What is a Plant-Based Diet?
One of my favorite quotes by Michael Pollan expresses how I feel about food:
“Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
A plant-based is the way to go. It’s just up to you to decide what you include on your plant-based diet. A plant-based diet isn’t exclusive to a vegetarian or vegan diet. I eat a ton of plants, but I also eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and other animal proteins. Regardless of how you eat, focus on nutrient-rich foods with tons of veggies and plants.
Make most of your plate plants.
Instead of serving up a giant 8 oz hunk of steak with a side salad and baked potato (typical Standard American Diet fare), start by cutting the steak in half. Cook it up with some phytonutrient-rich herbs and spices, and serve it on a bed of sauteed greens and broccoli and a side sweet potato. Instead of a cheese stick for a snack, experiment with a piece of fruit and handful of nuts.
Try to include these fantastic plant-based foods daily/weekly:
Fruits & Vegetables
These are powerhouses of nutrition. Milk is not your only source of calcium – you can find it in leafy greens as well. Mix up your greens, and try a new one each week – kale, swiss chard, bok choy, arugula, and more. Lutein is found in these greens, which has shown benefit for eye and skin health. Avocados are another good source of lutein.
Cruciferous veggies are rich in a phytonutrient (plant nutrient) called glucosinolates, which break down to various compounds, including indoles. These compounds have been shown to be cancer-protective in animals. These include broccoli, kale, arugula, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and more.
Sulfur is an abundant mineral in the human body and is needed to make glutathione, the body’s “master antioxidant.” Two of the main sulfur veggies are garlic and onions, which contain allicin. They do more than make your breath smell bad. Eating about 2 tsps of garlic, onions, or scallions a day was associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer. Other studies have linked these veggies to cancer prevention and detoxification. They are also prebiotics, or food to feed your gut bacteria. Tip: Chop up your garlic and let it sit for 10 minutes before cooking with it to prevent cooking away the beneficial compounds.
Orange, Yellow, & Red
Carotenoids are the yellow & orange-colored group, which includes sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and more. These can be partially converted to retinol (Vitamin A). Another fantastic phytonutrient is lycopene, which is typically a red pigment, found in tomatoes and watermelon. It has shown benefit for protection from heart disease and stroke. These nutrients require fat to be fully absorbed, so spoon up some good healthy fats when eating these, such as slices of avocado.
Blue & Purple
Flavonoids encompass a large group of phytonutrients, including anthocyanins, which is a purple/blue pigment. These include berries, cherries, eggplants, and other purple-colored varieties (carrots, cauliflower, etc.). Among their many benefits, research has shown potential benefit for heart disease, cancer, cognitive function, and vision. Good news: Chocolate & red wine also have flavonoid compounds.
Red & Yellow
Betalains are a unique group of phytonutrients, and they give beets their deep, rich pigment, as well as rhubarb and the stems of chard. [These are some of the most beautifully colored vegetables in my opinion] They are anti-inflammatory and support our body’s natural detoxification system.
Fruit is a perfect snack, or post-dinner sweet treat. A few servings of fruit per day will give you fiber and nutrients. There’s no need to skip fruit because of the natural sugar. Choose whole fruit most of the time over fruit juices and dried fruit. It’s much easier to overeat on raisins than whole grapes (Tip: Throw grapes in the freezer for a tasty summer snack).
Other Plant Foods
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts & seeds are full of monounsaturated fats and contain some protein, making them a great snack (fruit + nuts or seeds is a quick, great snack). Don’t get scared by the high-calories or high-fat in a handful of nuts. Research has found that people who replaced nuts with other foods actually lost more weight. They are also a brain power snack rich in Vitamin E and folate, which may help prevent cognitive decline.
Nuts & seeds are also high in polyunsaturated, pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Don’t go overboard on nuts, and keep them to a few servings per week. Choose raw nuts and seeds to avoid rancid fats, and soak them.
Herbs & Spices
My favorite way to boost flavor and nutrients in meals. Herbs & spices can help lower the carcinogens in grilled meats and have high amounts of antioxidants. Each one has their own benefit, so go wild and experiment. I’ve written about some of my favorites before - cinnamon, ginger, and turmeric.
Coffee & Tea
Coffee and tea are surprisingly rich in antioxidants. New research suggests that coffee and tea may lower your risk of certain cancers, as well as cut stroke risk. Regular consumption of green tea, in particular, is also linked to lower risk of certain cancers. Of course, pay attention to the amount of caffeine, and don’t rely on it for an “energy boost.” Eating a well-balanced diet can give you natural energy without caffeine. Try a variety of teas – black, green, white, oolong, herbal teas, and more. Iced tea is the perfect, refreshing drink in the summer.
Beans & Legumes
Beans & legumes can provide fiber, folate, and plant-based protein, if you are a vegetarian. If you can tolerate them digestive-wise without a lot of bloating, gas, or pain, then go ahead. Soups and stews are a great way to add beans and legumes. Adding lentils to a curry or stew is delicious and makes it incredibly filling. This sweet potato lentil coconut curry looks so tasty!
Plant Based Shopping & Eating
- Use the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen list. If it’s important to you, choose organic as much as possible, or buy organic for the Dirty Dozen produce items.
- Remember the health benefits of plants come from the plants, not supplements. Nutrients work synergistically, and research has shown that an isolated phytonutrient or antioxidant may actually be harmful to health.
- Choose local. Produce on average travels 1500 miles to reach the grocery store. That’s a whole lot of time for nutrients to deplete. Local produce is picked at its peak freshness, supports local farmers, and is environmentally friendly. Check out your local farmer’s market, farmstands, or CSAs.
- Choose a variety of plant foods for a variety of phytonutrients. It’s easy to get stuck in the same rotation (banana with breakfast, baby carrots with lunch, broccoli with dinner), but there are so many foods out there to try! Get crazy and try a brand new vegetable to you every week. Try a new cooking or preparation method like stir-frying, roasting, or fermenting.
- Browse recipes. Use the trusty internet or cookbooks to try out new recipes. Don’t give up on a vegetable if you didn’t like it the first time. Try it a few times cooked in different ways. Check out my Pinterest page for different recipes.
Follow-up Post: Can I Include Meat on a Plant Based Diet?
What are your 3 top favorite plant based foods?
At the moment, mine are berries, beets, and almonds (almond butter).