Hey HBFIT Fam! As you know, Hannah is living that whole foods plant-based life and I’m here to help break down what that really means, how you can incorporate into your life, and answer all of the amazing questions you wrote in about it.
Q: Okay. What actually is a plant-based diet?
BZ: A whole foods plant-based diet is a lifestyle that emphasizes eating whole foods that come from plants, like fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. This diet aims to avoid or reduce your intake of animal-based products (like eggs, dairy, fish, poultry, and meat) but they are not completely off limits, the way they are with veganism. One huge aspect to this lifestyle is avoiding processed foods, like products made with refined sugar or bleached flour, such as breads, cereals, and pastries, as well as other processed foods like fast food, sodas, dried fruit, condiments, frozen meals, and granola bars.
There are no strict guidelines to eating a whole foods plant-based diet, other than eating whole foods (i.e. lots-and lots-of fresh produce) while minimizing processed foods. When going plant-based, remember to include sources of plant-based protein to your meals, it will help fill you up, help to keep you focused throughout the day, give you energy, and your body needs adequate protein to run properly. Plant-based proteins include nuts, nut butters, legumes (like lentils, chickpeas, and edamame), seeds (like hemp hearts, chia, and flax), and tofu.
Q: What’s the difference between plant-based and vegan?
BZ: The vegan diet is a strict avoidance of any animal-based food or any foods that contain animal products. There is no focus on processed versus unprocessed whole foods. For example, as a vegan, you could eat Oreos, because they are completely animal-product free. The plant-based diet on the other hand, avoids refined sugar and processed foods, so Oreos are not part of the plant-based life. As a vegan, there is no explicit emphasis on eating fresh produce, the way there is with eating plant-based, the emphasis is strictly, no animal-based foods or food-products.
Q: Whom is a plant-based diet recommended for? How does it compare to other diets, like paleo or Mediterranean diets?
BZ: A plant-based diet is recommended for anyone looking to eat a bit more sustainably and healthfully, as it is really just a focus on eating whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, while avoiding those processed foods that generally contribute to inflammation, chronic illnesses, and typically weight gain.
- The gold standard of modern healthy eating is the Mediterranean diet, which also focuses on a whole foods approach to eating. There is a lot of overlap between the Mediterranean and Plant-based diets, as both diets focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and olive oil, and both diets avoid processed foods. In the Mediterranean diet, there is also a focus on fresh, shellfish, and grass-fed meats, which are limited but not off limits on a plant-based diet. Overall, pretty similar and both healthy options for anyone looking to clean up their eating habits but cutting down on refined sugar and processed foods.
- The paleo diet also places an importance on whole foods and avoids processed foods, like the plant-based diet. However, paleo has strict restrictions on gluten (a protein found in some whole grains, like whole wheat) that the plant-based diet does not have. Paleo is also strictly dairy free, while the plant-based does avoid/limit dairy, but does not have that same strict restriction. Paleo places an emphasis on grass-fed or organically raised animal proteins, like beef, pork, poultry, eggs, and fish, and of course the plant-based diet limits the intake of these. If you have high cholesterol, or a family history of heart disease, plant-based may be more suited for you than paleo, because there is a lot less saturated fat in a plant-based diet. Saturated fat is found in animal-based foods and while some amounts are healthy to have in your diet, too many can contribute to increase risk of heart disease. Since Paleo is very animal-protein focused, a plant-based lifestyle could be the better option if this is a concern.
- Also, the plant-based diet is definitely less restrictive than paleo, and likely easier to follow and adapt to because it is less restrictive. Generally, a diet that does not have strict restrictions is typically a diet that you can stick with for the long term and achieve longer lasting health benefits, than diets that are more restrictive, that can sometimes backfire because of their overly restrictive nature.
Q: Can you eat meat on a plant-based diet?
BZ: Yes, you can eat meat/fish/poultry/eggs on a plant-based diet. The plant-based diet does not prohibit animal-products, but does emphasize limiting that intake and upping the intake of fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. As there are no strict restrictions to the whole foods plant-based diet, someone on it may avoid meat completely, while someone else may choose to simply eat limited amounts.
Q: What are the benefits of plant-based diets?
BZ: Where do I start?! Because the plant-based diet focuses on fresh whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, it has countless benefits for you, from preventing chronic illnesses, to maintaining a healthy weight, to improving your skin health, and boosting your gut health, thanks to all the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in these plant foods.
- First, chronic illnesses like diabetes, certain cancers, inflammation, and heart disease are very closely tied to what we eat. Switching to a whole foods plant-based diet can help to fight or prevent these conditions thanks to the nutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals found in fruits and vegetables.
- The amount of fiber in whole grains, fruits, and veggies also offer your gut a healthy boost as well, by increasing motility and creating a healthy environment for the good gut bacteria to grow. This will help to fight bloat, gas, and constipation, giving you that flat-belly feeling.
- The vitamins and antioxidants in fruits and vegetables can help brighten and clear your skin, boost collagen production (which helps to keep your skin plump and wrinkle free), and hydrate your skin to keep it looking dewy and fresh.
- Going plant-based also means cutting out processed foods and refined sugar, which can help you maintain a healthier weight. Plus, all that fiber will fill you up and keep you full for longer periods of time, cutting back on unnecessary snacking between meals helping you reach a healthy weight
Q: How do you get protein on a plant-based diet?
BZ: Excellent question! We don’t want to skimp on protein, as it keeps our muscles and bones strong, keeps our focus and cognition on point, and keeps our hair and nails healthy. Great sources of plant-based proteins are beans, legumes, seeds, nuts, nut butters, and tofu. Every meal should include one of these items to give your body what it need and help you stay satiated. Look to incorporate almond butter or peanut butter, almonds or walnuts, hemp seeds, chia seeds, or flax seeds, chickpeas, edamame, beans, lentils, and tofu into your meals. For breakfast, add 2 tablespoons of almond butter to toast and sprinkle on some berries, for lunch sprinkle seeds into your salad with some edamame or chickpeas, for an afternoon snack have a handful of nuts with a banana, and for dinner add lentils or tofu to your veggie stir-fry.
Q: Do you have suggestions for good plant-based protein powders?
BZ: My favorite plant-based protein powder, is Organic Hemp Pro Fibre in Original by Manitoba Harvest. Hemp hearts are one of the healthiest plant-based proteins and this powder is made from only organic hemp hearts. One serving offers 11 grams of protein, 13 grams of fiber and only 1 gram of sugar, plus it’s a great source of ant inflammatory omega-3s. I love this powder because it only has one ingredient, which keep it very minimally processed, perfect for the whole foods plant-based diet, and has no flavoring or added sugars or sugar substitutes. Pro-tip: if you’re using a protein powder that has more than 5 grams of sugar per serving, that is too much sugar, swap it out!
Q: What plant-based foods do you recommend pre/post workout?
BZ: A piece of fresh fruit is the ultimate pre-workout snack. Their easily digestible carbohydrates will give you the quick energy boost you need without weighing you down while you sweat. Great options would be an apple, a banana, ½ cup of grapes, or a nectarine. For that post-workout recovery boost we want to add in some plant-based protein too, to aid in muscle recovery. If you’re snacking post workout, pair that banana with almond butter, those grapes with walnuts, add some almonds to your apple, or try carrots with hummus, ½ cup of oatmeal with some nut butter mixed in, 1cup of sweet potato with pistachio nuts, or a slice of toast with peanut butter.
Q: What are some common deficiencies in the plant-based diet and how can I avoid them?
BZ: When going plant-based, you want to pay attention to some nutrients that may take a hit from this diet swap.
- If you are avoiding animal-based foods completely, then you will want to take a vitamin B12 supplement, as B12 helps to create red blood cells and maintain healthy nerve and brain function, you definitely need this! It is not found in enough plants for your body to get all of its needs. If you are eating some fish, meat, and eggs, then you are likely ok, depending on how frequently you are incorporating them into your week.
- Vitamin D3 is another supplement that you will want to add in, as we only get vitamin D2 from plants, and D3 is a more effective form of the vitamin for our bodies. Vitamin D3 can help keep your bones and teeth healthy, boost heart health and cognition, fight depression, increase muscle health and some studies have linked it to helping prevent multiple sclerosis.
- Another nutrient to look out for is DHA, which is part of the omega-3 fatty acid family. You can get omega-3 fatty acids from your seeds, nuts, nut butters, avocado, olives, and olive oil, but if you are not eating any fish than a fish oil supplement would be a good idea as well.
Q: Do you have any go-to plant-based recipes?
BZ: Absolutely! When it comes to the mornings, I swap eggs for tofu and make a tofu-veggie scramble with mushrooms, spinach, and tomatoes, and I add red pepper flakes for some heat. But, you can use any veggies you like! As part of my Sunday night meal prep, I roast up a ton of crispy chickpeas that I can toss onto my salads during the week, snack on solo, or use as a topping to my stir-fry. I’m also always a fan of some nut butter toasts, I like to heat up some blueberries (fresh or frozen) on a skillet to make a blueberry compote with no added sugar, literally just the berries, spread some almond butter on a slice of whole wheat toast and then add my hot fresh compote for a yummy, clean, snack. Pro tip: this is also great with raspberries. I also always keep shelled-edamame in the freezer they make adding plant-based protein really easy! I’ll mix them into my zoodles with some sautéed cherry tomatoes for a little crunch.
If you’re interested in learning more about nutrition, and wellness, book an appointment at BZ Nutrition! Through one on one counseling, we focus on you as an individual and provide a customized plan that fits your lifestyle and achieves your health goals in our Midtown Manhattan office. We specialize in women’s nutrition and fertility, digestive health, weight loss, sports nutrition, heart health, and wedding wellness.
Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist, with a private practice that focuses on a whole person approach to health and wellness. She teaches her clients how to live their healthiest life without dieting, calorie counting, or restrictive eating. Feel free to reach out at 646-618-5731 or [email protected] and follow her on instagram @bznutrition.