Nutrition / Popular Diets

The Benefits of Plant-Based Eating and How to Get Started

Nutrition experts share some of the key benefits from plant-based eating and tips to get started.

If you’ve at least thought of going fully plant-based with your diet, you’re in good company. In fact, the number of Americans who’ve switched their diet to one that eliminates meat and even some dairy products increased from 600 percent between the years 2014 and 2018, per research published in The Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association. 

What is a plant-based diet?

In case you’re not totally sure what “plant-based” really means, we’ll break it down for you. Put simply, a plant-based diet focuses primarily on plants. However, California-based dietitian Sharon Palmer, R.D., explains that there is a spectrum of plant-based diets ranging from semi-vegetarian or flexitarian to vegetarian to vegan.

“Many people are beginning to use the term plant-based as a synonym for vegan; and, when you see plant-based on a food product, it typically means 100 percent plant-based or vegan,” she says. “When one eats vegan, that means they exclude all animal foods from their diet, that means animal flesh, fish/seafood, eggs, dairy products, butter, and honey, which may also include avoiding animal products in their lifestyle, such as avoiding the use of leather, wool, or silk.”

Regardless if plant-based means vegetarian for one person and vegan for another, one thing is for sure: the plant-based movement is in full swing—and gaining momentum. There are certainly plenty of perks of going plant-based. Nutrition experts share some of the key benefits one can expect to gain from plant-based eating and how to get started. 

It may help reduce cholesterol levels

An estimated 86 million U.S. adults have total cholesterol levels that are considered high, or above 200 mg/dL, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This can unfortunately put you at an increased risk of heart complications, including a heart attack, because it creates an environment where fatty deposits can build up in your blood vessels. Luckily, a plant-based diet can help keep cholesterol levels low, since plant-based foods are significantly lower in saturated fat compared to many animal-based foods like red meat and full-fat dairy. “Going plant-based at the very least may help reduce people’s intake of fast-food burgers, fried chicken, and chicken nuggets, which all worsen cholesterol and heart health when consumed on a regular basis,” says functional dietitian Jenna Volpe, R.D.N., L.D., C.L.T. 

It may help lower your weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is beneficial for your overall health, as it reduces your risk for a myriad of diseases. Plant-based diets are not only typically lower in calories and saturated fats compared to omnivorous diets,  but they are also high in fiber, which promotes a feeling of fullness and reduces overall calorie intake, explains Vandana Sheth, R.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes care specialist and author of ‌My Indian Table‌. “By incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, you may find it easier to maintain a healthy weight.”

It may help with constipation

Constipation can be incredibly uncomfortable and quite common when consuming the Standard American Diet (SAD). Luckily plant-based diets are rich in fiber, which plays a crucial role in promoting gut  health, explains Sheth. “Fiber adds bulk, helping you stay regular and prevent constipation,” she says. “Also, fermented plant-based foods l(e.g., sauerkraut, kimchi) provide beneficial probiotics that support a healthy gut microbiome, which can also go the extra mile to ward off constipation.

May help reduce risk of chronic diseases

Research, including one recent study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, has linked consumption of red and processed meat to an increased risk of cancer. “The abundance of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals in plant-based foods helps combat oxidative stress and inflammation, which are key factors in the development of chronic diseases,” says Sheth. “Also, plant-based diets have been linked to better blood sugar control, which is helpful for people with diabetes or those at risk of developing the condition.”

It’s good for the environment

There’s no denying the evidence that supports that going plant-based is astronomically better for the environment. In fact research, including one study published in the journal Nature Foods shows that vegan diets have caused a 75 percent decrease in climate-heating emissions, land use and water pollution. “Plant-based foods generally have a lower carbon footprint and require less water and land resources compared to animal-based foods,” Sheth says. “By reducing the consumption of animal products, you can promote a more sustainable and eco-friendly food system.”

Considering going plant-based? Follow these steps. 

Tips for going plant-based

1. Start slow

You don’t have to transition to a plant-based lifestyle cold-turkey. In fact, the best way to do it is to start with one meal at a time, according to Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D., founder of Greenletes. “Maybe you’re only plant-based at breakfast or lunch, and that’s perfectly fine!” she says. “Small changes lead to larger changes over time.”

2. Add foods to your diet before you take them away

If you’re eating a lot of meat and not too many plants, Rizzo suggests trying to include more plant-based foods in your diet before you start cutting out the foods you eat. “For example, add lentils to your chicken tacos to increase the plants,” she says. “You may find that you prefer plant-based food and you may rely less on animal foods.”

3. Plan to plan ahead 

“It’s difficult to ‘wing it’ when following a plant based diet, since on-the-go options are more limited,” warns Palmer. She recommends auditing the week and figuring out which meals can be made or packed in advance. “It may also be helpful to focus on protein, since that will be more difficult to get on-the-go,” she says. “Natural peanut butter and lentil soup are a few very tasty and convenient options!”

4. Explore plant-based alternatives

Now more than ever there’s a wide-range of plant-based alternatives that you can swap in for traditional animal-based products. Sheth recommends experimenting with plant-based milk (e.g., almond, soy, oat), meat substitutes (e.g., tofu, tempeh, seitan), and dairy-free cheeses. “These alternatives can provide similar flavors and textures, making the transition smoother,” she says. “However, remember that not all plant-based products are equal in terms of nutrition, so read labels and choose options with minimal additives and processed ingredients.”

5. Eat with the seasons

One of the best ways to ensure that the plants you’re eating taste great is to buy them in season. Not sure when is the best time to buy certain produce? Look for the foods that are on sale. “Those are usually the seasonal ingredients, and they are fresh and inexpensive in the season they are ripest,” says Rizzo. “If you always eat seasonally, you’ll change up the plant-based foods you eat and get a variety of nutrients.”

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