Embracing a plant-based diet
Focusing on whole foods from plant sources can reduce body weight, blood pressure and risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes — and it can make your environmental impact more sustainable. Stanford Healthy Living instructor Dr. Reshma Shah offers simple ways to incorporate more plants into your diet.
Your diet is one of the first places to start if you’re looking to manage your health and weight. Focusing on whole foods from plant sources can reduce body weight, blood pressure and risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes — and it can make your environmental impact more sustainable.
But how do we embrace plants in our diets if we’re so accustomed to including meat and dairy as primary nutrition sources?
We spoke with Dr. Reshma Shah, a physician, plant-based eating advocate, co-author of “Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families” and Stanford Healthy Living instructor, about simple ways to incorporate more plants into your diet and the benefits this can provide for both you and the planet.
Focus on whole, minimally processed foods.
People use many different terms to describe a plant-based diet, including vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, pescatarian, and flexitarian to name a few. The most restrictive is veganism, which excludes all animal products, including meat, eggs and dairy.
While there are health benefits to adopting a vegan diet, highly processed foods with little to no nutritional value, like Oreos or French fries, could still be a legitimate part of a vegan diet.
In contrast, a whole-foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet:
- Emphasizes whole, minimally processed foods
- Limits or avoids animal products
- Focuses on plant nutrients from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts
- Limits refined foods like added sugar, white flour and processed oils
Recommendations from organizations including the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, World Health Organization, American Diabetes Association and American Cancer Society tout the benefits of plant-based whole foods and caution against high amounts of red and processed meats, saturated fats, highly refined foods and added sugar.
The vast majority of what nutritional experts are saying reflects the mantra made famous by Michael Pollen in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” — eat food, mostly plants, not too much.
Eating a plant-based diet helps the environment.
According to a report by the U.S. Food and Agriculture Organization, “The meat industry has a marked impact on a general global scale on water, soils, extinction of plants and animals, and consumption of natural resources, and it has a strong impact on global warming.”
The meat and dairy industries alone use one third of the Earth’s fresh water, with a single quarter-pound hamburger patty requiring 460 gallons of water — the equivalent of almost 30 showers — to produce.
Reducing your meat and dairy consumption, even by a little, can have big impacts. If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would have the same environmental impact as taking 7.6 million cars off the road.
Plant-based diets prevent animal cruelty.
Ninety-four percent of Americans agree that animals raised for food deserve to be free from abuse and cruelty, yet 99% of those animals are raised in factory farms, many suffering unspeakable conditions.
If you would like to lessen your meat and dairy consumption due to animal welfare concerns but aren’t ready to eliminate all animal products from your diet, then you can start by taking small steps, like going meatless one day a week or switching to soy, almond or oat milk. Shah admits that initially she was not ready to give up animal products entirely.
“I think it is a process and recommend that people go at the pace that feels comfortable for them.”
Plant-based diets include all nutrients — even protein.
According to the American Dietetic Association, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, and for athletes.”
Shah says that there are a few key nutrients that strict vegans and vegetarians should keep in mind, including B12, iron, calcium, iodine, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, but all of these can be obtained through plant-based foods, including fortified plant-based milks, fresh fruits and vegetables or supplemental vitamins, if needed.
“I think the number one concern for people is that they won’t be able to get enough protein eating a plant-based diet. I also think that people widely overestimate the amount of protein they need.”
All plant foods contain the nine essential amino acids required to make up the proteins you need, and many vegetarian foods like soy, beans, nuts, seeds and non-dairy milk products have comparable amounts of protein to animal foods.
“Ninety-seven percent of Americans meet their daily protein requirements, but only 4% of Americans meet their daily fiber requirements. I’ve never treated a patient for protein deficiency. If you eat a wide variety of foods and eat enough calories, protein should not be a concern.”
Savor the flavor of plant-based foods.
Adopting a plant-based diet does not mean subsisting on boring, tasteless food. Shah enjoys incorporating flavorful, varied dishes from around the world, including Ethiopia, Thailand and her native India.
To get started on your plant-forward journey:
- Start small: Start with adding a “Meatless Monday” to your meal plan and investigate one simple and delicious recipe to try each week. Once you have identified a few favorites, you can add them to your rotation and maybe go meatless one or two days a week. You can learn a few easy techniques to incorporate in many dishes, like roasting vegetables or blending quick and easy soups.
- Change your plate proportions: Instead of giving up your meat-based protein completely, try to reduce the space it takes on your plate. Instead of a quarter-pound sirloin steak or a full serving of roasted chicken, try a vegetable-heavy stir-fry with a few slices of beef or a salad with chicken. Once your palate and mindset have adjusted to the smaller quantity of meat, try replacing it occasionally with plant-based proteins like tofu, seitan or beans.
- Be prepared when dining out: If possible, try to examine the restaurant menu ahead of your meal, so you’ll arrive with a plan of what you can eat. Ask for the vegan options and don’t be afraid to request substitutions or omissions for your dish. Fortunately, with more people choosing a vegetarian lifestyle, many restaurants now provide tasty, meat-free options to their customers.
- Share a dish: Bring a dish to share at a party or potluck; this will lessen your worries about food options. Let your host know ahead of time that you are planning on bringing a dish or, if that is not possible, be upfront and find out if any modifications can be made to accommodate your preferences. Often a simple solution can be found with a little advanced planning.
- Accommodate family members: It can be tricky when one family member is ready to commit to a new diet and lifestyle while others are not. Shah recommends approaching this situation compassionately and allowing for flexibility, if possible. Hopefully your family will be willing to support you even if they are not ready to make the same commitments. Communication is key, and Shah says that the conversation is over the minute someone feels judged, so try to look for points of compromise to reach an amicable solution.
- Feeling satisfied: A diet of nothing but lettuce and vegetables will leave you feeling hungry and unfulfilled. Be sure to bulk up your meals with filling, fiber-rich whole grains, plant-based proteins and healthy fats. Plant-based meat substitutes like Beyond Beef, seitan and veggie burgers can also be a satisfying choice when you are craving your favorite meat-based comfort food.
Remember that small, consistent changes can add up to big benefits for your health and the planet. Treat yourself and others with compassion as you embrace this new lifestyle, and take time to enjoy the different flavors and textures you discover in your journey.
“It is a really delicious, healthful, sustainable and compassionate way of eating. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just start simply, do what feels comfortable for you and your family, and don’t forget to celebrate the joy of eating and connection around food.”
Dr. Reshma Shah will be teaching a plant-based online cooking class with Healthy Living this summer on Tuesday, July 13, from 4:00 – 5:30 p.m.