Updated: Sep 23, 2022
When I recently asked many of you if you wanted to eat more plants, you emphatically answered, YES! In fact, 93% of you said yes to plants. While I was super duper excited, I wasn't super surprised given the acceleration of plant-based foods available in grocery stores, restaurants, and ballparks, plus an increase in brands marketing plant-based ingredients on their food labels. Clearly, plant-based foods are in demand and you are all a part of that demand!
However, I was surprised at the responses to the next question. When I asked what's stopping you from eating more plants, a majority of you said that you weren't sure if it was the best way of eating for optimal health. My initial reaction was, "Wait, what? Let me tell you all the ways plants are ideal for optimal health for just about everyone!"
However, it's understandable, with all of the conflicting advice and massive amount of information online and in the media, knowing what to eat for optimal health can be tricky. With messages like, keto is best for weight loss, Mediterranean eating is best for overall health, or carbs will make you gain weight, how the heck does one decipher which is best? (By the way, the right types of carbs won't make you gain weight. Check out this article and this article, debunking the "carbs are bad" myth.)
In this blog, I'd like to clear up any confusion around plant-based eating and welcome any comments or questions from you below if you are left with any unanswered questions. First, we'll talk about why plant-based foods are so good for you if you want to feel and function at your very best. Second, we'll debunk some of those plant-based myths (for example, you can't get enough protein, it's too expensive, or soy is bad for you). Keep reading to get more clarity on why I recommend that everyone adds more plant-based foods to their plates.
Benefits of eating more plant-based foods
Apologies if I sound like a broken record since I mention this daily on social media and weekly in my blogs, but I cannot stress it enough. It's also the premise of my book, The Fiber Effect.
Less than five percent of Americans get the recommended amount of fiber each day. The Standard American diet is deficient in this essential nutrient that not only keeps our digestion (and bathroom visits) regular, but also helps to manage blood sugar, lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, balance hormones, improve mood, alleviate anxiety, lose weight, improve cognition, and improve sleep—just to name a few! If you're experiencing digestive issues, hormonal imbalances, sugar cravings, weight gain or an array of other health-related complications, it could be due to inadequate fiber intake.
The recommended amount of fiber is 25 grams a day for women and 38 grams a day for men (based on 14 grams per 1000 calories). These are the minimum recommendations. Most people get less than 15 grams a day. I suggest about 40 grams of fiber a day, but if you're starting with only 15 grams a day or less then boost your fiber intake slowly (around 5 grams every few days) and drink plenty of water as you increase fiber intake.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), only 1 in 10 Americans eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables (which is 1.5–2 cups of fruits and 2–3 cups of vegetables daily). Phytonutrients (also called phytochemicals) are naturally occurring compounds found in plants—there are over 25,000 of them! Phytonutrients are produced in the plant as a means to thwart bugs, fungi, radiation, ultraviolet rays, or other threats. When consumed by humans, they have been shown to offer many health benefits like reducing inflammation, lowering cholesterol, fostering a healthy gut, and more. Phytonutrients also give many plants their signature colors. Just as there is a low intake of fruits and vegetables in general, it is not surprising that there is a low intake of phytonutrients. The low intake of phytonutrients is called the “phytonutrient gap.” According to the Nutrilite Health Institute, Americans (between 69% and 88%) are not eating enough of any of the phytonutrient color categories. To fill the gap and reap the maximum benefits of phytonutrients, it is recommended that you consume 1-2 servings of each color fruit or vegetable daily (eat the rainbow has validity!). Visit 6 Plant-Based Colors You Should Add to Your Diet for a phytonutrient guide and how to incorporate them daily.
Why Plant-Based Eating is Good for Health
Just about anyone can benefit from adding more plant-based foods, like fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds to their diet. These foods can help you feel energized, healthy, and your very best with their balance of carbohydrate, protein, and healthy fats as well as their abundant vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients. Here are just some science-backed ways plant-based eating can benefit your health:
Reduce risk of diabetes
Reduce risk of heart disease
Reduce risk of cancer (lung, prostate, breast, colon)
Decrease risk of Alzheimer’s Disease
Lower blood pressure
Minimize autoimmune symptoms
Improve gut health
Improve skin health
But what about protein? (It's easy to get enough and beyond what you need!) And, isn't dairy important for calcium? (Nope. Lots of plants have plenty of calcium as well as other nutrients important for strong bones.) Don't you need a ton of time to prepare plant-based meals? (It takes a little practice getting used to preparing plant-based meals since it's different and new. But once you find a few staple meals you and your family love, it's a piece of ((vegan)) cake!)
8 plant-based myths: Debunked!
1. Plant-based eating doesn't provide enough protein.
One of the most common questions around plant-based eating is “where do you get your protein?” But, before we answer that question—how much protein do you actually need in a day? The recommendation for protein is .8 gm per kg body weight or .36 gm of protein per pound of body weight. For a 150 pound person that would be 55 grams of protein a day. If you’re more active or an athlete (endurance athlete, weight lifter, etc.) your protein needs may be higher. But, in general most people who are working out daily for 30-45 minutes with a normal routine (dog walk, day job, family time at night) do not need as much protein as they're consuming.
We, as consumers, can be a bit protein obsessed—meat is the focus of the plate, protein powders are all over the market, companies market ‘high protein’ on packaged food items and plant proteins like soy and pea are being infused into foods to make them even higher protein than their naturally occurring state. All of that protein isn't necessary.
And, here's the thing: All plants have protein! Some have more than others like beans, lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, tofu and tempeh. Whole grains, like quinoa, amaranth, and oats are also great sources of protein. Even broccoli has some protein at 4 grams per cup! So, as long as you're consuming enough calories in a day and eating a variety of plant-based foods (like, not eating only rice all day), you'll get plenty of protein on a plant-based diet. To see an example of a plant-based menu with the protein breakdown visit this blog.
2. Soy is bad for you.
The truthful statement should really read, Meat is Bad for You. In 2015, based on data from 800 studies, the International Association for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified processed meat as a human carcinogen (Group 1), meaning that there is enough evidence to conclude that it can cause cancer in humans. The evidence for red meat was less definitive, so IARC classified it as a probable carcinogen (Group 2A). You won't find those classifications for soy. Why? Research doesn't support it.
In fact, research shows that substituting organic whole food soy products in place of meat can reduce the risk of lifestyle diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Research also supports consuming organic soy products to reduce the risk of breast cancer and reduce the risk of recurring breast cancer.
Whenever selecting soy, look for organic since much of the soy produced in the United States is genetically modified and filled with pesticides. Some of my personal favorite soy products include organic unsweetened soy milk, tofu, tempeh, edamame, and miso.
3. You need to drink milk for strong bones.
Negative. In fact, osteoporosis and bone fractures are the most common in countries where people consume the most dairy products: the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Finland. The dairy industry has done a wonderful job at marketing that milk is needed for strong bones. True, dairy has about 28% calcium (so does soy milk) and 8 grams of protein per glass (so does soy milk) and is fortified with vitamin D (ahem...so does soy milk). These nutrients are important for bone health, but are not special to dairy alone. As mentioned above, protein is easy to get from plant-based foods. And, here's a fun fact about calcium: One cup of dairy milk has 305 mg of calcium, but only about 30% is absorbed (91 mg). One cup of raw kale has 101 mg of calcium and 65% is absorbed (65 mg). Kale is just slightly less, but it's more about the absorption than it is the total amount. Other plant foods high in calcium include bok choy and other leafy greens, oranges and orange juice, almonds, tofu, poppy seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, broccoli, and more! Get a full list of calcium-rich plant foods here. Learn more about dairy here.
Also, calcium isn't the only superstar when it comes to bone health. There are at least 15 different nutrients for bone health including magnesium, carotenoids, and phytonutrients, all found in—you guessed it—plants!
4. A plant-based diet doesn't provide enough nutrients.
All diets, not just plant-based, may need a little supplemental boost since our soils in which our food is grown are not as nutrient rich as they were in the past. But, overall, plant-based foods deliver the MOST nutrition per calorie compared to any other way of eating. Plant-based foods are nutrient-dense, meaning they pack a TON of nutrients into minimal calories. You get the most bang for your buck with plant-based foods. That said, plant-based diets may need to be supplemented with certain nutrients, like B12 or omega 3 fatty acids, depending on individual needs. Learn more about nutrients that may fall short when starting a plant-based meal plan, if not planned properly.
It always baffles my mind when plant-based diets are criticized about lacking nutrition. Think about the Standard American Diet (SAD) where 63% of calories come from refined and processed foods like soft drinks and packaged snacks like potato chips, sweet treats, and fried foods. They're not only delivering calories in the form of sugar, saturated fat, and trans fatty acids that are devoid of nutrients for health, but also wreaking havoc and creating massive amounts of inflammation in the body. That's a double whammy! Not to mention, they're majorly lacking in fiber and phytonutrients, things that FIGHT inflammation. In my humble opinion, I think the Standard American Diet should be renamed the "doomed diet."
5. You won't be satisfied eating all plant-based foods.
Here's a mistake I see often: Someone wants to go all-in plant-based and they prepare big salads filled with lots of greens, maybe some cucumbers, tomatoes and they're fave dressing for every meal. That's all fabulous, however, it's not going to satisfy their taste buds, belly, or body long term. To make that salad super delicious, very satisfying, and extremely nourishing, add some beans, avocado, corn, whole grains, herbs, nuts or seeds, or maybe even some in-season fruit like berries or citrus.
The options for creating satisfying and sustainable meals using plant-based foods are endless. Make grain bowls, casseroles, soups, stir fries, noodle bowls, bakes, waffles, and more using all high-fiber, nutrient-dense plant-based foods. Plant-based eating definitely doesn't mean a bowl of lettuce for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I often recommend trying one new plant-based recipe a week to start exploring all of the delicious creations that come from plants. They may not all be winners, but hopefully some make it to your regular recipe rotation.
6. Plant-based eating doesn't taste good.
Trust me, if you tried one of the Best 50 Vegan Restaurants in the World or the Top 10 Vegan Restaurants in the U.S. you would think otherwise. The beautiful and delicious creations that plants create are insanely out-of-this-world. Friends, I'm a former meat and dairy eater. I've tried both animal-based meals and plant-based meals and can honestly say, hands down, plants are magical in what they can create and the way they make you feel. My personal plant-based journey into delicious plant-based eating started with a couple of handy cookbooks, which may be helpful to you as well. Or check out some of the numerous, mouth watering plant-based recipe blogs that are readily available. Here's a handy list of vegan, including recipe, resources.
7. It's too hard to cook plant-based meals.
Introducing anything new can take time and practice. Cooking plant-based may initially take a little patience and time as you learn how to substitute new foods (that serve your health) for old familiar foods (that may not serve your health). Here are some tips to make the process stress-free, manageable, and (hopefully!) fun:
Start small. Don't think you need to create a plant-based kitchen overnight. Start by trying one new food a week or one new recipe a week.
Create familiar meals. Do you have a favorite go-to meal? Maybe it's pasta bolognese or tacos or burgers. Find a highly rated, delicious-looking plant-based online version of your fave meal and recreate it. You'll see that you can easily recreate similar flavors and textures using plants.
Set appropriate expectations. Not all plant-based dishes you try will be winners. It's not just plant-based. Any recipe can end in a disaster. Don't let one bad plant-based recipe experience end your plant-based exploration. Keep those that you love in a recipe library so they become a part of your weekly meal rotation (the more you make them, the easier the recipe creation!).
Finally, try to have fun! Trust me, there will be messes in the kitchen, but there will also be successes. Try to treat the mess-ups as learning opportunities (I know this is sometimes easier said than done!). And, celebrate the successes!🙌🏼
8. Plant-based eating is expensive.
It's not. Plant-based foods are not expensive when you're purchasing whole foods instead of processed foods. A stacked cart filled with Beyond Meat Burgers, plant-based frozen meals, and vegan cheeses often leads to a high grocery bill. Many plant-based or vegan packaged foods come with a higher price compared to whole, unprocessed foods. I think these prepackaged foods can be enjoyed on occasions from both health and financial perspectives. Purchasing whole plant-based foods, like fruits and veggies, and substituting meat with protein-packed plant foods like beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, will keep your grocery bill manageable.
How to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet
Are you now convinced that plant-based eating is good for you? If not, let's chat! Comment below or reach out to me personally and we can talk about anything specific you'd like to address. In the meantime, here are some fun ways to incorporate more plants onto your plate:
Try Meatless Monday
Swap out one meat-based meal a week with plants
Use flax or chia in place of egg when baking
Add plants to existing meals (leafy greens, tomato, and onion to a sandwich or broccoli to pasta, etc)
Include 3 colors per meal (blueberries, chia seeds, and oats for oatmeal; tomatoes, black beans, and yellow corn in a salad; red onion, avocado, and leafy greens to a sandwich)
Make delicious smoothies
Try one new recipe a week
In what ways have you been incorporating more plants onto your plate?