Everyone seems to have a new diet or health cleanse they are on these days, and each one seems more confusing than the last. What makes them different from each other, and how exactly do they benefit the person dieting? At the same time, even if there are benefits, the strict requirements of some diets can intimidate many who are looking to start eating healthier.
Fortunately, plant-based diets exist, and address many of these gripes. But remember, there is no one size fits all approach. Maybe what works best for your body is a plant-based diet supplemented with the occasional high-quality grass fed meat. Just because your diet doesn’t fit into a predefined boxed--keto, vegan, paleo, etc.-- doesn’t mean that it’s bad or you’re failing because you aren’t 100% compliant with it!
As with everything, there are pros and cons to every diet, so make sure to take everything with a grain of salt (maybe literally) and don’t get stressed out with all the information flying at you. This is about improving your quality of life and athletic performance, not giving you something else to be overwhelmed with.
Let’s dive in!
Plant-Based Diets: The Bottom Line
To start, the differences between plant-based and vegan diets are mostly technicalities. From a birds-eye view, the customizable requirements of plant-based diets are perhaps it’s most attractive feature for those wanting to improve their diet.
You’ll meet people who have cut out animal products and animal based foods entirely. This diet is categorized as a vegan diet or lifestyle, but is technically still a plant-based diet. But other people on plant-based diets have tuned the diet to keep dairy, eggs, meat and fish, but still keep it relatively “plant-based” by eating less of these items compared to plants. This style of plant-based diet can be referred to as a “Mediterranean Diet.”
But after reading the above, you might be wondering: how “plant-based” is this diet after all if it really is that flexible?
Instead, think of it this way: a plant-based diet should emphasize and proportionally increase fresh whole foods and ingredients over other non-plant foods. This non-exhaustive list details some of the whole food and plant-based food choices that this diet emphasizes:
- Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
- Whole Grains
- Nuts and Seeds
You could also say these diets emphasize very minimally processed foods, which in our world usually just means the list of foods above. But plant-based diets also encourage the reduction or exclusion of other specific items, such as:
- Animal Products and Animal Based Foods
- Refined Foods (Think added sugars, white flour, or processed oils)
Though these categories are not eternally off limits for plant-based dieters, the less the better (especially refined foods, there’s little debate there).
Going Plant-Based: The Real Benefits
You might be surprised by just how many plant-based diet studies have already been conducted and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. These studies continue to show real benefits of going plant-based, with benefits ranging from immediate health improvements to long-term benefits like prevention of chronic diseases.
Let’s recap the biological and environmental benefits of going plant-based.
Overall Improved Nutrition
At the end of the day, we all know we could be eating more fruits and veggies. Going plant-based boosts your overall nutrition since you’re eating healthier foods rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. Fiber gained from eating these foods also directly impacts your digestion, heart health, gut, blood sugar, and your waistline!
Improved nutrition also directly impacts your daily energy levels. Vitamins and minerals keep you going throughout the day, and healthy fats plus protein help your brain and mood. You also might feel more energetic after eating meals, since plants are much easier to digest than other foods, helping your body conserve energy.
Athletes are picking up on these benefits quickly, which is why many of them are switching to a plant-based diet!
Dotsiee Bausch, an Olympic medalist and strict plant-based diet follower, credits her success at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London to her plant-based diet. The biggest change for her? The ability to recover faster. She noticed a substantial improvement in her recovery time and was able to start training more frequently.
She’s not the only athlete that’s adopted this lifestyle. Athletes like Kyrie Irving, NBA all-star, and Scott Jurek, world record holder for the 2189 mile Appalachian Trail, have credited their athletic achievements to going plant-based.
Healthy, Natural Weight Loss
As the old saying goes, you can’t outrun your fork. Making dietary changes is a huge factor in your overall weight.
Studies, such as this one from May, 2017 in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology concludes “individuals consuming plant based diets tend to have lower BMI than those consuming non-plant based diet benefits.” Anecdotally, results have also shown that plant-based dieters are more equipped to keep the weight off in the long run, compared to traditional diets.
Don’t underestimate the power of cutting out certain foods too. With plant-based diet avoiding processed foods like soda, candy, fast food or refined grains, people will start to reap the weight loss benefits faster than they might think.
Reduce Your Risk For Chronic Diseases
A few of the chronic diseases that are most associated with a typical American diet are diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Going plant-based won’t “reverse” or “prevent” said diseases, but will actively reduce the chances of you getting them.
The American Heart Association published a study that found that plant-based diets reduce your risk of early death caused by strokes or heart attacks. Plus, these diets have also shown improvements in your body’s blood sugar regulation for people currently with diabetes.
Plant-based diets also help protect against cognitive decline (think Alzheimers), high blood pressure, and even kidney disease. If you have any of these chronic diseases running in your family, take a second to carefully consider going plant-based. It could save or prolong your life!
A Healthier Outer Body
We can’t stop talking about plant vitamins and minerals gained from going plant-based, since another one of the benefits is noticeably healthier skin, hair, and nails. Eating tons of red meat, dairy, and processed foods have the potential to cause inflammation, and many times you’ll know it has happened since it shows on your skin.
A Smaller Environmental Footprint
Eating healthy and sustainably can help in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, water usage and animal agriculture. These three items are all key factors that perpetuate global warming and environmental destruction.
Interesting Fact: Animal agriculture contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than the entirety of the transportation sector! At the same time, animal agriculture continues to deforest the Amazon, and plummet our clean water supplies.
Saving animal lives is another direct environmental benefit. It's often difficult to realize the inhumane ways your food shows up in the grocery store. Animals killed for their meat are a life lost, but even more disturbing is the filthy conditions they live in before they are slaughtered. Eating less meat helps these animals live.
If you choose to eat meat, which ultimately may be what is best for you and your body, always try to shop for 100% grass fed, free-range animals as these animals are not subjected to inhumane treatment of big food companies.
Tips on Transitioning into a Plant-Based Diet
Below are some of our favorite tips on transitioning to a plant-based diet. First and foremost, you’ll want to make sure you consult regularly with your doctor, get blood tests when applicable, and take careful notes of how your body is reacting to the change in your dietary lifestyle.
- Try as many new vegetables as possible, and eat lots of the ones you like. Kale, collards, and spinach are great starters, and can be steamed, grilled, braised, or stir-fried and still keep their flavor and nutritional value.
- A good way to get into different vegetables or fruits is to snack on them. Things like hummus, salsa, or guacamole also count!
- Cut down on all meats, way down. Eat significantly smaller portions than you are used to, and reframe your brain to think about meat as a garnish and side item rather than the main focus of what you’re eating. Avoid overeating red meat especially. Eventually, try going no meat and see how you feel!
- Instead, make a salad the main course. Build around the salad base (romaine, spinach or other leafy greens make a good base) and add herbs, beans, peas, or tofu.
- Be wise about fats. Opt for healthier fats like olive oil, olives, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and avocados.
- Fix yourself a 100% vegetarian meal once a week. Think tofu with stir fried veggies, and frozen grapes for dessert!
- Fruits in general make for great desserts. Use sweet & juicy watermelon slices as a colorful closer, or snack on apple slices to satisfy your post-meal sweet tooth.
- Incorporate whole grains into breakfast. Breakfast items like oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat, or barley can all be delicious with some nuts, seeds, and fresh fruit.
Plant-Based Diets in a Nutshell
The goal with many diets, and even exercise plans, is to make you and your body feel solid, strong, and ready to kick butt. Maintaining a plant-based diet requires careful shopping and wise choices made in the kitchen. Read labels, practice discipline, and slowly you’ll begin to look and feel the health benefits of going plant-based.
As you learned, going plant-based carries some significant health benefits, but you can also take comfort in knowing you’re impacting the world around you by saving animals and our environment too!
All this being said, know that a plant-based diet is NOT right for everyone--no diet is. It’s about experimentation and finding what works best for you to not only maximize your athletic performance but live a long and fulfilling life.