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Is a Plant-based diet healthy?

We’re going to let you in on a little secret. Most popular healthy diets that are touted for weight loss—from Paleo to Mediterranean and vegetarian—share many of the same basic principles. All involve eating whole foods (as opposed to packaged and processed) and filling your plate with quality sources of protein, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and vitamin-, mineral-, and fiber-rich vegetables. (Again, we’re talking about the ones that fall somewhere on the healthy spectrum, not unhealthy fad diets like, ahem, the Grapefruit Diet. However, each proposes a slightly different path that leads to fulfilling those principles. In this column, we’ll be breaking them down for you one by one so you can figure out which (if any!) is right for you. We’ll quickly explain the facts and then provide quick, actionable tips on how to follow the diet as part of a Nutritious Life.

Plant-based—the wellness buzzword that has been hashtagged more than 32 million times on instagram and can be found in everything from headlines to menus. But what exactly does it mean to eat plant-based? We’ve got the plant-based diet decoded for you. 

What is a Plant-based Diet?

Think of this one as more of a lifestyle than a diet. There’s no clear definition of a plant-based diet, so you might see the term being used to refer to a variety of eating patterns such as vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian. Nonetheless, a plant-based diet simply refers to a diet that emphasizes whole plant foods and keeps animal products and processed foods to a minimum. 

What You Eat

You’ll be keeping it simple with this diet. Minimally processed plant foods including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds will make up the majority of your meals and snacks. In other words, whole foods without a label, package, or long ingredient lists are most often what you’ll be looking for. Animal products including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy can be consumed too, but the emphasis will be on the plants. Food quality is also another important part of a plant-based diet, so locally sourced and organic foods are often prioritized. If you’re going to consume animal products, then you should aim to purchase quality items like grass-fed beef or free-range eggs.

What You Don’t Eat

Nothing is off limits on a plant-based diet, but animal products including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs are either removed or consumed sparingly. Think of animal-products as supporting actors rather than the main show with this diet. You’ll also want to avoid processed foods as much possible, even if they’re plant-based. This includes highly processed foods like chips, lunch meats, and vegan meats and cheeses that no longer provide the same nutritional benefits as they do in their original whole food state. 

Pros and Cons

A plant-based diet is an all around win-win, especially given the flexibility it affords to meet your personal preferences, nutritional needs, and lifestyle. It’s no secret you’re better off without overly processed foods that are stripped of their nutrients and high in added sugars, refined grains, and sodium. Additionally, eating less animal-products means more room in your diet to load up on nourishing plant-foods that are loaded with gut-health promoting fiber, disease-fighting antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory healthy fats. 

It’s hard to deny the numerous health benefits associated with plant-based diets. One meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found those assigned a vegetarian diet had significant weight loss compared to those assigned non-vegetarian diets. In addition to weight, evidence suggests plant-based diets are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even some types of cancer

Wondering how you can add more plants to your diet? Try meatless Mondays, use meat as a garnish rather than a centerpiece, pile up at least half your plate with vegetables, swap animal-protein for legumes, tofu, or whole grains, or try enjoying fruit as a sweet treat. Better yet, check out some of our favorite recipes below for delicious plant-based inspiration for every eating occasion.

The Bottom Line

Flexible, sustainable, nutritious—this is one “diet” we wholeheartedly support. Load up your plate with as many nutrient dense whole plant-foods as possible and then you get to decide if and how you’d like to add in some high quality animal-products. By focusing less on what you’re removing from your diet and more on what health-boosting foods you can add to your diet, the plant-based eating pattern is one you can and should do for the long haul. 

The healthiest diet is an approach to eating that fuels your body and mind and fits into your lifestyle. Eating empowered means listening—really listening—to your body and focusing on the diverse, delicious, healthy foods you can have rather than what a hard-to-follow diet says you can’t have.

Plant-based Recipes We Love

  • Low Sugar Berry Green Smoothie

    This is as green as a smoothie can be (the way we like it!) but is sweet and yummy thanks to the vanilla-almond butter-berry combo. Plus, the addition of avocado makes it extra creamy. Get the recipe here.

  • Healthy Morning Glory Muffins

    If you love the flavors of autumn, you’ll fall for these muffins fast, thanks to pumpkin, apple, and cinnamon. Bonus: chia seeds add a protein punch. Get the recipe here.

  • Avocado Toast with Roasted Zucchini and Corn

    Avo toast is a great source of (Instagram-friendly) healthy fats, while zucchini provides fiber, folate, and vitamin C. While corn gets a bad rap because it’s such a massive GMO commodity, it’s actually filled with antioxidants. (Just buy it fresh from a local organic farmstand if you can). Get the recipe here.

  • Smoky Rosemary Maple Tempeh

    Tempeh is an excellent source of plant-based protein, and since it’s fermented, many people find it more easily digestible compared to tofu. Here, that protein is supplemented with all kinds of nutrient-dense marinade ingredients, like garlic, cayenne pepper, and apple cider vinegar. Get the recipe here.

  • Coconut Bacon Sandwich

    Instead of processed meat, you get mushrooms, which are one of the few dietary sources of vitamin D and the protein-rich chickpeas are tossed with antioxidant-rich spices. And while a standard BLT doesn’t come with A, we’ll put avocado’s healthy fats on anything. Get the recipe here.

  • Vegetarian Quesadilla with Broccoli Rabe

    Who doesn’t love a cheesy quesadilla? This one layers nutrient-dense broccoli rabe (fiber! vitamins!) into the protein-packed cheese and black beans—and holds it all together with a tortilla made with whole grains instead of white flour. Get the recipe here.

  • Vegan Chocolate Gingerbread Protein Muffins

    These muffins are a sweet treat for all kinds of eaters—from vegan to gluten-free—without the use of any strange replacement ingredients (just healthy whole foods). They also deliver tons of both flavor and protein. Get the recipe here.

  • Peanut Butter Honey Energy Balls

    These energy balls take minutes to assemble and are the perfect, portable snack for running errands or bouncing between meetings. It’s a balanced bite featuring fiber from the oats and pumpkin, healthy fats from the chia seeds and coconut, and protein from the nut butter. That means sustained energy you can count on! Get the recipe here.

  • Spiced Kale Chips

    Kale is a rock star of the produce aisle, even if its popularity has gotten a little played out. Turn it into chips and you’ve got an extra way to eat it—as a snack. It may also be a way to get your kids into the leafy green, if you call it “chips” and emphasize the salty crunch. Get the recipe here.

    (photo credit: Nutritious Life, Shutterstock)

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