high in fiber. A high-fiber diet helps regulate blood glucose (sugars), lower cholesterol, improve bowel regularity and possibly boost the immune system due to its effect on the microbiome.
- Increased phytochemicals—Phytochemicals are the chemical compounds found in plants, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts and legumes. These substances, which number in the thousands, include antioxidants that help repair DNA and improve cell function, which can reduce the risk for certain cancers. Phytochemicals are most beneficial when they come from foods, not supplements.
- Reduced saturated and total fats—Limiting animal products in the diet can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. People who eat plant-based diets often have healthier body weights or body composition, which could also improve joint health and sleep patterns, and reduce the risk of some cancers.
Tips for Going Plant-Based
I recommend consulting with a registered dietitian to make sure you are approaching any dietary changes in a nutritionally-sound way. Here are additional tips for success:
- Plan ahead—Advance meal planning and grocery shopping will help ensure you have plenty of food options on hand during a busy week.
- Be open to trying new foods—There are many more plant-based foods than animal-based. If you are willing to taste new foods and get creative with cooking, there’s a lot of variety to enjoy.
- Make small changes—Instant dietary overhauls are difficult to sustain. Instead, make one change at a time. Try incorporating meatless Mondays into your routine, or aim for two servings of fresh fruit a day. Once you are comfortable with one change, add another, like eating more vegetables.
- Aim for balanced nutrition—You may have questions about plant-based eating, such as: Will I get enough protein? (yes) Should I eat soy? (yes) or Should I avoid fruit because of the sugar? (no). A dietitian can offer informed guidance. Keep in mind:
- Foods like quinoa, beans, tofu, tempeh, lentils and nuts are rich in protein and part of a balanced plant-based diet. Calcium can be found in tofu, fortified plant milks (such as soy, almond, oat, cashew or coconut), kale, almonds and dried figs. Pumpkin and sunflower seeds are good sources of zinc.
- Iron is present in plant foods but requires Vitamin C for better absorption. Adding tomatoes or a citrus fruit to your meal will provide that Vitamin C.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency can cause neuropathy and anemia. To ensure you are getting enough, eat breakfast cereals or plant milks that are fortified with B12, or simply take a supplement.
Recipes from Our Health Hub
Here are a dozen meatless Good ‘n Healthy recipes to try:
Red Lentil Pumpkin Soup (use vegetable broth)
Summer Veggie Pie
Southwestern Bean Salad
Veggie Stuffed Zucchini Boats
Black Bean & Quinoa Enchilada Bake
Broccoli Cauliflower (use vegetable broth)
Quinoa & Lentil Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup (use vegetable broth)
You’ll find many more recipes to use for plant-based cooking by searching our recipe archives. Check back often for updates!