Plant-based diets are all the rage these days, but are they always healthy? There is no formal definition of a plant-based diet. Generally, it means that the diet consists mostly of plant-based foods as opposed to animal products. Vegetarian and vegan diets have more formal definitions and mean the following: A vegan diet is free of all animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. A vegetarian diet is a loosely held term that generally means free of meat, fish and poultry and more specifically, a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet contains dairy and eggs.What is important to know, definitions aside, is that simply because a food product is vegetarian or vegan, does not automatically mean that it is healthy. After all, greasy French fries and potato chips are vegan! And so are jelly beans and white bread.
People who eat a well-planned healthy plant-based or vegetarian diet tend to have lower rates of obesity as well as chronic disease, including heart disease and cancer than meat-eating folks. A healthy plant-based diet consists of mostly whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains while low in ultra-processed foods and ingredients.
Here are several things to consider if you are thinking of moving to a more plant-based diet.
- Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors.
Fruits and vegetables that are purple/blue, orange, red, yellow, etc. all contain different vitamins and nutrients essential for health.
- Skip the ultra-processed foods and that goes for vegetarian ultra processed foods, too.
Choose real food with few ingredients—peanuts or peanut butter, for example, instead of peanut butter cookies. Some of the newest veggie burgers to hit the market are highly processed and chock full of chemical additives. For instance, the trendy Impossible Burger contains 240 calories and 14 grams of fat (8 of which are saturated.) Make your own instead, or shop for a veggie burger or meal replacement product with as few additives and fat as possible.
- Include healthy protein options.
If you are moving away from animal proteins, opt for plant based proteins. Lentils, tempeh, white beans, split pea soups, nuts and nut butters are great choices and should be included in the diet. Also eat a variety. For instance, vegans who rely too much on processed soy in the form of tofu, soy milk and other meat substitutes for their protein could experience hormone disruptions because of the phytoestrogens found in soy.
- Choose whole grains and other healthy starches.
Quinoa, kasha, whole wheat pasta, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash trump white bread products and French fries.
- Season your food with spices and herbs instead of added sugar and salt.
A plant-based diet can be delicious in addition to nutritious. How to Make Healthy Food Taste Great shows ways to leverage citrus, herbs and other techniques to pump maximum flavor into food without adding unhealthy fats.
- Watch your nutrient intake.
Lean meat and dairy products supply people with vitamin B-12, vitamin D, iron, zinc and calcium, so if you’re looking for a plant-based diet, be aware of other sources to find these nutrients.
So, next time you’re tempted to indulge on a plant-based bag of potato chips or other suspect “health” food, think twice. The food’s health benefits just might be too good to be true.
Lisa R. Young, PhD, RDN, is an internationally recognized nutritionist, portion size expert, and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. Dr. Young is the author of Finally Full, Finally Slim: 30 Days to Permanent Weight Loss One Portion at Time and The Portion Teller Plan and is regularly called upon by major media outlets as an expert voice on nutrition and health. She has been counseling clients for more than 20 years, blogs at www.drlisayoung.com, and inspires her community to make healthy food and lifestyle choices.