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There was once a time when a “balanced plate” meant eating a serving of meat, vegetables, and starch. However, more and more research is showing that eliminating that meat choice in favor of other delicious and nourishing foods might be more beneficial than we once believed.
Once considered an extreme and unnecessary option by the majority of the Western world, plant-based diets are now taking the health and nutrition spaces by storm.
So why would someone choose to follow a plant-based diet in the first place? Here are all the delicious, tasty, and eco-friendly reasons you should consider cutting out animal products in your diet and make the switch to plant based nutrition.
What Is A Plant-Based Diet?
In a plant-based diet, you get the majority of your nutrition and calories from plants like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Unlike omnivorous eating patterns that are more commonplace today, following a plant-based diet means minimizing your intake of meat, poultry, and seafood. It can also mean minimizing your intake of other animal products. For example, many people who follow plant-based diets don’t consume any animal byproducts like eggs, cheese, milk, and other dairy options.
In essence, eating a plant-based diet means focusing primarily on the foods that grow from the earth.
So the concept of a plant-based diet is fairly straightforward. However, there are a couple of different approaches and interpretations of going “plant-based” that can fall into this category.
For example, vegetarianism is a plant-based diet in which someone does not eat any meat products. However, they might include eggs, cheese, milk, honey, and other animal byproducts into their meals and snacks. Other common subsets of vegetarianism include pescetarianism, in which you can eat fish, and lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, which allows for eggs and dairy.
Veganism, on the other hand, is completely plant-based. Someone who is a vegan will not eat any animal products at all.
There are even “flexitarian” diets, or eating patterns in which you minimize your animal-based foods as often as possible without eliminating them altogether. This is a great option for someone who wants to go plant-based but isn’t ready to completely give up the meat and dairy quite yet, or for someone who wants to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet but wants a little more flexibility.
The main takeaway here: going plant-based can be as strict or flexible as you are comfortable with. Either way, the decrease in meat and animal products can lead to a wide range of benefits for both your health and your carbon footprint.
How A Plant-Based Diet Can Improve Your Health
So why would someone choose to go plant-based in the first place?
The elimination of meat, dairy, and other animal products doesn’t just change your day-to-day cooking habits. It also means that your daily nutrition can change, which can often make a difference on a cellular level.
Here’s how a plant-based diet improves health:
- Less saturated fat: Saturated fats are a type of unhealthy fat often linked to high cholesterol levels. Because saturated fats are found primarily in animal products like red meat, cheese, and dairy, shifting towards a plant-based diet can minimize your dietary fat intake and promote better heart health.
- Increased antioxidants: When you shift away from animal products and build your plates up with plant-based foods instead, you introduce an opportunity to take in more phytonutrients. These are nourishing compounds found only in plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables. They play a variety of important roles, including acting as antioxidants to reduce cell damage and supporting your immune system. They can even be protective against conditions like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes when eaten regularly.
- Increased fiber: Dietary fiber is another important nutrient that many people don’t get enough of in their modern meat-focused diets since it’s only found in plant foods. Increasing your fiber by eating more healthy fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can support your gut health and has even been found to improve cholesterol levels.
- Less exposure to carcinogens: There are plenty of benefits that come with eating more fruits and vegetables, but there’s also something to be said about the elimination of meat from your diet. Many scientists believe that certain meats are carcinogenic - in other words, the compounds in these products can cause cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization classifies red meat as a potential carcinogen, while processed meats that have smoked, cured, or otherwise preserved are classified as Group 1 carcinogens.
Effects Of A Plant-Based Diet
When you put all those health benefits together, the plant-based diet benefits can be truly life-changing.
The changes in your diet that result from plant-based nutrition can translate to:
Healthier body weight: People who follow plant-based diets may see improvements in their body weight. One review of several plant-based studies found that several groups were able to see improvements in their weight, possibly due to decreased dietary fat and lower daily calorie intakes.
Reduced inflammation: Inflammation is your immune system’s response to potential hazards, but it can also lead to cell damage and is linked to a variety of common health conditions when it becomes chronic. All those protective antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that you can get from a plant-based diet can help protect against chronic inflammation.
Better heart health: The combination of lower saturated fat intake, increased fiber, increased antioxidants, and other cardioprotective plant-based nutrients can pay off in a big way if you are concerned about your blood pressure and your heart health. Several studies have proven that plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, strokes, and even lower rates of cardiovascular mortality!
Reduced risk of certain cancers: In addition to protecting your heart, all those plant-based nutrients can also protect against certain cancers, especially when you are eating less carcinogenic red meat at the same time. Some research even suggests that people who eat plant-based diets report the lowest incidences of cancer compared to any other diet.
Prevention and treatment of Type 2 Diabetes: Type 2 diabetes is a chronic illness in which your body can’t regulate your blood sugar effectively. One of the best ways you can combat your risk of developing this condition is by improving your diet, and a plant-based diet fills the bill nicely here. The increase in high-quality carbohydrates, as well as a potential improvement in your body weight, could decrease your risk and may even help manage your diabetes if it has already developed.
Ultimately, eating a plant-based diet is one of the most cost-effective, low-risk interventions for many of our most common chronic health issues!
Besides the benefits that a plant-based diet can have on your health, making the switch can also result in another plus: a smaller carbon footprint.
The meat industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and global warming. Raising animals and processing them for their meat requires a tremendous amount of resources, which is extremely hard on the earth. In fact, EarthSave estimates that producing one pound of beef requires a whopping 2,500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, 35 pounds of topsoil, and the same amount of energy as one gallon of gasoline!
So when you consider the amount of meat we eat globally, the future of our earth looks bleak. But on the bright side, making a switch to a more plant-based diet on a global scale can have a huge impact, with one study estimating that we could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by anywhere from 29-70%!
So the effects of a plant-based diet are huge. The more we eliminate the meat, fish, and dairy products from our diet, the bigger the impact will be - and that means a brighter, more sustainable future for the earth and our future generations.
Ways To Get Started With A Plant-Based Diet
With all the benefits that come from plant-based nutrition, it’s no wonder that so many people are starting to change their eating habits! It might feel intimidating at first, especially if you are used to getting the bulk of your nutrients from animals and animal products, but gradual changes can make a big impact.
Here’s a beginner’s guide to making the switch to plant-based nutrition:
1. Pay attention to your protein choices.
One of the biggest transitions you’ll face when starting a plant-based diet is the switch from meat to plant-based proteins. Luckily, there are plenty of plant-based protein choices out there: for example, tofu, tempeh, soy, beans, legumes, and whole grains all have a good amount of protein per serving.
However, it’s important to note that the protein quality of meat is different than animal products. Meat and other animal products generally have complete proteins, meaning they have all the amino acids necessary to make up one full protein molecule. On the other hand, most plant-based proteins are incomplete. For the best results, combine multiple plant-based protein choices to ensure you’re getting complete proteins.
2. Reframe your approach to vegetables.
Traditionally, we think of vegetables in terms of salads, roasted veggies, as sides to our main course. But as you go plant-based, you’ll start to realize that veggies can be the star of the show!
Experiment with different uses of vegetables to find what you like and avoid salad burn-out. For example, mushrooms are a great substitute in texture for many meat products, while black beans make a great burger patty.
3. Gradually decrease your meat intake.
One of the biggest pitfalls people face when going plant-based is their reluctance to give up meat products completely. It can be hard to go “cold turkey” if you’ve been used to eating meat your entire life.
Start slowly by incorporating just one or two plant-based meals every week. Then, as you get more comfortable with your new eating pattern and familiar with your options, you can gradually increase the number of plant-based meals on your weekly menu.
4. Take supplements when necessary.
Even though you can meet your dietary needs from plant-based nutrition alone, some nutrients are harder to come by when you eliminate meat and dairy. For example, Vitamin B-12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids are traditionally found in meat and/or fish.
So in some cases, you might consider using a dietary supplement to bridge the gap between your diet and the nutrients you need. There are several vegan supplement options out there that can fit nicely into a plant-based diet, like microalgae pills for omega-3s fatty acids (an easily digestible flaxseed oil substitute).
It could also be helpful to discuss your new eating habits with a plant-based diet nutritionist to determine whether you’re getting all of your necessary nutrients during the switch.
5. Watch the processed food options.
While eating fresh, whole foods is one of the best ways you can improve your diet, there are also plenty of processed vegetarian and vegan options out there. Unfortunately, relying too heavily on the processed stuff can actually make you backtrack since they can be heavy on preservatives, trans fats, and other less desirable compounds.
So the healthiest way to approach this would be to choose fresh, whole foods more often, especially as you progress through your plant-based nutrition journey. If you want to maximize your convenience, you might consider meal prepping, or signing up for a meal prep delivery service that specializes in fresh plant-based meals.
We are dealing with two major crises today. Chronic illnesses, many of which stem from poor dietary choices, are wreaking havoc on our health. At the same time, those poor dietary choices are also contributing to global warming and climate change.
Plant-based nutrition could very well be the answer to both. Eliminating meat, animal products, and other processed foods from our regular eating plan can minimize our burden on the planet and help us live longer, healthier lives in the process.