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The Power of a Plant-based Diet for Optimal Health

The Power of a Plant-based Diet for Optimal Health

Dietitian Dialogues

July 29, 2012

Sharon Palmer, RD

 “Eat more plants.” It’s good advice, and it’s coming from a lot of sources these days. As more people are becoming interested in supporting local food, farms, and agriculture, the trend of eating a plant-based diet is also on an upward climb.

This dietary trend could be linked to the mounting volume of evidence-based research linking the plant-based diet as the healthiest diet on the planet. Plant-based diets have been shown to reduce the risk of numerous chronic diseases ranging from cardiovascular disease to type 2 diabetes. On the other end of the eating continuum is the typical American, meat-centered diet. A number of organizations have now made public health recommendations to reduce the amount of red meat – particularly processed meat – in order to promote optimal health.

Let’s also not forget to mention how our meat-loving ways are impacting our food systems and environment. When we’re churning out ground beef as efficiently as we fabricate clothes hangers, we’re paying a heavy toll on inhumane animal conditions and unhealthful food. Some modern animal-agriculture practices pose threats ranging from antibiotic resistance caused by the overuse of antibiotics in farm animals, to toxic manure lagoons that pollute waters and spread food borne pathogens. 

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines defines a plant-based diet as a diet that simply “emphasizes plant foods.” Thus, plant-based eating covers a spectrum of eating styles, from a strict vegan with no animal products to an omnivorous diet that includes more plant foods. 

So why are plant-based diets so healthy? It makes sense that when you cut back on animal products in favor of more whole plant foods, you naturally reduce the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol you eat. If you’re eating more plant-based foods such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits, seeds, and nuts, you’re gaining more health-promoting nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.

At the same time, it’s important to be aware that just because a diet is plant-based, it isn’t automatically healthful. It’s possible to crowd out essential nutrients in a plant-based diet to make room for junk foods such as snacks, sweets, baked goods, and sweetened beverages. The benefits of a plant-based diet come from choosing an abundance of whole, minimally processed plant foods, including legumes, soy foods, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. When you’re making the shift to a plant-based diet, aim for eating more ‘real’ food opposed to ‘fake’ meats. A typical assumption is that the only way to navigate plant-based eating is to pop a soy-based meat substitute in the microwave at each meal. But one look at the ingredients label will give you a clue on how highly processed these products can be.

The good news is that more plant-based foods are now available in supermarkets. Years ago you might have been hard-pressed to find soymilk or tofu in supermarkets, but now there are entire sections dedicated to an ever-increasing variety of plant-based foods. 

All it takes is a small shift in mindset to embrace this dietary trend. Yes, it’s easy to just throw a hunk of meat on the grill, but there’s much more choice than less choice when it comes to plant-based eating. “It’s a road to adventure and discovery. You have to be open to it,” says Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, vegetarian expert known as The Veggie Queen.

This Southwest Black Bean Quinoa Salad from The Plant Powered Diet is the perfect recipe to launch you into a plant-based diet. You can even watch me prepare it here.

Sharon Palmer, RD, is a dietitian, food and nutrition writer, and author of The Plant-Powered Diet. Visit her website at

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