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Plant-Based Nutrition: Good for You, Good for the Planet

Vegetarian bowl with broccoli

Do you love burgers, steaks and the occasional pork chop? Can’t imagine a satisfying meal that doesn’t include some kind of meat or poultry as the main attraction? You’re not alone – many people struggle to envision a diet that doesn’t include animal-based protein in at least one meal each day.

Plant-based eating, however, is growing in popularity, as evidenced by the wide variety of non-meat protein products available at the grocery store. Many people are trying out this alternate dietary lifestyle – and for good reason.

A Wide Range of Health Benefits

“Research shows that eating more plant-based foods or switching to an entirely plant-based diet can have significant health benefits,” says Jessica Jurcak, registered dietitian and Manager of Whole Health and Well-Being for University Hospitals. “A diet that is rich in unprocessed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds can not only help prevent and manage chronic diseases, but also reverse them when combined with other lifestyle changes. Plant-based eating definitely supports our overall health.”

Plant-based eating has been proven to have the following health benefits:

Gastrointestinal/Digestive. Plant-based foods are full of fiber, whereas meat does not contain any. When we eat foods rich in insoluble fiber, it keeps things moving in the digestive tract and maintains the integrity of our intestinal cell walls, leading to less constipation and improved absorption of essential nutrients. Daily fiber recommendations are at least 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men.

Cardiovascular. Numerous studies have found that plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, including high blood pressure. The soluble fiber contained in plant foods may also help to remove extra cholesterol from the bloodstream. It’s important to note that plant foods do not contain any cholesterol - our bodies make all the cholesterol we need and it is not necessary to get more by eating animal products.

Mental Health. “There is a lot of research coming out on the correlation between food choices and mood,” says Jurcak. “The short chain fatty acids released when we digest certain plant foods like onions, garlic, broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts may stimulate the production of serotonin – a feel-good hormone that plays a key role in regulating mood,” she adds.

Metabolic Health. There is strong evidence that the risk of diabetes is lower with a plant-based diet. In addition, there is a correlation between plant-based eating and a healthier body weight, reducing the many other health risks associated with obesity including joint pain and heart disease.

Skin, Hair & Nails. Plant-based foods are rich in bioactive compounds, including vitamins A, C and E, beta carotene, polyphenols and phenolic acids, all of which can contribute to healthy hair, skin and nails.

In addition to the health benefits listed above, several large studies show that those who eat more plants and less animal protein have a lower incidence of certain types of cancer, including colorectal cancer. This may be due to the fact that, unlike meat products, plant foods do not have any saturated fats, which are known to increase inflammation, a risk factor for of cancer. As a result, the American Cancer Society recommends that everyone should incorporate plenty of plant-based foods in their diet.

Keeping Our Planet Healthy

“Not only is plant-based eating healthier for our bodies, it allows us to be good stewards of our planet,” says Jurcak. “Growing plants requires less agricultural land, uses less water and causes less pollution than animal farming. If more people would make even a partial switch to plant-based eating, it would have the potential to significantly reduce our carbon footprint and address the global concern of climate change.”

Plant-Based Eating Can Provide Complete Nutrition

“Many people are concerned that it will be difficult to get all the vitamins and minerals they need from a vegetarian or vegan diet,” says Jurcak. “In reality, the only nutrient you cannot get from plants is vitamin B12, so you may be advised to take a supplement if you move to a 100 percent plant-based diet.”

“Everything else, including calcium, protein and iron, you can get in adequate amounts if you eat a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In some cases, you may need to combine certain foods for optimal nutrition. For example, the iron in plant-based foods such as spinach, kale, black beans and some nuts can be more easily absorbed by your digestive tract if you combine them with foods that contain vitamin C – one option might be a spinach salad with mandarin oranges.”

“We used to think that protein plant sources had to be eaten in certain complementary combinations. However, we now know that it’s not necessary to get those complementary proteins in the same meal as long as you get them throughout the week. The body is capable of storing amino acids, which are protein building blocks, to use later as needed. A common example is rice and beans – combined they have all the essential amino acids you need but we now know that they don’t have to be consumed at the same time, only within a few days of each other,” notes Jurcak.

Making the Transition to a Plant-Based Diet

If you’re reluctant to go “cold turkey” and give up all meat and animal products immediately, there are some simple ways to ease into a plant-based diet.

  1. Plan a meat-free menu on one day each week. Try substituting vegetable-based proteins for meat in your favorite recipes or create a new vegetarian recipe – mushrooms, beans, nuts, lentils, onions and artichokes can add flavor and texture. Gradually increase the number of days on which you go meatless.
  2. Change up your portion sizes. Increase the amount of vegetables and whole grains on your plate, while gradually decreasing the meat portion.
  3. Try a few new plant-based foods every week. Include grains or legumes you’ve never had before.
  4. Stock up on fruits and vegetables. Buy what you already love and add a few new ones to your shopping list. Remember, fruits and veggies are rich in nutrients but generally low in calories so you can eat more.
  5. Experiment with meat substitutes. Soy products such as edamame, tofu and tempeh are all great meat substitutes.

There are different types of plant-based diet plans that you can choose from depending on your preferences and comfort level. These include:

  • Vegan: No animal products of any kind.
  • Vegetarian: May include eggs and/or dairy products.
  • Pescatarian: May include seafood.
  • Flexitarian: Mostly vegetarian but allows some dairy, eggs and meat.

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If you are considering switching to a more plant-based diet but aren’t sure how to get started, the clinical dietitians at University Hospitals can help. Our nutrition experts will work with you to develop a personalized eating plan that supports your health goals and dietary preferences.