A plant-based diet is for all people who want to live a healthy lifestyle. Whether your goal is to manage weight, focus on your athletic performance or just increase the amount of fruit and veggies in your diet, you may be curious about how adding more plants could help you achieve your goals.
What is a plant-based diet?
In the first instance, the term “whole plant-based diet” might seem self-explanatory—to eat a diet based on plant foods (in contrast to the standard North American diet that’s mainly focused on animal-based foods). As a term, “whole plant-based diet” is often used interchangeably with “vegan” (a diet and lifestyle that avoids all animal products in food, cosmetic products, and apparel). But while those who identify as vegan eat an exclusively plant-based diet by definition, eating a plant-based diet can fall along a with as many variations as there are people to make choices about food. Whether you’re adding one new plant-based food or 20, there are benefits to be found from making plant-based foods a bigger part of your life.
Reasons to choose a plant-based diet
While there are many reasons why you may decide to add more plant to your diet, health and sustainability are two of the largest benefits.
Go plant-based for your health
Compared to the average North American diet, plant-based diets have everything you’ve been told to eat more of fiber from fruits and vegetables, and good fats from nuts and seeds—while also low in the saturated fat and cholesterol that’s found in meat and dairy. Plant foods have many beneficial compounds that can help support health. Worried about your waistline? Those who stick to vegan diets tend to have lower body mass indexes (BMIs).
Go plant-based for the planet’s health
While you’re feeling good about treating your body well, go ahead and give yourself another pat on the back for helping out planet Earth as well. While using reusable bags, recycling and walking more are now almost (wonderfully) cliché, not everyone realizes the impact diet has on the planet. Worldwide, livestock is one of the largest contributors to environmental problems, due to deforestation, desertification, overuse of freshwater, inefficient use of energy, diverting food for use as feed and emission of greenhouse gases.
Plant-based proteins, in general, require less arable land, water, and fossil fuels than their animal-based counterparts. Conservative estimates indicate that animal proteins can require up to 6 times as much land, 26 times as much water, and 2.5 times the fossil fuels as plant-based proteins.
Eating locally and seasonally is important for the earth’s health, and incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet has the potential for an even greater environmental impact. Simply put, swapping out some animal protein staples for plant-based beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains can have a huge impact on your carbon footprint.
Protein (specifically, the amino acids it delivers) plays many structural roles in your body, for all cells and enzymes, beyond just being the building blocks of muscle. Meat, eggs, and dairy may be your current protein staples, but it’s time to let nuts, seeds, and legumes have their day because plant-based foods are the best source of protein.
You can also stop worrying about not getting a complete protein. While not all plant-based sources of protein contain all essential amino acids, if you eat a variety of foods, you can sleep soundly at night knowing that you are getting all of the essential amino acids. Choose sprouted organic soy (tofu or tempeh), beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
What are vegan carbs and fats?
Vegans are famous for being “carbotarians” for good reason—the plant kingdom has many carbohydrates to choose from. Luckily, if you’re choosing nutrient-dense whole foods, you’re getting the best type of carbohydrates—carbs that are minimally-refined and unprocessed tend to have more fiber and micronutrients than their more refined counterparts. So grip fruits, starchy veggies (potatoes, sweet potatoes, and squash) as well as whole grains.
Dietary fat is rich in calories and it also helps support normal hormone function. Furthermore, it is playing an important role in the digestion and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K). Nuts, avocados, seeds and cold-pressed oils all have unsaturated fat, and chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds and walnuts have ALA Omega-3s.
Let’s Get Started:
1. Add, don’t subtract
Remember, plant-based eating falls on a spectrum. You don’t have to do a dietary-180 today to see benefits. Start small by adding just one new plant-based food. Next time you’re in the grocery store pick up a new non-dairy milk alternative. There so many alternatives: soy milk, cashew milk, almond milk and you will find your favorite one. Then try a fruit or vegetable you’ve never tried, or think about how you can spice up a plain block of organic tofu. Small changes can lead to the biggest results.
2. Stock Your Pantry
Besides fresh fruits and veggies, stock your pantry with former professional Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier’s top nutrient dense essentials:
Beans: Try adzuki, garbanzo, fava, kidney and navy beans as well as lentils and split peas.
Hemp seeds: Hemp seeds have protein, fiber, and ALA Omega-3s, and are delicious tossed onto salads and into smoothies.
Quinoa: Higher in protein than most grains, quinoa can be made in less than 15 minutes.
Nuts and Seeds: Plus nut butter for a quick snack.
3. Know Your Swaps
Try swapping out staple ingredients in your favorite recipes:
• Faux chicken strips
• Faux ground beef or sausage
• Vegan butter
• Non-dairy cheese
• Unsweetened, plain soy or coconut milk yogurt alternatives
4. Don’t Stress About Calories or Grams
The most nutrient dense foods are found in the plant kingdom. Beyond just carbs, protein and fat, minimally processed, whole plant-based foods can give you many important micronutrients per bite. Based on many factors including your height, weight, and sex, your exact calorie and macronutrient needs may vary. Try to eat intuitively, listen to your body’s hunger cues and honor your hunger.