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Plant-Based Diets: Facts vs. Fiction

Swearing off meat becoming more and more popular, and not just in Hollywood. While only 4% of the population reports living a 100%vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, sales of plant-based products grew nearly 32% between 2017 and 2019. That percentage is only expected to grow, especially as more tasty,meat-free options hit the market. Interest in vegetarianism and veganism is growing in popularity, bringing with it a flood of all things plant-based — readily accessible recipes on-line, vegan lifestyle blogs, and plant-based living Insta-posts with daily tips that come right to your smartphone, tablet or laptop. The information is out there, but along with information, there’s always a wealth of misinformation as well. What truly is fact vs. fiction when it comes to plant-based diets?  

In recent years a number of new documentaries includingWhat the Health,Food, Inc.,Forks Over Knives, and last year’s hitThe Game Changers have helped open people’s eyes to the questionable practices of the meat industry as well as the dangerous impact eating excessive amounts of meat can have on your body and the environment. Some of these documentaries were so convincing, that people began embracing a plant-based lifestyle even before the credits rolled!

But is eating a plant-based diet actually that good for you? Are there down sides? Read on to find out.

African American woman eating a salad

Plant-based Does Not Mean “No Meat”

Yes, you read that right. First and foremost, eating a plant-based diet is exactly that — plant-based. The most popular form of plant-based dieting involves eatingless meat rather than giving it up altogether. These people are eating larger proportions of fruits,whole grains, and vegetables and lower proportions of meat and dairy, be it for health reasons, religious reasons, or to do their part to help save the environment.  

Done correctly, theMediterranean diet is an example of a plant-based diet. On this diet,somecheese, eggs, yogurt, and meat are included in small portions and not at every meal. Year after year, the Mediterranean diet finds its way into the top slot on lists of healthiest diets (although we believe Dr. Nancy’s updated version of this diet, theMedit-American Diet is best). This good reputation can be attributed to its lack of limitations on the healthiest plant parts of the diet, as well as the numerous health benefits it provides — including reduced risk ofheart disease,inflammation,depression,diabetes, and certain types of cancers.

However, the Mediterranean diet certainly hasn’t cornered the market on plant-based diets. People who follow plant-based diets include several variations such as: pescatarians, who eat seafood alongside a vegetarian diet; flexitarians, who occasionally eat meat and seafood alongside a vegetarian diet that also includes dairy and eggs; and of course there are plant-based diets for those who don’t eat meat at all .

It’s Plant-Based, What’s the Risk?

It is fairly common knowledge among those who follow the research (not food industry marketing) that eating a diet heavy in saturated fat, processed foods, and red meat can cause heart disease, obesity, and an increased risk of diabetes. But a recent study conducted in the UK discovered that vegetarians and vegans who eat asolely plant-based diet, may also be at an increased risk of stroke. What gives?

The study found that vegetarians exhibited strokes 20% more than those who eat some meat or even those who consider themselves pescatarians.

While the UK study was largely based on observation, self-reporting, and did not examine a large group of people over an extended period of time (all important factors to consider when analyzing research), the results — and potential risk of stroke — are worth paying attention to.

There are also many who believe that a solely plant-based diet may come up short on protein and essential nutrients which some believe can only be attained by eating meat, fish, and dairy. 

Lean protein from chicken

The Protein Conundrum: To Protein Or Not To Protein, That Is The Question

In addition to “plant-based diet” entering the current health lexicon, “macronutrients” is another buzz word that’s infiltrated the mainstream. Instead of counting calories, amny now focus on countingmacronutrients — which tend to fluctuate according to your body type and fitness goals. On a macronutrient plan, the recommended target of protein per day can vary from 25% to 40% your daily nutritional intake.

For someone on a 1,500-calorie diet, trying to eat protein as 25% of their daily intake would mean eating nearly 100 grams of protein each day. However, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an individual should eat 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of their overall body weight. That means a 155-pound woman who leads a largely sedentary lifestyle should consume 56 grams of protein a day. Depending on activity level,  that reflects 10% of an individual’s total daily food intake from protein. And this number can fluctuate depending on any number of factors such as sex, age, and activity level.

Whatever you decide is the right amount of protein for you, the good news is that itis possible toget sufficient amounts of protein, as well as the vital essential nutrients like B-12, calcium, andiron that are reportedly lacking from certain plant-based diets. 

Beans, nuts and nut butters, tofu, lentils, seeds, and grains like quinoa and evenplant-based protein powders are excellent ways to up your protein intake, especially if you’re eliminating meat and dairy altogether. Many of these foods are also high in vitamins andminerals, further debunking the myth that you can’t get enough nutrients or proteins from a plant-based diet.

The Real Cost of a Plant-Based Diet

Another common misconception about a plant-based diet is that it’s expensive. The truth is, it can be very affordable. Quality meat, dairy products, and especially seafood,can be very, very costly. On the other hand,canned and dried beans and lentils are very affordable, as are frozenorganic vegetables. Pennies on the dollar, in fact, compared toanimal protein. The same is true of seasonal fruits and vegetables, especially when bought or sourced locally.

Red lentil soup

The higher price point associated with a plant-based diet enters the picture when people stock up on more processed vegan options likemeatless burgers and vegan cheeses and ice creams. This stuff can be very pricey, and often it’s loaded withprocessed oils and other unhealthy ingredients. Whole, minimally processed foods will not only be better on your overall health and waistline, but they’re much better for your wallet, too.

But I’m An Athlete

The idea that you need copious amounts of animal protein to maintain muscle mass, if you’re an athlete or work out all the time, is another piece of fictionthat has been debunked. You do need protein, but we now know that it doesn’t matter where it comes from as long as it has the right amounts of all the essential amino acids.

Additionally, it’sstrength training that leads to muscle growth, not protein, and plenty of competitive professional athletes sustain themselves and maintain peak performance on a largely plant-based diet, including Venus Williams, Alex Morgan, Kyrie Irving — and even NASCAR driver Ryan Reed.

Plant-Based Diets: At the Root of It All…

The more research you read, the more you will find confirmation that a plant-based diet could be the most important choice you can make for sustained health andlongevity

At a loss how to get started? It’s easier than you think. Instead of eliminating meat, seafood, and dairy altogether, start small. Try meatless Mondays or prepare a vegetarian or vegan meal one or two nights each week. When you do cook with meat, treat it like a side dish instead of making it the focal point of a meal. 

Go green… very green. With meat downgraded to a side dish, fill the rest of the plate with leafy greens like spinach, kale, bok choy, and especially arugula. Eat a big salad and add beans, tofu, nuts, and seeds for added protein.

Colorful plant-based salad

Cook with Color 

Why stop at green? Taste the rainbow and fill your salad or your plate with vegetables in any and every color, making mealtime pleasing to both the eye and the palate.

Feel fuller faster by choosing whole grains like quinoa, oatmeal, or barley with nuts and fresh fruit for breakfast. Opt for good, healthy fats like avocado, chia seeds, nut butters, and olive oil.

Remember, a plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean swearing off meat, seafood, eggs, and dairy forever, or at all. A plant-based diet simply means eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than animal protein, which can benefit your health by combating disease, boosting immunity, and supportinggut health.

Eating a plant-based diet is better for the environment, too. Eating less meat, dairy, and seafood conserves water, reduces waste that ends up in our oceans, and helps keep animals’ precious habitats intact. Overall, you’d be doing your part, both for your own health and the world in which you live. 

Just make sure you do “plant-based” the right way, not through processed foods, but real fruits and vegetables with plenty of protein at every meal!

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