Just a fad or a way to a healthier you?

Imagine you’re at a buffet. There are so many different kinds of foods to pick from—fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains and meats. But when you sit down, what takes up the majority of your plate? For most people, it’s usually meat and other animal products. 

In many ways, meat products have become the cornerstone of the American diet. Americans tend to be very “meat-centric”—often building their meals around meats and treating vegetables and fruits on the side. 

“While some lean meat is healthy, too much meat, especially high-fat cuts or processed meats, and not enough vegetables can lead to health issues,” said Geisinger dietitian Janet Milner. “The nutrients that are only found in vegetables can help prevent chronic diseases and help keep the body running smoothly. Too many animal products can cause inflammation, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease. Many celebrities and athletes are talking about plant-based diets, which can help people lose weight, improve digestion, feel better and avoid chronic diseases.

What are plant-based diets?
When you hear “plant-based diet” your first thoughts may be vegetarianism or veganism. While these diets are indeed plant-based, generally, plant-based diets refer to diets that are plant-centric rather than meat-centric.

In some types of plant-based diets such as Mediterranean you can still eat lean meat, but you focus on vegetables as half your plate and meat as a side or quarter of your plate. Consider also meatless meals once per week, as in the Meatless Monday movement.

Plant-based diets are made up mostly of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, tubers (like potatoes), and beans & legumes 

“There are many foods such as beans, lentils, soybean, tofu products and low-fat dairy items that are high in protein,” Milner said. 

Plant-based diets don’t mean you should eat less food or fewer calories, either — they just mean getting calories from different sources.

Benefits of a plant-based diet
Because of their focus on vegetables, plant-based diets tend to be high in fiber, vitamins and micronutrients, phytochemicals and anti-oxidants, which are good for the digestive tract and heart health.

“People on plant-based diets tend to see a lot of benefits,” said Milner. “First and foremost, they feel better overall and tend to lose weight.” 

Some research points to plant-based diets reducing the likelihood of diabetes, heart disease and cancer, which may help people live longer than they would otherwise.

Drawbacks of a plant-based diet
Since there are nutrients you can’t get from plants, it’s important to be aware of deficiencies that can come from a plant-based diet. Nutrient deficiencies can cause fatigue and muscle loss, and can create significant health problems down the road.

The most common deficiency is protein. Meat is high in protein, so people on vegetable-based diets need to be conscious of their protein intake. However, because our diets tend to be higher in protein than we may think, getting enough protein normally isn’t difficult. Try substituting meat with beans, lentils, peas and soy products, eggs or egg whites, low-fat cheeses or skim milk and nut butters.

One nutrient that plants don’t provide is vitamin B12, important for energy and strength. Since it’s impossible to get enough vitamin B12 from plants alone, it’s important for people on plant-based diets to consider eating small portions of lean animal protein or take B12 supplements.

Thinking about getting started?
“Just because you start a plant-based diet or gave up eating meat doesn’t automatically make you healthier,” said Milner. 

Start off your plant-based diet slowly by replacing one meal per week with vegetarian or meatless options. 

For some people, the concept of plant-based diets is hard to grasp because it turns their entire concept of nutrition upside down. If you think it will be difficult to stop eating animal products, try adding more beans, legumes, soy products, starchy vegetables and whole grains, fresh fruit and low-fat dairy items to your daily meals. You’ll feel full.

If you’re considering a plant-based diet, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian like Janet Milner. They can help you create a diet plan and take any unique health concerns into consideration. For more information, visit Geisinger.org or call 800-275-6401.
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