A Guide To Plant-Based Eating
It's one of the healthiest things you can do for your body.
Eat this, not that, cut the carbs, eat like a caveman, you've heard it all. We get it – the avalanche of information is tiresome and cumbersome to sift through, and makes healthy eating even more confusing.
But if there is one diet that has been consistently proven, it's a plant-based one. Scientific studies spanning over two decades confirm that it supports health at every age, prevents and reverses certain diseases. It's clear that plant-based eating isn't just another wellness trend.
Ready to give it a go, but unsure of what a plant-based diet really means and how to start? Keep reading. We turn to registered dietitian and best-selling author Julieanna Hever M.S., R.D., C.P.T to break it down for us.
First of all, it's not the same thing as veganism.
“A vegan diet is one that, by definition, excludes all animal products,” says Hever. “Plant-based is an inclusive definition that means a diet based on whole plant food.”
Whilst people may have different interpretations of what plant-based eating is, the emphasis is on foods derived from plant sources like vegetables, fruit, nut, seeds and whole grains; consuming them in their most natural state as possible. The plan omits heavily processed and refined foods.
How it benefits your health
“There are a plethora of health benefits associated with eating plants, including the fact that it is the only diet that has been associated with reversing advanced-stage cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes,” Hever tell us.
"Plant-based diets have also been associated with reduced risk of mortality, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and hyperglycemia; lower body fat and BMI; and reduced medication requirements."
Hever adds that while it's anecdotal, "I have also seen in hundreds of clients in my nutrition practice experience extraordinary (and sometimes unexpected) side effects of switching to a plant-based diet, including overcoming life-long asthma, eczema, reductions of acne, aches, and pains.”
Is it suitable for everyone?
“Yes,” says Hever. “According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, ‘appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.’”
*The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is the world’s largest organisation of food and nutrition professionals.
Can you get enough nutrients from plants alone?
Whilst you can get a good amount of your daily vitamins and minerals from plant-based foods, there is a short list of nutrients that are more challenging to get from a plant-only diet.
B12 and D are two of them, says Hever, adding that both of these vitamins are high deficiency risk for people regardless of their diet.
“Anyone on a plant-based diet plus anyone over the age of 50 - regardless of diet - needs to supplement with vitamin B12 to avoid potentially irreversible neurological damage,” she says. “We recommend supplementing with cyanocobalamin in one of the following three dose regimens: 50 micrograms (mcg) twice daily, 150 mcg once daily, or 2500 mcg once weekly.”
“As vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient and there seems to be a high prevalence of deficiency worldwide, it is recommended people have their serum tested regularly and use safe sun exposure or supplements as necessary.”
Tips if you’re looking to switch from meat to plants
“We are all creatures of habit, rotating through a few different recipes day after day, week after week," says Hever. "Now is the best time to transition to a plant-based diet because we have limitless access to recipes, tips, ingredients and you can find or make almost anything you have always loved to eat modified into plant."
"The best way to ease into this way of eating is to have fun and explore! Find new whole food, plant ingredients and recipes that sound amazing to you and try them. If you love it, add it to your rotation. If you don't, modify or move on. All you need is a repertoire of just a few go-to recipes and you are all set.”
Remember, not all plant-based foods are healthy
Just because something is plant-based doesn’t automatically make it healthy, including meat-free alternatives like The Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat.
“While I am thrilled these products are now widely available, they are still nutritionally similar to their animal product counterpart,” says Hever. “Thus, I do not consider them health foods, but rather, a wonderful option for an occasional treat.”
“’Compared to what’ is the question not asked often enough so compared to a burger made from animals, a plant-based option is superior (they so not contain the dietary cholesterol or hormones that animals contain); compared to a bowl of beans, whole grains, and vegetables, I would recommend that over a plant-based burger.”
Julieanna Hever M.S., R.D., C.P.T., is the author of The Healthspan Solution and Plant-Based Nutrition (Idiot’s Guides). She is also a special consultant to Forks Over Knives. Find out more about her work at PlantBasedDietitian.com.