There’s no doubt that following a special eating pattern has become increasingly en-vogue in recent years—and the rising popularity of specific diets continues to be backed up by data from IFIC’s annual Food and Health Survey. Among the top growing dietary trends is plant-based eating, and it gets a lot of hype for good reason—scientific research shows that plant-based diets can have many benefits. But here’s the rub: What individuals perceive as “plant-based eating” is highly variable, and the term is not well-defined.
Case in point? Some people assume the term “plant-based” is another way to describe vegetarian or vegan eating. In reality, a broad spectrum of plant-based eating exists, and there’s no one way to do it. If you’re looking for tips increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat—and maybe even foray into your own version of plant-based eating—use the below guide to understand what plant-based can mean, what its benefits are, and how you can implement this eating style.
Plant-based diets have existed since ancient times, but the term “plant-based” is just around 20 years old, according to a 2022 review that defines plant-based foods as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, herbs, spices, and whole grains. Unlike vegan eating, a plant-based or, alternatively, plant-focused, diet does not have to exclude animal foods like red meat, fish, chicken, eggs, and dairy. Rather, a plant-based eater may still enjoy animal foods while deliberately building an overall eating pattern that is rich in or primarily made of plants, but not consisting only of plants.
The Benefits of a Plant-based Diet
There’s no doubt that many plant-based foods are full of nutrition and health benefits. Just the act of making healthy, plant-based choices can confer better nutrition in the way of more vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. But plant-based eating also boosts health in some very specific ways—read on to learn more.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), Americans aren’t eating enough fiber. But focusing on plant-based foods can amp up your intake of this important nutrient. Fiber is a carbohydrate that our body’s digestive enzymes can’t break down, so it passes through the gastrointestinal tract without absorption.
You may have heard about benefits associated with different types of fiber, including soluble and insoluble fiber. However, the properties of fiber that provide health benefits go beyond solubility. For example, viscous fiber thickens in the stomach, becoming a gel-like substance that can later be fermented by bacteria in the colon. Viscous fiber—for example, beta-glucan, pectin, and psyllium—helps to reduce digestion speed, stabilize blood glucose, and lower cholesterol. In addition, both fiber that is partially fermented—like wheat bran—and fiber that is not fermented—like psyllium—improve digestive health in the large intestine by providing bulk to stools, which helps to keep food waste moving regularly through the gastrointestinal tract.
Fiber also promotes bowel health, adequate digestion, and the proper absorption of nutrients in other foods. Also a friend to heart health, fiber can help lower total and low-density lipoprotein (or LDL) cholesterol. Moreover, it may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer and can improve your body’s blood sugar control.
Many plant-based foods contain several vitamins and minerals that are good for health, including vitamins A, C, E, K, and folate and minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and manganese. These nutrients are vital to the optimal functioning of our eyes, immune system, muscles, heart, nerves, skin, gut, brain, and more. Fruits and vegetables are especially considered powerhouses when it comes to delivering vitamins and minerals.
In addition to fiber, the DGAs say that most Americans do not get enough potassium, calcium, and vitamin D. Plant foods plentiful in potassium include potatoes, beans, tomato paste, watermelon, and avocados. But fruits and vegetables aren’t the only plant-based source of vitamins and minerals lacking in our diets. Fortified plant-based foods like cereals, tofu, and soy milk can be great ways to get fiber, calcium, and/or vitamin D.
Antioxidants and Phytonutrients
Plant-based foods can be excellent sources of antioxidants. Vitamins C, E, lycopene, and lutein are a few examples of antioxidants found in some plant-based foods like citrus fruits, tomatoes, cauliflower, and broccoli. Antioxidants help protect the body from free radicals, which are naturally produced in the body but may cause damage to its cells and lead to the development of chronic diseases like cancer over time.
If antioxidants sound familiar, phytonutrients may also ring a bell. Often, the two terms are used interchangeably, but they have slight differences. The Greek root word “phyto” means plant, and phytonutrients are nutrients that are unique to plant foods. Phytonutrients are considered antioxidants, but not all antioxidants are phytonutrients. That’s because antioxidants are not only found in plant-based foods (they can also be found in milk products and some meats). By the USDA’s definition, phytonutrients are compounds in plants that offer health benefits and include flavonoids, indoles, and isoflavones. Many plants owe their brightly colored hues, tasty flavors, and strong aromas (think garlic and onion) to phytonutrients. For example, sweet potatoes, carrots, and pumpkins are orange thanks to carotenoids, a family of phytonutrients. All in all, varying the color of the plants you eat can help provide essential nutrients and possibly disease protection, too.
Ways To Incorporate More Plant-Based Foods
Remember the Rule of Three
Shifting to a more plant-based diet can be great for your health, but it’s not necessary to follow an entirely vegetarian way of eating to glean these benefits. Including more plant-based foods in an omnivorous diet is a balancing act, but it can be done. Use the “Rule of Three” to make meals and snacks more palatable. Look to include at least three different food groups when building your meals:
- Pork tenderloin (animal-based protein) + Whole-wheat pasta (grain) + Roasted carrots and broccoli (vegetables)
- Oatmeal (grain) + Milk (dairy) + Blueberries (fruit) + Peanut butter (plant-based protein and fat)
- Arugula (vegetable) + Feta cheese (dairy) + Quinoa (grain and plant-based protein) + Hard-boiled egg (animal-based protein)
Shake Up Your Flavors with Spices
Maybe beans and vegetables haven’t sounded too appealing lately. That’s ok—it’s probably time to reinvent your favorite (or new!) plant foods by enhancing their flavors. Try adding spicy seasonings, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, lime juice, or chopped herbs like cilantro and thyme. For extra flair, get creative by sautéing, baking, roasting, or boiling produce and adding spices like cinnamon, cumin, paprika, or red pepper flakes. It may take some time and a little culinary exploration, but there are endless ways to enjoy more plant foods.
Focus on Addition Versus Subtraction
If removing certain animal-based foods isn’t appealing to you, consider an alternative approach: Add plant-based foods first, without completely subtracting animal-based foods. For example, if your breakfast is typically eggs and toast, try adding sautéed spinach or a piece of fruit. If lunch is a chicken sandwich, add a leafy green salad. Getting into a new food groove can take time—so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t happen overnight! Maybe a meatless Monday meal isn’t happening next week, but it may in the not-so-distant future.
The Bottom Line: Variety and Moderation
Despite the benefits of following a primarily plant-based diet, it’s not necessarily the most practical (or desired) choice for everyone. Luckily, when it comes to making healthy changes, there’s mushroom for improvement! We all start at different places, and even small, incremental steps toward incorporating more plant-based foods in your daily eating pattern can lead to a positive difference and enduring health effects.
This article includes contributions from Nutrition on Demand.