Take It In: Plant-based diet delivers better health – for people and planet

Sep 22, 2019 by Carol Bareuther

Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

Adios, Atkins. Sayonara, South Beach. It’s a plant-based diet that’s capturing attention today. In fact, 51% of adults surveyed for the 2019 Food and Health Survey by the Washington, DC-based International Food Information Council  said they wanted to learn more about plant-based diets. 

What’s more, this isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon. Everyone from celebrities (i.e. Britain’s Russel Brand and Joss Stone, and Australian brothers Chris and Liam Hemsworth) to companies (think Google) and countries (China, for one) are jumping on the plant-based diet bandwagon.

Why? For one thing, there are environmental benefits. Leaving animal products off the plate could reduce an individual’s carbon footprint by as much as 73%, according to a 2018 study by British and Swiss researchers published in the journal Science.  

Second, there are huge health benefits. Many studies show a strong connection between meat-eating and cardiovascular disease, something that drops drastically when plant is substituted for animal protein. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the world, according to the World Health Organization. 

Beyond this, U.S. researchers writing in 2017 in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology outlined a soup-to-nuts list of reasons why a plant-based diet can help prevent diabetes, a widespread chronic disease that can lead to a higher risk of heart disease, as well as kidney failure and blindness. These include improving insulin resistance, increasing fiber and phytonutrient intake, and promoting a healthy body weight. On the weight front too, research reveals a plant-based diet is a good way to keep off unwanted pounds.

What is a plant-based diet? Unlike diets such as Atkins and South Beach, there isn’t a set plant-based diet plan or formal definition. In fact, in the IFIC survey mentioned above, nearly 32% of those asked considered plant-based synonymous with a vegan diet, while 8% considered it to mean eating as many fruits and vegetables as possible with no limit on meat, eggs and dairy foods. 

The best definition, and one that’s widely accepted, is the one coined by Dr. Robert Ostfeld of the Cardiac Wellness Program at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York: “A plant-based diet consists of all minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs, and spices and excludes all animal products, including red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products.”

How can you eat a plant-based diet? Swap plant for animal proteins. Cooked beans, such as black beans, lentils, red beans and chickpeas, provide 15 to 18 grams of protein per serving. This is about one-third to one-fourth of an adult’s daily requirement. Mash and make into burgers, add to chilies and stews, and sprinkle in rice for a hearty pilaf. 

Soy foods, made from soybeans, are also protein rich. Examples include tofu, tempeh and soymilk. Scramble tofu in place of eggs at breakfast, barbeque strips of tempeh for lunch rather than ribs or chicken, and pour a glass of soy instead of cow’s milk before bed. 

Grains are a good source of protein, especially ancient grains such as amaranth, quinoa and farro. Each provides 8 to 9 grams of protein per cup cooked. Make soups, stews, stir-fries and salads with these grains for a fulfilling entree. 

Nuts, such as cashews, walnuts and almonds, are protein-packed and make an excellent snack.

Switching to a plant-based diet isn’t a fad, but a good game plan for life.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.