By: Danielle Staub, MS, RD, CDN
Division of Digestive Diseases
The concept that plant based diets can improve health and prevent disease has been recently brought to the mainstream through various documentaries and media outlets.
What is a Plant-Based Diet?
There are many viewpoints as to what exactly constitutes a whole food plant-based diet, however the main principle is focused on the potential to maximize the consumption of nutrient dense plant-based whole foods and to minimize processed foods, oils, and foods from animal sources (including dairy products and eggs). The diet (and lifestyle) encourages plenty of fresh and cooked vegetables, fruits, beans, peas, lentils, seeds, and nuts. By simply focusing on plants, intake of saturated fats is significantly reduced while essential vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and satiating fiber is naturally much higher.
A whole food plant-based diet is associated with lower rates of hypertension, cancer, obesity, stroke, diabetes and many other chronic diseases. This dietary approach also supports the microbiome. “A whole-food plant-based diet is the most optimal way to feed your gut microbiome. Studies have shown that whole plant foods promote bacterial diversity (the mark of a healthy microbiome), while ‘Western’ style dietary habits such as eating processed foods high in animal fats and sugar are associated with lower bacterial diversity”, says Dr. Ravella, Gastroenterologist and director of the adult small bowel program at Columbia University Medical Center.
How do I get my protein? Are There Other Nutrients Of Concern?
As long as your total caloric intake is adequate and appropriate for your needs, the whole food plant-based diet will typically meet or exceed your protein requirements as well as recommend intakes for most vitamins and minerals. High quality protein with all the essential amino acids is found naturally in animal proteins, but also in plant foods such as soy, quinoa, and buckwheat. The main nutrient of concern if following a whole food plant-based diet, is vitamin B12, which is found naturally in foods coming from animals or bacteria. Therefore if following a whole food plant-based diet, it is recommend to include foods fortified with B12, such as soy milk or nutritional yeast and if necessary to take an oral supplement.
Is a Plant Based Diet Right for Me?
While a whole food plant-based diet may improve the health of many, it can be a challenge if you have a history of surgery to your gastrointestinal tract, mainly because eating a diet high in fiber may be difficult to tolerate. A whole food plant-based diet may also be difficult for patients under certain conditions, such as during cancer treatment, to meet additional energy and protein nutritional requirements. .
It is always best to speak with your physician and dietitian if you have questions about whether a whole food plant-based diet is appropriate for you!
Sample 24-Hour Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet “Menu”
Oatmeal with cinnamon, fortified soy milk, flax meal, berries and almonds.
Mixed kale salad topped with beans, assorted veggies, whole wheat croutons and apple with vinegar dressing
Red lentil pasta with sautéed mushrooms, vegetables of choice and sprinkled with nutritional yeast (dairy-free cheese substitute which contains a good source of vitamin B12) and pumpkin seeds.
Fresh fruit with nut butter, air popped popcorn with nutritional yeast, hummus with whole grain crackers.
Interested in how a plant-based diet may improve your health?
Need practical tips to transition to a whole food plant-based diet?
- Tuso P., Ismail M., Ha B., Bartolotto C. Nutrition Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. Permanente Journal. 2013;17:61-66. doi: 10.7812/TPP/12-085
- Le L.T., Sabaté J. Beyond meatless, the health effects of vegan diets: Findings from the adventist cohorts. Nutrients. 2014;6:2131–2147. doi: 10.3390/nu6062131.
- Tonstad S., Stewart K., Oda K., Batech M., Herring R.P., Fraser G.E. Vegetarian diets and the incidence of diabetes in the adventist health styudy-2. Nutr. Metab. Cardiovasc. Dis. 2013;23:292–299. doi: 10.1016/j.numecd.2011.07.004.
- Jenkins D.J.A., Wong J.M.W., Kendall C.W.C., Esfahani A., Ng V., W.Y., Leong T.C.K., Faulkner D.A., Vidgen E., Paul G., Mukherjea R., et al. Effect of a 6-month vegan low-carbohydrate (“eco-atkins”) diet on cardiovascular risk factors and body weight in hyperlipidaemic adults: A randomised controlled trial. BMJ Open. 2014;4:e003505. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2013-003505.