Plant-based diets have become all the rage lately. Upon release of the documentary titled “What the Health” in 2017, social media was flooded with commentaries and arguments (both for and against) veganism. Animal-based products were swapped for alternatives like tofurkey, black bean burgers, and chickpea-flour eggs.
There are many benefits to the vegan diet. For example, a review of 96 studies concluded that vegan diets significantly reduced body weight, total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, and blood sugar levels when compared to meat-eaters (1). Vegan diets are also usually higher in dietary fiber. Eating a fiber-rich diet can lower levels of inflammation in your body and create a healthy, diverse microbiome of gut bugs (2, 3).
However, there are downsides to the vegan diet as well. While it can improve some cholesterol numbers, studies show the vegan diet may decrease our good cholesterol (HDL) too (4). The vegan diet can be hard to follow as well. If not properly planned, nutrient deficiencies can be common. Vegan diets tend to be lower in omega-3 fatty acids (EPA/DHA), vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and vitamin B-12. Side effects may include fatigue, anemia, hair loss, acne, and more. Many patients often feel better when they begin reintroducing appropriate amounts of wholesome animal protein into their diet.
Although I support my patients in their own choices, professionally, I do not recommend a strict vegan eating pattern.
**Sigh of relief**
There’s good news! Here’s how you can eat predominately plant-based, while also including sources of animal protein.
Include 2 cups of non-starchy vegetables with each meal. The more colorful, the better. This includes vegetables like dark leafy greens, asparagus, bell peppers, tomatoes, green beans, zucchini, and much more.
Consider making 1 cup of the vegetables from the cruciferous family. Cruciferous vegetables have awesome benefits like cancer prevention, supporting liver detoxification, and promoting a beneficial diversity of your gut bacteria (5, 6, 7). Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, Brussel’s sprouts, and arugula.
You can add vegetables to breakfast, too. Sauté some spinach/kale, peppers, and tomatoes to have on the side with your eggs, or mix into a tasty vegetable omelet!
Related Post: 7 Sweet Potato Breakfast Recipes
Some people will go meatless for a full day with a “meatless Monday”. You could also include a meatless dinner once per week. Meatless meals can cut down on grocery costs as well because meat is often the most expensive item.
Make sure to follow the 75% veggies guideline with meatless meals, otherwise, you may end up with a carb-loaded meal that will send your blood sugar into a tailspin and worsen sugar cravings. Include some plant-based protein in your meatless meal as well. Plant-based protein examples include beans, nuts or nut butter, edamame, quinoa, and more.
Related Post: Roasted Sweet Potato and Arugula Salad
Fat keeps you fuller, for longer. It stabilizes blood sugar, improves brain health, and helps absorb the vitamins in our vegetables! Add a small amount (1-2 tablespoons) of plant-based oils like olive, flaxseed oil, avocado oil, or coconut oil to your meals. However, try to limit the use of soybean or corn oil. These oils contain mostly omega-6 fatty acids, which can be inflammatory in nature. Eating more of these oils also increases your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, which is the opposite of what we want! Americans do not eat enough omega-3 fats.
There are also wholesome fats in foods like nuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, avocados, and olives. These real food fat sources are high in monounsaturated fats which have awesome health benefits, like lowering cholesterol or reducing levels of inflammation.
Related post: 7 Ways to Lower Cholesterol Without Medication
Pasture-raised animals eat a natural diet of grass (or bugs/worms for chickens) and graze on outside pastures.
Meat that is 100% grass-fed is higher in omega-3, vitamin A, vitamin E, and antioxidants like glutathione (8). Pasture-raised animals are more ethically raised because this form of agriculture is closer to their natural way of life. Buying grass-fed meat from local farmers is another way to ensure you are supporting ethical agriculture (as well as local, small farms).
From an environmental perspective, grass-fed cattle are actually of huge benefit to the land. As stated by expert organic farmer and dietitian Diana Rodgers from Sustainable Dish:
“[Grass-fed cattle] provide vital nutrients and important bacteria through their manure, and their chomping stimulates new grass growth, which can help the plant sequester more carbon. Their overall impact on the land helps it hold onto rainfall more effectively, especially in brittle environments.”
Vegetables should still take up the majority of your plate. But, supplementing with grass-fed protein sources is an excellent way to get amino acids, iron, vitamin B12, zinc, and more! Yes, grass-fed beef can be more expensive. However, reducing your portion of meat and filling up with other plants can help stretch this cost a little further. If you have a Sprouts grocery store in your area, they frequently put grass-fed beef on sale!
I know, groundbreaking, right?! Yet, healthy eating can still seem super confusing and conflicting. Every week, it seems like we are told to eat a different way. When you think about many of the popular diets, though, most of them have one thing in common: they are rich in vegetables.