You’ve probably heard about the plant-based diet, especially if you’re interested in improving your health or losing weight. Though the term “plant-based” makes it sound like you can only eat fruits and vegetables, there’s actually a wide variety of foods that can be incorporated into a plant-based diet, including whole grains, legumes, nuts and more.
Most dietitians won’t push the plant-based lifestyle on a client who wants to keep eating meat, fish and/or dairy, but they do think it’s a great way to eat. “As a whole, I think that our health and our environment would be better off if we all ate less factory-farmed meat, fish, eggs and dairy and consumed more greens, beans, nuts and seeds,” says Megan Ware, RDN. That being said, there are plenty of misconceptions about plant-based eating that dieticians want to clear up. Here’s what they want you to know:.
1. PLANNING IS KEY TO SUCCESS
Switching from a diet that relies heavily on animal products to one that reduces them or eliminates them completely isn’t easy for most people, which is why a lot of people who try a plant-based diet end up going back to their old eating habits. “Obviously, there are less protein options on a plant-based diet, which makes it easy to skimp on protein,” explains Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD of Nutrition à la Natalie. “With the fewer protein choices comes more carbohydrate choices. If, instead of eating a sandwich with turkey, you eat a sandwich with just cheese, you are skimping on the protein and will likely be hungry again soon after eating.” If you’re hungry all the time, you’re likely going to end up eating foods you weren’t planning on eating. “This is why I advise anyone who makes the switch to a plant-based diet to meet with a registered dietitian for proper nutrition education,” Rizzo says.
Plus, a pro can let you in on ways to make sticking with your new eating style easier. “Vegetarian and vegan options are limited at sit-down and take-out restaurants,” notes Rizzo. “Sometimes the only vegetarian dish is pasta or a sandwich with cheese. There aren’t always vegetarian or vegan restaurants in every area, so sometimes eating out means planning ahead.”
2. IT’S EASIER IF YOU LEARN A LITTLE BIT ABOUT NUTRITION FIRST
In addition to making sure you’re getting enough protein, carbs and fat in a plant-based diet and learning the plant-based sources of these macronutrients, you also want to be sure you’re getting enough micronutrients, like vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and more. “Nutrients of concern for vegetarian and vegan diets include protein, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, iodine and omega-3 fatty acids,” says Linzy Ziegelbaum, RD, CDN. It’s important to choose foods that will help you get all the nutrients you need, but that’s not always easy if you don’t know which foods contain them. “For example, if someone ate a salad with grilled chicken and vegetables every day for lunch, and thinks that just taking out the chicken will allow them to eat plant-based, they will be missing protein in their lunch,” Ziegelbaum explains. “If someone just switches to a plant-based diet without realizing the importance of a well-planned diet, they won’t get all of the nutrients that their body needs.”
3. IF YOU DO IT RIGHT, IT COULD IMPROVE YOUR HEALTH
There’s a reason so many health and nutrition experts approve of a plant-based eating style. “Well-planned, plant-based diets have been shown to provide health benefits including preventing some diseases,” Ziegelbaum says. “There is research showing well-planned, plant-based diets can lead to weight loss, in addition to decreased risks of both heart disease and cancer.” Research also shows that plant-based eating may help to prevent and manage Type 2 diabetes, which is on the rise worldwide.
4. WEIGHT LOSS ISN’T GUARANTEED
Lots of people switch to plant-based eating because they think it will help them lose weight, but that’s not always the case. “There are some people who go plant-based and stick to unhealthy options, like tons of pasta, desserts and sodas” says Rizzo. “If you cut out meat and eat all these other foods, you likely won’t lose weight.” On the flip side, if you overhaul your diet and replace meat with vegetables and legumes, you may lose some weight, she says. “I think going plant-based can be a good way to lose weight, but it has to be done properly. Make sure you have the knowledge about proteins and carbs and make proper food choices. Realistically, if you do this while eating meat or not, you will probably lose weight!”
5. DON’T SWEAT IT IF IT’S NOT RIGHT FOR YOU
There isn’t just one way to eat healthy, so if you don’t want to eat a plant-based diet, don’t feel like you have to. “If you switch to a plant-based diet and all you’re craving is steak, there is probably a reason why,” Ware points out. That doesn’t mean you should give up completely, but if after upping your plant-based protein and iron intake you’re still craving meat, it might be a sign you’re better off as a meat-eater. “Some people thrive off of a vegan or vegetarian diet, and other people are miserable,” she says. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all way of eating that works for everyone. “We now know that genetics plays a huge role in what will work best for you.” So instead of forcing yourself to stick to a diet you don’t like, “pay attention to your energy levels, mood and digestion.” The most important thing is to listen to your body.