By Florencia Tagliavini, Nutritionist
So what are plant-based diets exactly? It seems as though everyone has their own definition. While some say it consists mostly of plants but can include some animal products, some say it should include no animal products whatsoever. Others go further to define that this dietary approach avoids processed foods. There is no exact definition for this new trendy term. In nutrition studies, other terms are used to describe types of diets such as vegan, ovo-lacto vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, pescatarian, raw diet and so on. But it doesn’t really matter what exact definition everyone uses in this case, I think we can all agree that this dietary approach focuses on plants over animals. It’s not so much about what you don’t eat but more about what you do eat.
We have learned a lot over the years about the unhealthy eating patterns of Americans and the costs to their health. Cardiovascular disease remains the world’s leading cause of death. Yet, we have known for decades that the vast majority of atherosclerosis and its subsequent morbidity and mortality are influenced predominantly by diet. Over the last decade there has been an incredible amount of research that has supported shifting towards a plant-based approach as an improvement to the high prevalence of the chronic diseases that are on the rise today.
Many respected health institutions recommend reducing consumption of animal products, especially red meat, while increasing plant-based foods.
The American Institute of Cancer Research recommends limiting the consumption of red meats and avoiding processed meats. Reports concluded there was convincing evidence that red meat and processed meats are a cause of colorectal cancer and processed meats a probable cause of stomach cancer. Studies suggest that we can eat up to 18 ounces of red meat per week without significantly raising cancer risk. So if you are a red meat eater, you may not have to give it up completely.
The American Heart Association recommends following a heart healthy diet which emphasizes a higher proportion of plant-based foods compared to animal-based foods. This is a diet higher in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts, low fat-dairy, skinless poultry and fish. It encourages eating foods low in saturated and trans fats, sodium, and limiting added sugars and red meats. According to their research this approach can lower the risks of dying from heart disease and stroke by up to 20%.
The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics states that well-designed vegetarian diets provide adequate nutrient intakes for all stages of the life cycle. They can provide protection against many chronic diseases, such as heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. Furthermore, a vegetarian diet could make more conservative use of natural resources and cause less environmental degradation.
2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee identifies and encourages a healthy dietary pattern that is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); and lower in red & processed meat.
It is clear that we need to shift towards a plant-based diet to regain our health. This means leaving behind a diet mostly comprised of processed foods, high in unhealthy saturated & trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars as well as limiting the consumption of red meat and avoiding processed meats while adopting a healthy diet that is high in whole natural foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.