A plant-based diet packs a lot of nutrition, thanks to an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains.Plant-based diets and plant-based nutrition are both terms that we’re hearing more and more these days.
While the terms may be new to you, the concept of plant-based nutrition is not really a new one. Plant-based diets are, for the most part, vegetarian in nature. But the definition isn’t a strict one. A plant-based diet really describes your approach to eating, rather than applying a label to you as a vegetarian or a vegan.
Simply put, a plant-based diet is just that: a way of eating in which there is an emphasis on plant foods in the diet. Adopting a plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to declare yourself a vegetarian or a vegan. But it does mean that your diet will include plenty of nature’s bounty—in the form of colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
The benefits of eating more plant foods are well-known and numerous. Plant foods are nutrient-dense, which means that they provide an abundance of nutrients relative to their calorie cost. Fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains are terrific sources of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, and they’re naturally cholesterol-free. Most contribute a fair amount of fiber, too, so they help to fill you up and keep your digestive tract running smoothly. When you include plenty of these nutritious, filling foods in your diet, it leaves less room in your stomach for less healthy fare.
Plant-Based Proteins, Carbohydrates and Fats
Protein, carbohydrate and fat are the ‘Big Three’ nutrients, which is why they’re called the macronutrients. You need all three in the right balance in order for your body to function properly, and you also need micronutrients in the form of vitamins and minerals. Different plant foods can provide these nutrients to the body, along with phytonutrients, which are naturally existing compounds in plant foods that are believed to contribute to health.
Most foods, from plant or animal, are not strictly proteins or carbs or fats, although we tend to think of them that way. For instance, the bulk of the calories in whole grains are supplied by carbohydrate, which is why you probably think of brown rice as a carb. But whole grains are also a source of protein, and they contain small amounts of fat, too. Some people think of nuts as a protein source (which they are), but they contain a significant amount of fat, as well as dietary fiber.
If you’re thinking about incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, the following are the main sources of protein, carbohydrate and fat in the plant world. Since some foods provide more than one macronutrient, they are mentioned in more than one category.
Plant-Based Proteins. The major sources of plant-based protein include beans, peas and lentils, but whole grains also make a contribution. You may think of whole grains as more of a carb than a protein, and that’s true—most grains have more carbohydrate calories than protein calories. But I include them here because whole grains contribute important essential amino acids to the diet. Most vegans know that in order to obtain the full complement of essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins in the body), it’s important to consume both legumes (beans, peas, lentils) as well as whole grains.
• While most plant-based diets place an emphasis on whole foods, I see no reason not to include other plant-based foods that are derived from these whole foods. So, in addition to legumes and whole grains (brown or wild rice, oats, quinoa, millet and the like), other sources of plant-based protein include soy milk, soy cheese and soy yogurt, tofu, tempeh and protein powders made from plant sources, such as soy, pea, rice, hemp, oats or quinoa.
• Plant-Based Carbohydrates include fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains.Beans, peas and lentils also contain carbohydrate, but they are primarily a protein source. These whole foods contribute not only carbohydrate—your body’s preferred source of fuel—but they are also great sources of filling fiber. In case you’re wondering, the only natural animal source of carbohydrate is milk. Milk naturally contains the sugar lactose, which is a carbohydrate.
• Plant-Based Fats include nuts and coconut, seeds, avocado and olives. This includes other foods made from these sources, such as nut and seed butters, nut and seed oils, avocado oil and olive oil. With the exception of coconut, plant-based fats are primarily unsaturated fats and are generally considered to be better for your health than highly saturated fats found in animal foods.
When you think of a plant-based diet, you might be thinking only of fruits and vegetables, but beans and grains count, too, of course. And don’t forget those herbs and spices that you use to season your foods—they’re plants, too. Add up all the plant foods you eat in a day, and it’s possible you’re already consuming more of a plant-based diet than you thought.