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Sharp Health News

The benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet

Sept. 8, 2021

Salad with chickpeas, beets and purple broccoli

In the age of oat milk and cauliflower mashed potatoes, it’s easy to toss the term “plant-based diet” into a bowl of food trends. But doctors and dietitians agree that plant-based diets are good for you — and the growing popularity is a welcome substitute for diets focused on meat.

While the definition of plant-based has evolved over the years, the Plant Based Foods Association currently defines it as “foods made from plants that contain no animal-derived ingredients.” A whole-food, plant-based approach consists of minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes (beans, peas and lentils).

A plant-based diet consists primarily, but not necessarily exclusively, of plant foods. This flexibility, and the diet’s lack of processed foods, is what sets it apart from veganism or vegetarianism. Vegetarians don’t consume meat, and vegans don’t consume any animal-derived products. Those on a plant-based diet don’t always eliminate foods — they simply make whole plants their priority. In short, it is food as it was grown.

“By centering our meals on plant foods, we often create more colorful meals with a variety of textures and flavors,” says Lauren DeWolf, a registered dietitian with the Sharp Rees-Stealy Center for Health Management. “Consuming many different kinds of healthful foods, especially a range of colorful vegetables, ensures that your body is getting a good variety of essential nutrients.”

Small plants, big benefits
Moving to a whole-food, plant-based diet not only adds color to your plate, but it’s also naturally high in fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients, and supports healthy gut bacteria. A plant-based diet has myriad health benefits, including:

  1. Improved cholesterol levels
  2. Reduced risk of cognitive impairment
  3. More steady energy levels
  4. Reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes
  5. Lower inflammation
  6. Improved gut function
  7. Better weight management

A shift away from animal-derived products improves the health of Mother Nature too, as the production of meat and dairy products are fueling the climate crisis. According to the World Health Organization, “reducing livestock herds would also reduce emissions of methane, which is the second largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide.”

Embracing a plant-based diet
Eating a diet focused on plants is easier than you think. Many people find that reducing or eliminating meat and processed foods improves the quality of their food and palate — and with so many hearty meat substitutes, it’s barely missed.

“Many of us use and enjoy plant foods already, such as beans, nuts and rice,” says DeWolf. “Allow yourself time to practice with cooking plant proteins and consider using resources such as YouTube, blogs or cookbooks from your local library.”

DeWolf’s favorite plant-based meat alternatives are:

Beans — one of the most affordable, protein-rich foods at the market. In addition to packing protein, they offer an excellent source of fiber and iron. Canned beans are also a convenient pantry-friendly staple that can quickly and easily be added to salads, wraps and soups.

Lentils — a convenient quick-cook option. Red lentils are ready in as little as 12 minutes. Lentils also keep well for meal prep options such as lentil soup, lentil taco filling or even a lentil-based Bolognese sauce.

Tempeh — a cultured, pressed, cake-like patty that is usually comprised of soybeans and various grains. The fermentation process that tempeh undergoes helps to create a more digestible, protein-rich product. Tempeh is also a rich source of prebiotics — special plant fibers that help to grow healthy gut bacteria.

Tofu — bean curd made from soybeans. Essentially a blank canvas, tofu lends itself to many flavors, and can be prepared in many ways, including marinating, baking, stir-frying and grilling. It can be crumbled into a tofu breakfast scramble, mashed for a ricotta substitute in lasagna, and even used to make chocolate mousse (choose extra smooth silken tofu for maximum velvety smooth texture).

“Embarking on a more plant-forward approach can be a culinary adventure,” says DeWolf. “Surprisingly, there are many options. And feeling energized and nourished are powerful motivators to continue to follow this style of eating.”

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