Veganism aside, eating a plant-based diet is becoming increasingly popular, especially among athletes. About 83% of people are adding plant-based foods to their diets for health purposes, and almost a third have meat-free days.
Though if we’re being honest, the popularity of a plant-based meal plan is not exactly new. Remember the Meatless Monday movement of the early 2000s? It’s still a thing in 44 different countries and counting. And veganism was never that "popular" per se, despite influential fans like Beyoncé and Jay-Z: Only 3% of Americans call themselves vegan, according to a Gallup poll.
This actually helps explains why plant-based eating is catching on: While a lot of people like the idea of foregoing meat and dairy (whether for health, environmental, or ethical reasons), they don’t want to give them up entirely (and a plant-based diet affords them that flexibility). That’s because the diet doesn’t require you to become vegan or even vegetarian, only that you choose more of your foods from plant sources.
But here’s the catch: “Plant-based” isn’t automatically synonymous with “healthy.” Classic example: French fries cooked in vegetable oil. Free of animal products? Yes. Good for you? Not so much.
That’s not to say that plant-based eating can’t be good for you — just that there are potential pitfalls to watch out for. Keep reading to discover the benefits of following a plant-based diet, plus how to make wise choices if you decide to give it a try.
5 Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
1. Less Cardiovascular Risk
There’s a lot of evidence that swapping meat for more vegetables and whole grains has heart-healthy benefits, according to a new meta-analysis from Harvard’s School of Public Health. It found that people who replaced red meat with healthy plant proteins like legumes, soy, and nuts had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
2. Reduced Cancer Risk
A huge study from the American Institute of Cancer Research looked at data from 51 million people and found that eating a plant-based diet can significantly reduce the risk of several cancers, whereas red and processed meat and dairy were associated with an increased risk of colorectal and prostate cancer. Credit goes to the fiber and beneficial phytonutrients in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
3. Better Weight Management
Plant-based foods are generally lower in calories than meat and dairy products, plus high-fiber foods tend to be more satiating, so you feel less hungry. One meta-analysis in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology found that plant-based eaters had a lower body mass index than non-plant-based eaters, and that a plant-based diet was effective for fat loss.
4. Lower Healthcare Costs
With 75% of the $2 trillion spent on medical care costs going to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer (plus an additional $147 billion to addressing obesity-related issues) the above reductions in health-related risks help everyone reduce costs.
5. A Happier Environment
Swapping out even one meatless meal per week can help minimize water usage, reduce greenhouse gasses, and reduce fuel dependence. For instance, foregoing just one serving of beef each week for a year cuts greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of driving 348 fewer miles.
Tips for Eating a Healthy Plant-Based Diet
My reasoning for having at least one plant-based meal a week was because I knew that there was a world of options out there that I had yet to discover.
I didn’t quite hit my weekly goal — it ended up being more like twice monthly — but I did have the opportunity to learn some new techniques and flavor combinations. I also discovered how quickly calories can add up if you’re not careful, and that it’s just as easy to get stuck in a rut with plant-based menus as it is with any other. If you decide to give it try, use these tips to stay on a healthy eating track with your plant-based meal plan.
1. Don’t Forget Portion Sizes
Some of the recipes called for legumes, seeds, and nuts for proteins and healthy fats. Although nutritious, they are also quite calorie-dense. If I had followed the portion size outlined by the recipe, I would have easily eaten twice my necessary calories in one sitting.
2. Don’t Fall Into the Carb Trap
Everyone’s individual carbohydrate needs are different. My current training plan has me following a lower-than-usual carb load some days of the week. The challenge here was that the meatless meals were utilizing a lot of beans and/or rice, quinoa, and other grains. Again, these foods are loaded with nutrition, but they also contain more carbohydrates than I need.
3. Don’t Overdo Healthy Oils
Oils like olive oil have heart health benefits, including increasing HDL (the good kind of cholesterol) while helping to reduce LDL (the lousy kind). This is great, but at approximately 120 calories per tablespoon, it’s easy to surpass your calorie allotment for the day.
4. Don’t Feel Confined to Just One Meatless Meal a Week
The health benefits increase even more when you make additional smart swaps, and it doesn’t take much work if you do a little planning. Some simple ideas and ingredients to have on hand to bring them to life:
- Replace bacon in scrambled eggs with savory vegetables such as mushrooms and spinach.
- Trade lunch meats for hummus, tomato, and alfalfa sprouts.
- Toss the beef jerky and instead try a handful of heart-healthy nuts or seeds.
- Swap out beef in chili with some vegetable crumble.
5. Load Up on Fiber
Get your fiber mostly from vegetables, not grains. An easy rule is to fill half of your plate with veggies, as this ensures that you get ample phytonutrients (the chemical compounds produced by plants), too.
6. Vary Your Nutrients
Your favorite go-to broccoli recipe can’t be what you eat every time a meatless meal is on the table. Including a variety of veggie colors ensures you consume different kinds of vitamins and minerals. Try to get in all colors of the rainbow throughout your week.
7. Check Your Macros
Avoid too many calories from any one macronutrient (carbs, proteins, or fats). Instead, plan for a variety, and choose meals that reflect your individual approach to nutrition. Most websites and cookbooks now list nutrition facts with every recipe, so it’s relatively simple to keep tabs.
The benefits of including one meatless recipe — or even going meatless for an entire day — each week can do wonders. But lack of knowledge or attention can lead to nutrient deficits and caloric excess. Remember to choose your recipes wisely, read food labels, and keep your personal dietary parameters in mind, and a plant-based meal plan could take your health and well-being far.