Plant-Based Diets Explained

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Eating a diet heavy in plant-based foods is becoming increasingly popular — for good reason. There are a lot of benefits to getting most of your calories from produce.

“One of the main reasons people transition to a plant-based diet is to address their health concerns,” says Erin Beattie, RDN, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health System. Studies show adopting a whole food plant-based diet can help people lose weight and better manage conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Plus, eating mostly fruits and vegetables has tremendous environmental advantages because it uses significantly fewer resources and generates fewer methane emissions.

What Is A Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?

What does a whole food plant-based diet (WFPD) really look like? Sometimes plant-based is used interchangeably with vegan, which means you don’t eat any animal products — no dairy, eggs, meat, fish or poultry. Other people use the term to describe a diet that includes animal products but is largely made up of plant foods.

“The most important thing to realize is that there’s a huge difference between plant-based or vegan and whole food plant-based,” Beattie says. Eating vegan just means eating a diet without animal products, but that diet could still include highly processed plant-based ingredients such as refined starches, added oils, sweeteners and other additives.

"French fries and Oreos are vegan, but they are not plant-based whole foods. Whole food plant-based means foods that have undergone no processing or minimal processing, such as produce that has been washed and cut or legumes that have been cooked," Beattie says.

Plant-Based Perks

Scientists are still uncovering all of the benefits of plant foods. Many of these benefits come from phytonutrients (“phyto” means “plant” in Greek).

There are several advantages to a WFPB diet as compared to a standard American diet, including:

  • Lower sodium
  • Less saturated fat
  • Fewer added sugars
  • No preservatives, artificial dyes and colorings
  • Higher fiber and phytonutrients

“There are more than 25,000 phytonutrients in plant-based whole foods,” says Beattie. The more color on your plate, the more phytonutrients you’re consuming. Each of those nutrients promote health and well-being.

Some of these phytonutrients enhance cardiovascular health. Others have antioxidant effects, which lower your risk of certain chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and even cataracts. And nearly all plant foods contain fiber, which can keep you feeling full for hours. Fiber helps lower cholesterol levels and regulate blood sugar levels. It also plays a key role in protecting your microbiome.

Shifting To A Plant-Based Plate

Can’t commit to ditching animal foods entirely? Don’t fret. There are plenty of small steps you can take to help lighten the load of animal foods on your plate.

  1. Make half your plate non-starchy fruits and vegetables. “That shifts the thinking from the main part of your meal being animal protein to focusing on colorful vegetables,” says Beattie.
  2. Reduce the amount of animal foods you eat. Try to limit your animal product consumption to four ounces or less per day. That’s about the size of the palm of your hand. You can even decide to go animal-free for one day each week or for one meal each day. “There are adequate amounts of protein in our whole plant sources including beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains and some vegetables, too," Beattie assures.
  3. Get support. Join forces with a group of like-minded individuals so you can encourage each other to eat more whole plant foods and fewer animal products. You can even sign up for a support group or take a vegetarian or vegan cooking class.
  4. Prepare foods in bulk. “Eating a more whole food plant-based diet is quite different than the standard American diet, yet it is absolutely attainable,” says Beattie. The solution: Take time to prep food in bulk. Find recipes online, build your grocery list, then make large-batch recipes and freeze them for later use.
  5. Be patient. Our taste buds are flexible. When you eat less sugar, fat and salt, over time you’ll begin to crave those things less. You might even discover that you prefer the taste of real whole foods, especially when you dress them up with herbs and spices.

“The key to adopting a more plant-based diet is to focus on what you can add to your plate instead of what you have to subtract,” says Beattie. Not sure how to get started? Carve out some time to meet with a dietitian who specializes in plant-based eating. Before you know it, you’ll be eating better and noticing positive changes in your overall health.


To find a registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936). Want more advice from our wellness experts? Subscribe today to receive weekly emails of our latest tips.

Erin Beattie, RDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist with Henry Ford Health System who offers one-on-one consultations through the Center for Integrative Medicine and the Center for Health Promotion & Disease Prevention, along with working in the community through Henry Ford’s Generation with Promise Program.

Categories: EatWell

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