What Does a Plant-Based Diet Really Mean?

What Does a Plant-Based Diet Really Mean?

I am not a “diet” person, and often I think diets just require too much change and are too hard to do.  But good news—plant-based diet doesn’t mean that you have to become a vegan or a vegetarian!  You certainly could do that if you want to.  But those choices are on the far end of the continuum of a plant-based diet.  Plant-based diet just means your diet has a focus on foods that are primarily derived from plants. Of course, a plant-based diet includes fruits and vegetables.  It also contains nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. And—yes—it can also include meat, seafood, and dairy!  You just opt for more foods from plant sources than from the meat/dairy/seafood categories.   

So, why would we move from our more conventional diets which often include a heavier focus on meat, seafood, and dairy?  I am sure that you have heard the rumors that there are both associated health benefits and positive impacts to the planet.  Rolling your eyes again?  Wait for it--there really are fact-based truths to both! 

Health Benefits—The Reality

One if the most well-known plant-based diet it the Mediterranean Diet.   The Mediterranean diet is predominantly focused on plant-based foods and it also includes fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt a few times a week, with meats and sweets less often.  It has been widely studied in both large population studies and randomized clinical trials.  It has been proven to reduce risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, certain cancers (specifically colon, breast, and prostate cancer), depression, and in older adults, a decreased risk of frailty, along with better mental and physical function.

“It's possible to benefit by reducing your consumption of animal foods without completely eliminating them from your diet," says Dr. Ambika Satija of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

In addition to the Mediterranean Diet, there are many other plant-based diets.  Most importantly, though, is that they all emphasize certain foods associated with heart benefits, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and healthy oils like olive oil.   Because these diets are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals that help lower blood pressure and LDL (bad) cholesterol, reduce the risk of diabetes, and help maintain a healthy weight, all of which can lower your risk of heart disease.

It is important to pay attention to the source of your plant-based foods.  For example, we may think that white rice and white bread are healthy because they are technically plant-based foods.  However, they are highly processed, and so they are depleted of nutrients.  They also have a high glycemic index, which means they can make blood sugar levels spike and increase hunger, which can lead to overeating.

So, just reducing or eliminating meat or dairy won’t lead to gaining the health benefits associated with a plant-based diet.  Other less healthy plant-based foods include fruit juices, refined grains (pasta, and cereals), potatoes (French fries and potato chips), and sugar-sweetened beverages, while reducing the intake of healthy plant foods as well as animal foods

A healthy, plant-based diet excludes these kinds of processed foods and sugars.  It includes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and healthy oils, while reducing intake of less healthy plant foods and animal foods.  Remember that fruits are much healthier than juice, even if the juice doesn’t contain added sugar!

Plant-Based Diet—Positive Impact to the Planet

If feeling better and living healthier isn’t enough for you to consider making some plant-based dietary changes, maybe the positive impacts to the planet might cause you to reconsider?  Some startling facts sighted in a UCLA Sustainability article written by Dana Hunnes PhD, MPH, RD:

  • “Shifting away from animal-based foods [could not only] add up to 49% to the global food supply without expanding croplands;” but would also significantly reduce carbon emissions and waste byproducts that end up in our oceans and as seafood byproducts (Jalava M, Kummu M, Porkka M, Siebert S, and Varis O (2014).  Diet Change–a solution to reduce water use? Environ. Res. lett. 9(7):1-14.).
  • If every person in the United States gave up meat and dairy products on one or more days of the week, we would save the environment from thousands of tons of carbon emissions.  In fact, in one year, animal husbandry creates as much carbon emissions as the entire transportation sector.
  • Similarly, by reducing our animal-based foods consumption, we would reduce our water use at least by half as animal husbandry utilizes more than 50% of fresh water.
  • 1 pound of beef requires anywhere between 2000 and 8,000 gallons of water to produce, according to studies conducted by UC Davis.   Much of this water is used in creating the feed for the cows, whether it is grass or grain (Beckett & Oltjen, 1993).
  • Similarly, 1 gallon of cow’s milk requires 1950 gallons of water.
  • 1 pound of Tofu requires 302 gallons of water to produce, and it requires 290 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of unprocessed oats.

So, for both health reasons and a significant, positive impact to the planet, I have been motivated recently to make the move to including more plant-based foods in my diet.  One of my new, easy, delicious plant-based dishes that I just added to my plate:

Roasted Zucchini and Summer Squash

Ingredients:

  • 2 medium-sized Zucchini
  • 2 Medium-sized Summer Squash
  • 2 tablespoons of Olive Oil
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • ¼ cup of chopped red onion
  • 2 heaping tablespoons of Hemp Hearts (12 grams of protein!)
  • A handful of sliced almonds
  • Salt and Pepper

Directions:

  • Preheat oven to 425 degrees
  • Slice Zucchini and Summer Squash in 1” chunks
  • Mix Zucchini and Summer Squash with Olive Oil
  • Zest 1 lemon into the Zucchini/Squash mixture
  • Chop red onion and mix into the Zucchini/Squash Mixture
  • Mix in the Hemp Hearts
  • Add Salt and Pepper to taste
  • Put the mixture on a baking sheet
  • Spread Sliced Almonds evenly over the top of the mixture
  • Place in preheated oven for 30 minutes

Serves 2 people

This dish is healthy, yummy, filling, plant-based and a good source of protein.  I eat it either as a main dish or as a side dish. I hope that you try it and love it as much as I do!

So, my advice here?  Make conscious, smaller changes to eat less meat and dairy, and more unprocessed plant-based foods.  No--you don’t have to go full-bore and become a vegetarian!  You can just make smaller changes, and still derive health benefits, and have a positive impact on the planet! 

Be Well!

Simone

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