Written by: Kelley R. Hill, MSN, RN-BC
In a Nutshell
- Plant-forward, or plant-based, does not necessarily mean vegan
- Most of us do not consume enough plant foods to meet recommendations
- Meat may be included, but is not the main feature of meals – plants are the focus
Plant-forward, also known simply as plant-based, is a good option for those who want to reduce the amount of meat in their diet or even make the transition to a fully vegetarian or vegan diet. It also may be quite beneficial for your health. Meat is often loaded with cholesterol and saturated fat, and processed meats have loads of sodium (deli meat, sausage, bacon). Fat, cholesterol, and sodium are the chief contributors to heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, even cancers.
Plant-forward diets don’t have to eliminate meats entirely, though they do emphasize only lean meats, skinless chicken, and fish. The further you progress on the plant-forward continuum, meats are replaced with other protein sources like tofu, lentils, chickpeas, mushrooms, quinoa, beans and legumes, and vegetables that contain protein (potatoes, corn, peppers, and practically all green veggies).
Going plant-based is easier today given the many plant substitutions for traditional animal products – plant milks, a multitude of veggie burgers, tempeh and other soy foodstuffs that provide meat-like textures and the necessary protein.
Types of Plant-based Diets
- Plant-forward: As discussed, may include meat but not as the main feature of any meal and the focus is on lean meats when they are included.
- Flexitarian: A vegetarian that sometimes eats meat or fish, though sticks mostly to plant foods.
- Vegetarian: A predominantly plant-based diet that also includes milk and eggs.
- Vegan: Entirely plant-based and excludes any animal products whatsoever.
- Also included are: VB6, Engine 2, Raw Food, and Macrobiotic.
Scientific & Expert Support
There is abundant evidence that plant-forward diets can reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, digestive problems, obesity, and some cancers. These benefits, however, depend on the types of foods chosen – healthier whole foods versus less healthy, more refined foods.
Not all plant-based diets are healthy, foremost those that do not include an adequate amount of calcium and protein. However, you also have to make sure you are not adopting the vegan junk food diet – that of replacing meats with all highly processed meat substitutes (which are not as healthy as they boast), potatoes, and adding sugary juice drinks and sweets – also known as the “French fry diet.”
Eating a plant-based diet may also be good for the environment. Globally, growing plants contributes to less climate change, loss of biodiversity (the variety of life in the world), and results in cleaner water when compared with animal-based agriculture. There is also a significant reduction in food waste and an increased efficiency in farming.
Plant-based diets are a win-win for overall health; however, when transitioning to such a diet, you must be cognizant of getting the essential nutrients your body needs – namely those that are abundant in animal products: B12, calcium, and protein. There are many plant foods that contain calcium and protein, some of which may need to be consumed in larger quantities to achieve recommendations. Be sure to thoroughly research your plant-based diet of choice before making the change, and it is helpful to organize several different recipes (even dozens) before you start.
The vegan diet, which contains no animal products, is particularly challenging to follow, so you may want to consider a progression from plant-based to flexitarian to vegetarian to vegan, if vegan is your ultimate diet goal.
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