Plant-based diets have become very popular in recent years. And why not? There is growing evidence that plant-based diets help lower the risk of heart disease and other conditions. But which one is the right one for you?
In this video, Dolly Doctor, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center, and San Diego Health host Susan Taylor discuss the many types of plant-based diets and their many long-term health benefits.
“We all want to live long lives,” says Dr. Doctor, who specializes in weight management. “Everybody wishes they could discover the fountain of youth and longevity. A plant-based diet can do that for you.”
Plant-based diets emphasize whole or minimally processed foods. You proportionally choose most of your foods from plant sources, but it doesn’t mean you never eat dairy or meat.
Plant-based diets stress eating more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, including beans, nuts and seeds and limiting highly processed foods and animal foods, especially red meat. The Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet are among the most popular plant-based diets.
Eating the right plant-based foods is key. Potato chips and refined grains like white rice are technically plant-based, but they are also processed and do not provide the nutritional value of unprocessed, whole plant-based foods.
Plant-based diets on average are lower in calories and denser in nutrients than the average American diet. As a result, they support health and help reduce the risk of diabetes, depression, heart disease and other illnesses. For many chronic conditions, switching to a plant-based diet as part of a lifestyle makeover is essential to managing the disorder and increasing longevity of life.
Millions of Americans, for example, have high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease and heart failure. Dr. Doctor says a healthy plant-based diet can prevent these diseases and reverse others, such as type 2 diabetes. “Many life-threatening diseases can be stalled through a healthy diet,” Dr. Doctor says. “We now know that with a plant-based diet, they can be reversed also.”
In addition, a plant-based diet is an excellent way to lose weight and keep it off. “It is the mainstay of losing weight,” she says.
Plant-based diets come in many forms, including:
No animal products (beef, poultry, pork and fish) as well as eggs and dairy.
“Nothing that isn’t grown from the ground,” Dr. Doctor says. “All we should be eating in this diet are things like legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, seeds and nuts.”
A vegetarian diet is a meatless diet. Vegetarians primarily eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, but their diet can include dairy and eggs.
Lactovegetarians don't eat meat or eggs but do consume dairy products like milk. “It’s the most common diet in India,” she says. “All the vegetarians drink milk, but they don't eat meat.”
Semi-vegetarian or flexitarian means your diet may include meat occasionally. “It's somebody like me who sticks with a vegetarian diet, but depending on the circumstances, would eat a little white meat like chicken,” Dr. Doctor says.
Pescatarians eat fish, but are otherwise vegetarian.
Whole grains, legumes and bean-based products like tofu, tempeh and miso, are mainstays of the Macrobiotic diet.
Dr. Doctor offers examples of healthy plant-based meals that can be prepared for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
For breakfast, she recommends whole grain toast or plain oatmeal soaked in almond milk with sliced fruit and some nuts. “Add a pinch of sugar for the kids,” she says.
For lunch, try a healthy burrito with a whole grain tortilla filled with black beans and pico de gallo or tomatoes and onions, with a salad on the side. For dinner, lentils or brown rice are featured.
“In India, we spice up our foods with different herbs and spices,” she says. She lists turmeric, cayenne pepper, cumin and cilantro powders as spices that add flavor to plant-based meals.
Plant-based diets can offer all the necessary protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals and often are higher in fiber and nutrients. However, if you choose a version that eliminates all animal products, such as the vegan diet, you may need to take a supplement or look for plant-based foods fortified with vitamin B12.
Check with your doctor to determine which plant-based diet is best for you and if you need supplements.
In order to change your eating patterns and follow a plant-based diet, be receptive to the idea and get used to preparing plant-focused meals.
Many who make the switch do so for health reasons, such as obesity or high-blood pressure. Others embrace it as they learn more about the overall health benefits.
“Unlike meat, which you can put on the grill, a plant-based diet needs a little more work,” Dr. Doctor says. “You have to wash the leaves. You have to soak the lentils. You have to put a pan on the cook top and cook it.”
“It’s all worth it,” she says. “If more people got educated and embraced a plant-based diet, we would see fewer heart attacks, strokes and cases of type 2 diabetes.”