The Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Choosing a plant-based diet has become more and more popular in recent years, and for good reason. Many people choose to follow a plant-based diet to reduce their risk of chronic disease and to improve their overall health and wellness, but there are plenty of other reasons to try it, including reducing your carbon and environmental footprint, helping to improve sustainability in general, or being concerned about animal welfare. One of the big draws to a plant-based eating pattern is that it's less restrictive than veganism or vegetarianism: While the diet is centered around plants, small amounts of seafood, meat, and other animal products are allowed.
A plant-based diet can offer numerous health benefits. In terms of chronic health, a plant-based diet has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer, improve cognitive health, and help manage symptoms or reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
How to Start a Plant-Based Diet
If you're interested in transitioning to a plant-based diet, start by adopting one plant-based meal or snack per day. A plant-based breakfast is easy—make a bowl of steel-cut oats. In addition to the seven grams of protein you get from the oats, you can add flaxseed or hemp seeds for additional protein. Nuts are a great source of plant-based protein as well as healthy mono-unsaturated fats and make for a great anytime snack. Pistachios are among the highest snack nuts in protein and fiber. One serving of pistachios provides six grams of plant-based protein and three grams of fiber. Sprinkle a salad with pistachios instead of croutons, and you'll get the same crunch factor but with healthy fats to round off your meal.
For lunch or dinner, chickpeas are a quick and convenient option, and one cup offers 15 grams of protein plus 4.7 mg of iron (about one quarter of the daily recommended intake). Make a quick Greek salad with Chickpeas for lunch or a Roasted-Vegetable Couscous Bowl, another chickpea recipe, for dinner. Also consider subbing half the meat in a burrito for beans for an extra dose of fiber. Seiten is a great meat substitute for dinner—it has a relatively neutral taste and will take on the flavor of whatever you pair it with. It's extremely versatile: You can marinate it and roast or grill like pieces of meat, use it as a substitute for ground beef, slice it into strips for fajitas or tacos, or add it to soups and stews. A three-ounce serving packs in about 15-21 grams of protein, similar to the protein amounts in a three-ounce serving of chicken.
Don't forget that many vegetables are solid sources of protein: One half cup of green peas offers four grams of protein for just 62 calories. Many people think that plants aren't a complete source of protein, but that's a myth. In fact, every plant-based protein is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. While the levels of each amino acid in a food varies, you can get plenty of protein from a plant-based diet as long as you're eating enough food overall.
What to Avoid
As plant-based eating has become increasingly trendy, food manufacturers have responded by developing meat-free processed products. Some of these products, while technically plant-based, are still packed with artificial ingredients, preservatives, and sodium. Plus, there are plenty of vegan and vegetarian foods that are packed with sugar, unhealthy fats, and sodium: Sugar is, after all, technically plant-based. Make your plant-based diet focused on plants not on processed foods.
Luckily, you're probably already eating at least a partially plant-based diet—in addition to the fruits and vegetables in your diet, foods like nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, and legumes are components of a plant-based diet. If you don't want to give up meat or animal products on a daily basis, consider the flexitarian diet—it's a looser and more flexible version of a plant-based diet. While it still emphasizes whole foods that come from plants, animal products are always options to include in your meals if you want.