Whether your goal is to manage weight, focus on your athletic performance or just increase the amount of fruit and veggies in your diet, you may be curious about how a plant-based diet fits into your life. If your interest in plant-based nutrition is ready to sprout, a little education can help you find your own path for why (and how) to make plant-based eating work for you.
What is a plant-based diet?
At first glance, the term “plant-based diet” might seem self-explanatory—to eat a diet based on plant foods (in contrast to the standard North American diet that’s largely focused on animal-based foods). As a term, “plant-based diet” is often used interchangeably with “vegan” (a diet and lifestyle that avoids all animal products in food, cosmetics, and apparel). But while those who identify as vegan eat an exclusively plant-based diet by definition, eating a plant-based diet can fall along a spectrum with as many variations as there are people to make choices about food.
We welcome everyone, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of a plant-based diet, because whether you’re adding one new plant-based food or 20, there are benefits to be found from making plants- a bigger part of your life.
Compared to the average North American diet, plant-based diets are rich in everything you’ve been told to eat more of, including fiber from fruits and vegetables, and good fats from nuts and seeds. Eating more plant-based food may help promote metabolic health including heart health. 1,2
Those who stick to a plant-based diet tend to have lower body weights and body mass indexes (BMIs).3 That’s great news, since obesity can be detrimental to health. For everyone, plant foods contain many beneficial compounds that support all parts of your body including your immune system, and heart function.4
Meet Your Nutritional Needs with a Plant-Based Diet
If the many benefits of a plant-based diet have inspired you to step into the spectrum of cleaner eating, you may still have some questions about whether or not you can meet your nutrient needs from plant-based foods. Let’s face it, you’re going to get the “how do you get enough protein?” question, whether you like it or not. Now to be clear, while French fries are vegan, when we say plant-based, we’re (usually) talking about nutrient dense, whole foods.
Sugar, starch and fiber are all types of carbohydrates. Depending on the type, carbohydrates either provide instant or more sustained energy. Remember eating an orange during soccer practice as a kid? That’s because of fruits contain sugar that is rapidly absorbed.
Now imagine eating a bowl of brown rice during that same practice. Not going to happen. That’s because, while a carb just like the orange, whole grains are digested and absorbed more slowly because they also include starch and fiber.
While we’re on the subject, fiber is key because helps support the digestive system. There are two types of dietary fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber becomes a gel-like consistency and helps to move things along your digestive tract, and insoluble fiber provides roughage, which helps bulk things up and can help to reduce the likelihood of constipation.4
Peas, citrus fruits, barley and carrots have soluble fiber, while whole wheat flour, oat bran, wheat bran, nuts, and cauliflower have insoluble fiber. Many foods have a combination of both types of fiber including oats, apples (skin on) and beans.
Dietary fat is a key component of brain development, hormone production, as well as digestion and absorption of fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).5
There are both animal and plant-based sources of dietary fat. Plant-based sources are typically richer in heart-healthy unsaturated fat. Nuts, avocados, seeds and cold-pressed oils are all sources of unsaturated fat. Chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts are good sources of dietary fat.
Protein is comprised of amino acids, which are used as the building blocks of cells (including muscles).6 There are two types of amino acids, essential (ones that the body can’t make and need to be consumed through diet) and non-essential (ones the body can make).
Organic soy (tofu or tempeh), beans, nuts, seeds are all sources of plant-based protein. If you’re looking to boost your protein intake with a multisource plant-based blend, that offers all essential amino acids, try a Vega® protein powder. New to Vega? We recommend the effortless nutrition of Vega Protein & Greens.
Vitamins and Minerals
While required in much smaller amounts than macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins), micronutrients are vital to health. Luckily, almost all vitamins and minerals are easy to find on a balanced plant-based diet.
For a complete list of micronutrients, their function and sources, check out this blog post.
Easy Plant-Based Meals
It’s easier to get started when you have an arsenal of recipes at your disposal. For recipe inspiration, visit the Vega Recipe Center. When baking, it is easy to find simple substitutions for common ingredients like butter, milk and eggs. For example, a mixture of 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed or chia seeds with 3 tablespoons of water is equivalent to one egg.
Finding Plant-Based Options While Dining Out
Once you have a good base when eating from home, you may encounter the challenge of dining out with friends as someone choosing to eat plant-based. Don’t get stuck on just ordering salads. If no plant-based entrées are available, look at side dishes which often require only minimal tweaks—like asking for it to be cooked in oil instead of butter, or holding the cheese. Also, consider a cuisine where clean, plant-based options are regular menu items, like Middle Eastern, Japanese, Mexican, or Ethiopian. The good news is that clean, plant-based diets have gained a lot of attention recently, making it easier to find suitable menu options.
Making It Work: Add, Don’t Subtract
Remember, plant-based eating falls on a spectrum. You don’t have to do a dietary-180 today to see benefits. Start small by adding just one new plant-based food or meal. Next time you’re in the grocery store pick up a new non-dairy milk alternative, grab a fruit or vegetable you’ve never tried, or think about how you can spice up a plain block of organic tofu. Small changes lead to the biggest results.
Connect for Support
- Craig, WJ., Mangels, AR, (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association.109 (7).1266-1282. Accessed on 5/13/13 from http://www.eatright.org/About/Content.aspx?id=8357
- Tonstad, S, Butler, T, Yan, R, Fraser, G. (2009). Type of Vegetarian Diet, Body Weight and Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care.32(5). 791-796. Accessed on 5/13/13 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2671114/
- Newby, PK, Tucker, KL, Wolk, A. (2005). Risk of overweight and obesity among semivegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81 (6). 1267-1274. Accessed on 5/13/13 from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/81/6/1267.full.pdf+html
- Dietary Fiber: MedlinePlus. (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2020, from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/dietaryfiber.html
- Dietary Fat: MedlinePlus. (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2020, from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000104.html
- Dietary Protein: MedlinePlus. (n.d.). Retrieved May 20, 2020, from https://medlineplus.gov/dietaryproteins.html