Scientists are increasingly digging up new plant-based diet health benefits and, in tandem, eating fewer animal products is becoming a popular way of life. Even fast-food restaurants are jumping on the bandwagon, offering veggie versions of their popular menu staples. It's now easier and more convenient to work plant-based nutrition into your busy life, but should you?
Along with the science-backed health benefits of eating a plant-based diet, there are some challenges to consider, chiefly regarding getting the right balance of nutrients. Here, Steve Hertzler, PhD, RD, a senior nutrition scientist at Abbott weighs in on what you need to know before trying this eating trend.
What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
There's no one plant-based diet. Rather, it's an approach to eating that prioritizes foods derived from plants — not just fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.
That said, not all plant-based diets are vegetarian or vegan; some frequently include small amounts of dairy, eggs and meat. The Mediterranean diet, for example, is both plant-based and inclusive of some animal products.
Plant-Based Diet Benefits
Research links diets that are largely plant-based to several health benefits, including a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death. While more research is needed, a 2019 review in Translational Psychiatry suggests that plant-based diets may also improve cognitive health.
"Plants are earth-grown treasure troves of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.”
Steve Hertzler, PhD, RD, senior nutrition scientist, Abbott
To reap the greatest benefits of a plant-based diet, Hertzler recommends including a wide variety of the foods derived from plants in your regular meal rotation as well as oils made from seeds, nuts and vegetables. This will help ensure that your diet is rich in all the nutrients you need — and never boring.
"Plants are earth-grown treasure troves of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants," says Hertzler.
Challenges of Following a Plant-Based Diet
While anyone can incorporate plant-based nutrition into their life, if you have food sensitivities or certain health conditions, you may need to leave some ingredients off your plate. And if you have a nut allergy, foods containing those nuts, sometimes even in very small amounts, can cause an allergic reaction.
Following a plant-based diet will be easiest for those who already get the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, are familiar with meal planning, and have the time to cook or meal prep. But if you don’t have time to meal prep you could incorporate an Ensure® Plant-Based Protein Nutrition shake. It’s Ensure’s first vegan nutrition shake and has 100% nondairy, plant-based protein from a blend of fava bean and pea for strength and energy, plus 25 essential vitamins and minerals.
But even if you're on the opposite end of the spectrum, eating minimal plant foods and a lot of animal products, switching to plant-based nutrition is possible.
It may take a little getting used to, but once you familiarize yourself with these plant-based ingredients, you can better plan your meals around getting the right mix of nutrients.
"The fewer animal products you eat, the more difficult it can be to get (these nutrients) in adequate amounts," Hertzler explains. "But you can do it with the right planning."
Specifically, you'll want to ensure you're getting enough protein, calcium and vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is not found in fruits, vegetables or grains. Soy milk is rich in protein and often fortified with calcium and vitamin B12. Eating legumes, quinoa, dark leafy greens, nutritional yeast and fortified cereals can also help you hit your nutritional needs. A registered dietitian can teach you more about the nutritional value of plant foods and work with you on a plan to include more of them in your diet.
What to Expect
The ingredients you eat isn't the only thing that will change. "There may be more food preparation time involved with more plant-based diets, such as chopping of fruits and vegetables, and soaking beans," Hertzler explains. Fortunately, many frozen fruits and vegetables already come sliced and diced, and often contain even more nutrients than their fresh counterparts as they are picked and frozen at their peak.
"My number one piece of advice for those considering a switch to more plant-based eating is to spend some time considering the type of diet that you want," Hertzler says. To home in on one that will work best for you, ask yourself:
When getting started with a plant-based diet, it's best to take a gradual approach. After all, introducing new foods — or larger amounts of familiar foods — can disrupt your body's natural balance. When you eat more plants, you're consuming more fiber, which may lead to gastrointestinal discomfort.
So take it slow, and if you need additional support, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about how to make the transition.
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Nutritional Quality of Plant Proteins
Plant protein-based diets are becoming increasingly popular around the world, and there are lots of good reasons why. Research links diets that are largely plant-based to several health benefits, including a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and premature death. While more research is needed, a 2019 review in Translational Psychiatry suggests that plant-based diets may also improve cognitive health.