Fitness Facts: Are plant-based diets overhyped or worthwhile?
By Emily Orvos
Campus Registered Dietitian
Have you ever walked into the grocery store and noticed how many plant-based alternatives to animal products are available? You can replace meat, milk, cheese, yogurt and even eggs with a plant-based option.
With so many alternative options, it’s natural to ask yourself, “Should I be eating plant-based?” This is something I get asked about a lot, and it’s important to consider your taste preferences, lifestyle and values when making this decision.
What is a plant-based diet?
It’s also important to note that there’s no official definition for a “plant-based diet,” though most registered dietitians agree that it simply means a diet consisting mostly of fruits, veggies, grains, plant-based proteins, beans and legumes. Eating these foods exclusively indicates a vegan diet.
Incorporating more plant foods into your diet has countless health benefits since these foods contain a wide variety of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to support proper bodily functioning.
Individuals who eat more plant foods have lower rates of many chronic diseases – hypertension, heart disease and cancer, to name a few.
There are also gut health benefits because of increased fiber intake and an enhanced gut microbiome from the micronutrients of all the plant foods consumed.
Should I eat plant-based?
Does this mean you have to completely give up your favorite meat and dairy products? Absolutely not!
In fact, meat and dairy products provide a different nutrient profile than plant foods. It can be challenging (though not impossible!) for some people to achieve nutritional adequacy with iron, vitamin B12, zinc and calcium, among others, with plant foods alone.
My nutrition philosophy is to always add rather than take away. In this case, a practical first step is to look at your diet and ensure you have at least one plant food at each meal and snack.
For example, grabbing a Greek yogurt for breakfast is quick and nutritious, but adding fruit and a handful of nuts increases the nutritional value by adding two different plant foods.
You can still reap the health benefits of a plant-based diet while eating your favorite animal products. Your diet doesn’t have to be “all or nothing.”
Meatless Mondays are popular for good reason – eating plant-based one day a week might be a more realistic approach. You could also try to eat one plant-based meal each day of the week.
So where do I start?
If you’re thinking about incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, here are some ideas to use for inspiration:
- Choose plant-based milk – soy milk is the highest in protein and most nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk.
- Make a protein-rich stir fry with rice, veggies, tofu and edamame. Press the tofu for 15-20 minutes to get rid of excess water, cube it, then sauté it in a pan with some oil. The freezer section of the grocery store will have edamame in microwavable steamer bags, making this an inexpensive and easy protein option.
- Swap ground beef in pasta sauce for lentils. They’re rich in fiber, iron and protein. To cook lentils, let them simmer on the stove in liquid for 15-20 minutes – similar to cooking rice or quinoa.
- Impossible and Beyond meats can be fun to incorporate sometimes, but they are high in saturated fat from coconut oil. Most of the time, opt for making your own black bean burgers.
- Add roasted chickpeas to a soup or salad.
Remember, nutrition does not have to be “all or nothing.” Animal products and plant foods have different nutrient profiles, so incorporating both is a great way to get the most nutritional bang for your buck. Incorporating plant-based meals can be a fun way to switch it up and expand your horizons!