We’re teaming up with Julie Harrington, registered dietitian and culinary nutrition chef, in a monthly series focusing on the important role food plays in overall health. Plus, we’re sharing kid-approved plant-forward recipes to add more fresh produce to your family’s diet!
Plant-based is the hot term in food today, but what does it mean exactly? And what are the benefits of incorporating more plant-forward foods into your family’s diet?
Let’s explore what a plant-based diet is, which foods are plant-based, the health benefits of a plant-based diet, and how to ensure you’re consuming the right nutrients.
What is a plant-based diet?
When you hear the term “plant-based,” what comes to mind?
It feels like you can’t go anywhere these days without seeing plant-based options in stores or on menus. Some examples include:
- Trendy non-meat options in grocery stores and restaurants, like the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger.
- Walt Disney World adding over 400 new plant-based meal options across all parks and resorts.
- Taco Bell launching a “veggie mode” to automatically change their menu over to all plant-based options.
- The Oscars going plant-based earlier this year.
- Even products like laundry detergent and household cleaners are touting “made from plants” labels in hopes of hooking health- and environment-conscious consumers.
But what does it mean to adhere to a plant-based diet?
For starters, the term “diet” simply means a person’s eating pattern, although pop culture has spun it to mean “lose weight fast” and “buy our products.” In truth, there’s nothing dirty about the word “diet,” and it’s tailored to the individual to whom it nourishes.
A phrase like “plant-based diet” can be a little confusing as everyone defines it differently. While dietary preferences such as vegan and vegetarian have more specific definitions and even sub-groups (like lacto-ovo vegetarian), plant-based or plant-focused diets are a little less clear cut.
For some, a plant-based diet excludes all animal products (aka, a vegan diet). For others, it simply entails choosing more plant-based food sources over animal sources. This method is an easy way to make plants a main part of your diet without needing to completely eliminate dairy, eggs, meat, and fish.
Whether it’s described as plant-based or plant-forward, in general, these meal patterns emphasize including more plant foods — fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts — in your daily diet.
If you’re looking for plant-based recipes, here are 25 of our favorites!
Is a plant-based diet healthy?
This is contingent on how you personally define plant-based and how it works best with your lifestyle, but it’s safe to say that a diet that encourages increasing consumption of plant foods does come with health benefits.
If you are beginning to follow a more plant-based, plant-forward, plant-focused, or however-you-want-to-define-it eating regimen, focus on what you are adding instead of what you are limiting. Adding this positive approach to your outlook on a diet — which so often turns negative — not only encourages you to continue on that path, but makes it more fun! (This is especially crucial when trying to get your family members, especially little ones, to consume more fruits and veggies.)
What foods can you eat on a plant-based diet?
No foods are off-limits while following a general plant-based diet. It’s more about making plants the star of each meal and aiming for at least half your plate to consist of plant-foods. The focus is on:
- Whole Grains
If choosing to adhere to a vegan or vegetarian diet, then the following food types would be removed* from the diet.
A vegan diet excludes all animal products, which includes eliminating the use of honey or beeswax, gelatin, and any other animal by-product ingredients or products — not just the meat itself. Many people choose to eat this way for ethical, environmental, or health reasons.
Lacto-vegetarians do not eat red or white meat, fish, fowl or eggs. However, the do typically consume dairy products like cheese, milk, and yogurt.
Ovo-vegetarians do not eat red or white meat, fish, fowl or dairy products. However, they do consume egg products.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians do not consume red meat, white meat, fish or fowl. However, they do consume dairy products and egg products. This is the most common type of vegetarian.
* It’s also important not to put strict labels on your diet. Some may be following this form of diet for ethical or environmental reasons, which is based on personal preference. If you decide to stray from this style of eating, even if previously followed, that is okay too.
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet encourages all who partake to simply emphasize incorporating more plant foods into their regular diet, which consequentially has many health benefits.
Plants — including fruits, vegetables, plant-proteins, and whole grains — are full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants that provide your body with lots of natural energy and support a healthy immune system.
It’s no secret that most people — especially Americans — don’t eat the recommended amount of fruits and veggies every day. So, making the majority of your diet plant-based will up your produce ante, which is a nutritious choice.
What are the benefits of fiber?
One major benefit of consuming more plants is the fiber that’s added to your diet. Fiber is a nutrient that most of us don’t consume enough, and it has tons of healthy perks.
Fiber helps make us full and keeps things moving in our digestive tract. It also reduces the risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer, and obesity.
How do plants help reduce inflammation?
The same tiny phytochemicals and antioxidants found in plants that boost an immune system work to resolve inflammation in the human body.
So why is this important? Prolonged inflammation can damage your body’s cells and tissue, and it has been linked to cancer and other inflammatory diseases like arthritis. A plant-based diet may protect you because it removes some of the triggers to these diseases, not to mention you’ll physically feel better and less bloated or puffy when you’re not inflamed.
Recipe Suggestion: 4 Easy Veggies to Blend into Any Recipe
How can I ensure I’m getting enough non-plant-based nutrients like protein and calcium on a plant-forward diet?
It’s important to maintain a well-balanced diet, even if 100% plant-based. If you’re looking to ease into a plant-based diet, check out Episode 4 of the Healthy Family Project Podcast for tips.
In the meantime, here are a few key nutrients to keep an eye out for.
Iron plays a key role in the production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. Plant-based sources of iron include but aren’t limited to:
- Iron-Fortified Cereals*
Iron found in non-meat sources is harder to fully digest. This is why it’s important to eat foods rich in vitamin C alongside iron rich foods, such as oranges and broccoli, to help your body absorb that difficult-to-digest iron.
*Fortified foods are those that have nutrients added to them that don’t naturally occur in the food.
Protein is an important nutrient for almost every part of your body. A 100% plant-based diet can get protein from sources like (but not limited to):
- Peanut Butter
Non-animal products like tofu and soymilk also provide protein. Vegans, who consume no animal byproducts, have to consider getting enough “complete protein” to remain healthy, so these are good alternatives to meat for this nutrient.
Protein is made up of small parts called amino acids. A complete protein contains all the amino acids your body needs. Many plants have some of the amino acids, but not all. But you can create a complete protein by eating certain foods together (I.e., rice and beans).
Check out our list of 20 meat and nut-free sources of protein for more plant-forward protein options.
Calcium builds strong bones and helps prevent osteoporosis. Soybeans and dark leafy greens like broccoli, bok choy, and kale are sources of calcium. Also, soy milk and juices are often fortified with calcium.
Vitamin B12 helps produce red blood cells and prevent anemia. This nutrient is primarily found in fish, shellfish, meat, and dairy products.
If not consuming any animal products, one can consume soy milk and some cereals, which are often fortified with vitamin B12.
Plant-based family favorites
- BBQ Jackfruit Sandwich with Avocado Slaw
- Caramelized Onion, Goat Cheese & Arugula Flatbread
- No-Waste Broccoli Veggie Nuggets
- Grilled Summer Vegetable Pizza
- Air Fryer Mexican Cauliflower Rice Taquitos
Disclaimer: Before making any health or diet changes, please consult your doctor. The information shared as part of Food Rx is meant to be informative but not replace medical advice from your doctor.