When it comes to healthy eating, vegan and vegetarian diets can look pretty restrictive. Nixing all or most animal-based products from your diet (while potentially more sustainable) can feel really depriving if you're used to having meat, cheese or eggs on a daily basis.
If you're looking to reap some of the health benefits that can come from a more restrictive plan like veganism (like lower inflammation levels, for example) good news: you don't have to give up all of your favorite foods.
Plant-based eating, a way of eating that focuses on plants but allows room for some animal products, is here to save the day. This trendy eating plan is like a more flexible version of vegan and vegetarianism -- meaning you may be more likely to stick to it since you don't have to cut out entire food groups.
If you're curious about the health benefits of plant-based eating and want to learn more, keep reading to find out if the eating philosophy can work for you.
What is a plant-based diet?
Part of the appeal of the plant-based diet is that it's not really a diet. At least not in the traditional sense, because there are no set rules. The idea is that you focus your diet around plants, and there's nothing that's "off-limits."
"If you ask five people what plant-based eating is, you may get five different answers," says Amy Gorin, a New York City-based registered dietitian. "I consider plant-based eating to be a diet that includes a significant amount of plants such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and whole grains throughout the day," Gorin said.
So while you may reduce your consumption of meat, seafood, eggs and dairy products, you don't necessarily need to cut them out. But if you want to adopt a plant-based diet, the goal is to make sure the majority of what you're eating is plant-derived. That can mean different things for different people -- for example, you might have a plate full of vegetables and grains and only a small portion of meat with most meals, or perhaps you only eat foods derived from animals two days out of the week and eat only plant-based foods on the other five days.
"A meal can contain meat, poultry, or seafood and also include a good amount of plants -- such as a salmon salad -- and still be plant-based," Gorin said. A plant-based diet is not about what you "can," or "can't" eat; rather it's about increasing your daily intake of plants and crowding out other food groups with plant-derived options.
What are the benefits?
Plant-based diets are linked to a decreased risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and reduced blood pressure. They can also be helpful for weight loss -- but you will still want to be mindful of macronutrient needs to reach your weight loss goals.
"Eating more plants such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds [and] whole grains, helps you take in more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that can help lower your risk of chronic disease," says Gorin.
Adding more plant-based foods is a great way to reduce inflammation, which is also shown to be important for overall health. Inflammation is a natural reaction in the body, but when it becomes chronic and widespread, it can cause health problems. Many foods are linked to higher inflammation levels, but the biggest offenders are refined and processed foods like white bread, pastries, fried food, processed meat, and processed fats like margarine and shortening.
Another reason many people choose to follow a plant-based diet is that it can be more sustainable. The food system is a huge factor in climate change, and many experts agree that choosing a more plant-based lifestyle can help reduce the impact.
How to follow a plant-based diet
Since a plant-based diet is flexible in terms of how you can do it, it's up to you to decide what works best for your lifestyle. That being said, here are some tips to get you started if you're not sure where to start.
Start with baby steps
If switching to a plant-based diet feels intimidating, there's nothing wrong with starting small. For example, if you currently eat meat multiple times a day, start with cutting that back to once or twice a day. And then add more plants to your meal so you don't feel deprived. If you really miss meat, you can try one of the many meatless options on the market, which include products that mimic the taste and texture of beef, chicken, pork and fish.
Make veggies the focus of your meals
When you're planning your meals, it's common for people to think about steak, chicken or fish first at the main course. Try reframing how you think about meals and instead plan around the veggies and other plant-based options first. This way the plants take center stage, and the animal products are more like sides.
Eat the rainbow
Try incorporating a wide variety of colors on your plate every day. This way you're getting a wide variety of fruits and veggies, which also means you're getting more variety in nutrients. Plus when something is more colorful or attractive, it's more fun to eat. Don't be afraid to experiment with new types of fruit or veggies that you've never tried before.
It's a common misconception that meat is the only source of protein. And while a plant-based diet does allow for some meat, eggs or other animal products, the goal is to reduce the frequency with which you rely on them as a protein source.
It's still important to make sure you're getting enough protein, so if you reduce animal products, you need to replace them with other forms of protein like beans, nuts or seeds (and whole-food, unprocessed sources are the best).
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.