More people are opting to reduce animal products in their diet. This is for various reasons including animal welfare, the environment, to increase diet variety, or for health reasons. Both the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 and the American Diabetes Association give a nod to plant-based diets as a healthy option.
What is a Plant-Based Diet?
There isn’t a standard definition for a plant-based diet. Usually the term plant-based refers to no animal products, but it could be used to encompass a variety of eating patterns. So, a plant-based diet doesn’t always mean vegan or vegetarian. The focus of the diet is including more plants such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and beans, peas, and lentils.
Research shows that plant-based diets can reduce your risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Alzheimer’s disease. A plant-based diet is nutrient dense and includes vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Eating more plants means consuming less saturated fat and cholesterol. Research has linked plant-based diets to improved glucose control and increasing insulin sensitivity.
What about Protein?
One concern I hear about plant-based diets is adequate quality protein intake. Protein is essential for muscle and bone mass, immune function, and hormone support. Protein increases our feeling of fullness because it takes longer to digest and can help balance glucose.
Protein breaks down into amino acids. Your body makes some amino acids and then needs help from food to obtain the other essential amino acids not made in the body. Protein from animals, such as meat, poultry, eggs, milk, are complete protein meaning they contain all the essential amino acids. For plant proteins, only soy foods (made from soybeans) and quinoa are complete proteins meaning they contain all the essential amino acids, but all plant foods contain some of the essential amino acids. The liver can store some essential amino acids so there isn’t a need to have complete protein at each meal. However, it is important to eat a variety of plant-based protein throughout the day to provide the essential amino acids.
Consider these plant-based proteins and how they can fit in your diet.
- Beans, peas, and lentils include a variety of foods such as chickpeas, black beans, pinto beans, lentils, and split or black-eyed peas. Try flour or pasta from beans, peas, and lentils to boost protein intake. Adding ½ cup of cooked legumes to your meal adds 7-12 g protein and 15 g carbs.
- Tofu is a versatile complete protein that can be baked or stir fried for any vegetable, pasta, rice, salad, or egg dish. Tofu absorbs any flavor you season it with. Adding 3 ounces of tofu to a meal adds 10 g of protein and 3 g carbs.
- Quinoa is a high protein grain that is cooked like rice. Think of it as a substitute for rice or pasta and add it to vegetables, salads, and cereals. Adding 1 cup cooked quinoa to your meal adds 8 g protein and 40 g carbs.
- Nuts and seeds are usually thought of as snacks, but they can be added to meals or used to make sauces, mixed with vegetables, and in baked goods. Nut and seed butters also count for added protein. Adding 1 ounce of nuts or seeds adds 4-8 g protein and 5-10 g carbs.
Protein and carbohydrate content varies with plant foods, so check the food label for protein and total carbohydrates. While the amount of carbohydrates affects glucose, remember the type of carbohydrate counts too. Plants are nutrient-dense carbs and can be added to your meal pattern for additional protein.
4 Tips to Get Started
If you are thinking about a plant-based diet, try these tips.
- Start by eating more whole plant foods. Try adding more vegetables, whole grains, nuts, soy foods, and beans, peas, and lentils to your meals. Fill at least 50% of your plate with non-starchy vegetables to keep carbs in check. Non-starchy vegetables, tofu, nuts, and seeds are all low-carb plant foods. Remember that a variety of plant foods is the key to meeting protein needs.
- If you do eat animal protein, eat smaller portions of meat, poultry, and eggs. Think about limiting portions to 25% of your plate. Fill the additional 75% of your plate with plant foods. Consider meat, poultry, and eggs as a side, not the main part of your meal.
- Switch one meal each week or even each day for a meatless option. Substitute beans, tofu, or mushrooms for the meat when you can. Find some new recipes for inspiration. Search for vegetarian versions of some meat recipes.
- Add your favorite flavors to plants. Plants don’t need to taste bland. Try seasonings you would add to animal products on plants. Don’t forget about flavors from other cuisines like Mexican, Mediterranean, Greek, Asian, and Indian foods which can be loaded with flavor and plants. Remember, spices and herbs also have added nutrition benefits too.