What is a Plant-Based Diet? Questions Answered

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is celebrating National Nutrition Month throughout the month of March. This is a great opportunity to share information about a plant-based diet for those who are new to a plant-based life, those considering going plant-based, or those who are simply curious about what plant-based is.

What is a plant-based diet?

There are many variations floating around on what it means to be plant-based, but the general idea is that 90% or more of your calories are coming from whole, plant foods, and 10% or less are coming from animal-based sources such as meat, eggs, and dairy. This would be, depending on daily caloric needs, around 6-8 servings per week or less.

Other bullet points of a plant-based diet are:

  • Eat only whole, unprocessed, unrefined grains
  • Eat plenty of starchy vegetables like potatoes and rice
  • Eliminate processed foods
  • Cut out added sugars and oils
  • Focus on plant-based sources of protein as your primary source
    • This means beans, lentils, legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, tempeh, etc.
  • Have plenty of greens and veggies at every meal
  • Eat lots of berries and fruit
  • Supplement with Vitamin B12

How will I get sufficient protein?

This is always the most common concern for those new to this way of life. For decades, the meat and dairy industry has lobbied the government to “scratch their backs” with dietary guidelines that look out for their financial best interest [5]. They have also spent countless dollars on advertising to lure us into believing that we must have animal proteins in order to be healthy.

The dairy industry has gone so far as to work with the food industry to figure out how to get people eating more cheese. They’ve worked with restaurants like Pizza Hut to fit an entire pound of cheese onto one serving of Pizza. All of those extra cheesy fast food burgers? That is another product of this collaboration [5]. We have all been duped by industry to not only believe that animal protein is necessary, but get us consuming it in quantities far beyond what we were a century ago. The concern is not for our health, but their bottom line.

The thing that is most important to know about animal proteins is this: all livestock are herbivores, meaning that they all get their protein – the very protein we are eating them for – from plants. Even that 600 pound cow gets all of the protein it needs from the plants that it eats. And we can too.

The first order of business is a shift in programming. We must undo the conditioning we’ve been subjected to for so many years, to make way for new information.

Another concern regarding plants is amino acids. Amino acids are what proteins are broken down into before being absorbed by our bodies [2]. It has long been circulated that we cannot get the essential amino acids from plants, but that is inaccurate information.

Referring back to the herbivore livestock – if their meat contains all of the essential amino acids, and they’re getting those amino acids from plants, then logic would tell us that we can get them from plants as well. And we can. When we eat a variety of plant foods on a well-balanced, whole foods, plant-based diet we are getting all of the essential amino acids that we need [3].

This diagram gives an idea of the protein content of various plant foods:

img_1602

This truly is just a start. Two of my favorites that aren’t mentioned are chia seeds and hemp seeds. Also consider nut butters such as peanut butter, almond butter and tahini (choosing only options without added oil, salt or sugar). But the bulk of proteins should come from beans, lentils and legumes, which are less calorie dense and don’t contain the high fat content of nuts and seeds. This is especially important if weight loss is a goal.

What about calcium?

Just like protein – if we get calcium from cow’s milk, and the cow got it’s calcium from the plants that it eats, then….yes, we can too! Also just like protein – we’ve been conditioned by industry to believe that we must have dairy for calcium, and that is misinformation delivered for the sake of profit. Time for another mind shift, this time about what we think we know about getting enough calcium.

An excellent source of calcium for a plant-based diet is in plant-based milks, such as soy and almond milk. These are fortified with calcium, as are many orange juices.

There are also numerous sources of calcium in the plants that we eat, many of which are shown in this diagram:

calcium1

But won’t soy give me too much estrogen?

No! Soy contains estrogens called phytoestrogens; phyto meaning plant. In studies done on soy and breast cancer, regardless of which type of breast cancer, it has consistently been shown there is greater survival and lower cancer recurrence rate with higher consumption of soy. There are two different types of estrogen receptor cells, both alpha receptors and beta receptors. Estrogen produced within our bodies attaches to alpha receptors. Soy attaches to the beta receptors, which cut down cell growth – like the growth of cancer cells. The phytoestrogens in soy actually have positive estrogenic effects on the body that are protective against cancer [4].

Fiber and gut health…

Humans are designed to consume primarily plants, and one of the indicators is our need for fiber…which is found only in plants. For optimal gut function, it is suggested we have a minimum of 35 grams of fiber in our diets daily. However, the average American eating the Standard American Diet, or SAD, is only getting around 10-12 grams [3].

When eating a plant-strong diet, fiber will never be an issue because there is more than enough in every meal. One thing to note for those who are just starting a plant-based diet, or considering a plant-based diet – be prepared to notice big changes in your digestion. For the first few weeks, you will be gassy, and you will be on the toilet – a lot! This is due to your body’s gut restoring itself to normal, healthy function. It will taper off once you adjust.

Another important part of gut health is the microbiome. This is the environment of gut bacteria and other organisms that lives in your large intestine, and there are many times more of them than there are cells in the entire human body [3]. Sounds gross, but they serve a very important purpose. They are there to aid in digestion, protect against disease, resolve inflammation, help with weight loss, psychological health and even help our immune function [4]. It is important to treat our gut well, and that is an important part of the plant-based diet.

The worst foods for gut health are meat, dairy, refined and processed foods, and sugar. They deplete the good bacteria and allow bad bacteria to flourish, leading to inflammation, an autoimmune response to foreign invaders in the body [2]. Prolonged inflammation can lead to all sorts of complications, ranging from low defenses against viruses like the cold and the flu, to chronic conditions such as asthma and arthritis, heart disease, bone disorders, and even cancers [2].

What about B-12?

Vitamin B-12 comes from microbes in the soil. Since we’ve become largely anti-microbial in modern times, B-12 is in short supply. Thanks to water treatment, Vitamin B-12 is no longer in our local water supply [1]. And thanks to agriculture, it’s also been largely depleted from the soil. Modern livestock farming offers no access to natural B-12 sources due to confinement to feed lots and the feeding of an unnatural diet. These livestock become a source of B-12 for meat-eaters only because it is supplemented in their feed [6]. And we can supplement it in our “feed” just as well.

What are the benefits?

The benefits of a plant-based diet are vast and wide. The greatest benefit is reduction in the risk of the chronic diseases plaguing humanity today, such as heart disease, cancer, type II diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Not only can a plant-based diet prevent disease, but it can even reverse disease, such as heart disease [7], cancer [8], and type II diabetes [9]. Then of course there is the added benefit of weight loss, which tends to occur naturally when people get away from the standard American diet, as does improvement in acne and the overall appearance of skin, hair and nails.

Other benefits to a plant-based diet are ethical (not contributing to the harm of animals), environmental (not contributing to the leading cause of global warming – land clearing and raising livestock), and of more concern at the present time – the prevention of disease outbreaks such as the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently living through (these viruses begin with confinement of animals and spread to humans, the current virus coming from a wet market in China) [10].

I hope this article has been helpful in providing information if you are new to the plant-based diet, or are just curious and considering the switch. If you have any questions that I did not answer, please feel free to leave a comment below and I would be happy to answer them.

1 How How Not to Die, by Dr. Michael Greger
2 Deeply Holistic: A Guide to Intuitive Self-Care, by Pip Waller
3 Dr. Garth Davis interview, by Gianna Simone
4 Dr. Michael Greger interview, by Gianna Simone
5 Dr. Neal Barnard talk, published by VegSource
6. B12: A Magic Pill, or Veganism’s Achilles Heel?, by Ashley Capps at Free from Harm
7. Make Yourself Heart Attack Proof by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, published by VegSource
8. The China Study, by Dr. Colin T. Campbell
9. Dr. John McDougall interview, by Dr. Gustavo Tolosa
10. “The New Coronavirus was Preventable”, by Wendy Orent in The LA Times

 

Published by Loren Miller

My name is Loren, and if you're on this page it means you care about your health and living a long and happy life, and that is something we have in common. I've been studying diet and health since 2008, when my grandmother was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. I started out wanting to know more about the link between diet and cancer, and it's turned into a passion that I will carry for the rest of my life. I am certified in holistic nutrition, and I will soon have my degree in journalism from UMass Amherst. Health and Wellness is my beat, as we call it in the world of journalism, and this website is my outlet. My passions are nutrition and cooking, and looking at health from a holistic perspective. After all, you are so much more than just what ails you. You are a whole, living, breathing, dreaming, beautiful human being with a unique personality and individual goals. Your health goes beyond just what you're eating or how you're exercising; it encompasses everything that makes up your quality of life. That's why I write about everything from diet, to recipes, to self-care, to motivation and mindset. Please join me on this health journey!

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