What Is a Plant-Based Diet and Is It Actually Better for Me?

October 14, 2019

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What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

If you follow a plant-based diet, your meals will include some combination of whole fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, tubers (root veggies), vegetable and seed oils, whole grains, and beans. 

This way of eating is sometimes referred to as “plant-forward,” which means you’re not necessarily subscribing to the “vegan” or “vegetarian” diet labels. “Plant-forward” simply means that the majority of your meals come from plants or plant-based foods, but you can still enjoy meat, fish, and dairy, if you so choose.

Here at Integrative Nutrition, we like the term “plant-forward,” as we feel it encompasses a bio-individual way of eating that can also provide many health benefits. Plant-based eating is getting a lot of attention recently, so we wanted to give you the rundown on what this diet actually looks like and how you can go about choosing what’s best for you.

What Are Some Sources of Plant-Based Protein?

Many people who decide to shift toward a more plant-based way of eating have concerns over how to make sure they’re getting adequate protein. 

It’s a common misconception that you can’t get adequate protein with limited animal products. There are many great sources of plant-based protein, including meat substitutes, that people choose to incorporate into their meals.

Here are some examples:

Soy protein options (organic is recommended):

  • Edamame
  • Seitan
  • Tempeh
  • Tofu 

Legume protein options:

  • Black beans
  • Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Peanuts

Whole-grain protein options:

  • Amaranth
  • Quinoa
  • Spelt 

Nut and seed protein options:

  • Almonds
  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Walnuts

Is Adopting a Plant-Based Diet Healthier for Me?

Maybe…

Ultimately, it comes down to what foods work for you and your body (that’s what we call bio-individuality), which we focus on in our Health Coach Training Program.

But let’s explore this further.

If you were only eating whole, unprocessed plant foods, the answer would be, “Yes, a plant-based diet is much healthier.” Whole plant foods contain fiber, which is important for overall health and isn’t found in meat. Some of the many benefits of dietary fiber? It helps keep you full longer, can reduce your risk of heart disease, and feeds your good gut bacteria!

By focusing your diet on mostly plant-based foods, you also probably won’t be eating a lot of high-sugar, processed “junk food.” We call this “crowding out”: filling up on the foods you should be eating more of and not leaving room for the “junk.” This can potentially lead to weight loss, though it’s not necessarily the main goal when many start following a plant-based diet.

But what if your plant-based diet is made up of mostly processed meat alternatives and faux meat products? We typically think of “junk food” as those high in sugar and processed ingredients, but processed meat alternatives fall into this category as well.

Dr. Hu, the chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard University, says that from a strictly nutritional standpoint, plant-based meat contains less saturated fat, is often calorically similar, and contains more sodium per serving than its real meat counterpart.

He also points out that more research is needed on how these plant-based proteins and meat alternatives can impact health, as the majority of the observational studies focus on the whole versions of these plant foods, not the processed versions.

Is Adopting a Plant-Based Diet Better for the Environment? 

Overall, yes. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, cattle raised for beef and milk account for about 65% of livestock greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock emissions account for approximately 14.5% of the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, food production in general impacts the environment – land use, water pollution, pesticide use, antibiotic use, etc.

However, as plant-based meat alternatives have become popular with the Impossible™ Burger and Beyond Meat, it’s important to continue researching how the facilities that make these products impact the environment and if, in the long run, it's truly better for the environment.

How Do I Decide If a Plant-Based Diet Is Right for Me?

As with any diet or lifestyle change, it’s important to see what feels best for you and your unique body. Not sure where to start? Check out our tips on how to embrace bio-individual nutrition.

When it comes to incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, opt for the whole, unprocessed versions, and most important, have fun with it! If you love to cook and want to try something new (that’s also plant-based!), whip up some chickpea masala or zoodles and mushroom stir-fry from our graduates.

Want to learn more about how you can help others lead their happiest and healthiest lives? Check out our online Health Coach Training Program Curriculum Guide.

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