Plant-based options for many types of food seem to be everywhere, from veggie burgers and oat milk to dairy-free cheese and yogurt made from soy or nuts. In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Jennifer Chronis, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Jefferson in Oceanside, about the health benefits of plant-based diets.
What is a plant-based diet?
Simply put, a plant-based diet is one that gets most of its nutrients from plants instead of animals. Along with fruits and vegetables, plant-based diets can include food made from grains, nuts, seeds and legumes.
There are different degrees of plant-based diets. Vegetarians, for example, eat mainly plant foods but may add eggs and dairy products, while vegans eliminate all sources of animal products.
As you might expect, consuming so many plant-based foods can offer numerous health benefits. According to Dr. Chronis, following a plant-based diet can lower your cholesterol, decrease your blood sugar and reduce your risk of diabetes.
“Diet is my number one thing to discuss with patients to help treat a number of chronic diseases, as well as lower their risks of certain diseases, even some types of cancers,” says Dr. Chronis. “A plant-based diet also can have a lot of mood benefits.”
In addition, eating a diet derived mostly from plants can support weight loss and help with body composition. On average, someone following a plant-based diet could potentially lose to about 5 to 10% of their body weight over three to six months, says Dr. Chronis.
What to consider before you switch
Before starting a plant-based diet, be sure to consider the changes you’ll need to make and how strict you want to be about avoiding animal products. Vegans, for example, need to find plant-based substitutes for butter, cheese, flour tortillas made with lard and many baked goods. Because so many common animal-based foods are excluded, eating a plant-based diet can require a bit of creativity to get all the nutrients you need.
“You’re not eating as much of a variety, particularly with the protein sources,” says Dr. Chronis. “Protein is definitely one of the nutrients you have to be a little more conscious of. Some of the best plant-based sources of protein I recommend are soy-based products, like edamame and tofu. Other protein sources can be foods like nuts, seeds, and legumes, or beans.”
In addition, plant-based diets may be low in vitamin B-12, iron and omega-3 fatty acids, so people may need to take supplements to get enough of these nutrients. Dr. Chronis recommends getting a baseline assessment of your vitamin and nutrient levels with your healthcare provider to make sure you’ll be meeting all your nutrition needs. This is especially important for pregnant women and older adults, who have specific nutritional needs.
Get creative with meals
Fortunately, as plant-based foods grow in popularity, there are more alternatives than ever. Most sit-down and take-out restaurants offer plant-based options, and grocery stores have entire sections devoted to meat-free products. An online search for plant-based recipes and cookbooks will produce countless results. Here are a few examples of meatless meals:
- Breakfast: Avocado toast or overnight oats with nut butter, almond milk and chopped up fruit.
- Lunch: A three-bean salad with assorted chopped vegetables or kale salad with tempeh and sunflower seeds.
- Dinner: Sweet potato enchiladas, lentils or a portabella mushroom burger.
“Plant-based diets are high in benefits and low-risk, and I think pretty much everyone can benefit from eating this way,” says Dr. Chronis. “The one thing that I encourage patients to do is to work with their provider to monitor for those possible nutritional deficiencies.”
Even if you’re not ready to completely give up burgers or chicken, adding more plant-based foods to your diet or having a few “meatless” days a week can be good for your health.