January 2022

Choosing a Healthy Plant-Based Diet

Millions of people change their diet at the start of the new year. Plant-based diets, while not new, continue to evolve as more and more plant-based products hit the market. And there are various reasons why people choose these diets, from improving their health to lowering their carbon footprint. So is a plant-based diet a good idea?

Like all diets, it depends. Vegetarian diets that focus on eating whole foods and unprocessed protein sources such as nuts, beans, and legumes can be healthy options for many people, particularly those focused on heart health. In fact, the 2021 dietary guidance from the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends choosing healthy protein sources primarily from plants – soybeans, chickpeas, lentils, and many other plant foods are rich in both protein and fiber, making them great choices for both weight loss and heart health.

But the growing selection of “plant-based” processed foods is concerning. While generally marketed as “healthy” alternatives to animal products, that isn’t necessarily the case. Meat alternatives in particular are processed with high amounts of sodium, saturated fat, sugar and preservatives. It takes a long list of ingredients to make plant protein taste like beef, and it’s not clear what the short- or long-term effects of regularly eating these products might be. Because of this, the AHA actually recommends steering clear.

While not strictly vegetarian, the Mediterranean diet is a good example of a diet that emphasizes plant-based foods, as well as fish. One of its notable hallmarks is that it’s typically very low in processed foods. A fair amount of research supports guiding patients toward this diet for a variety of health conditions. For example, there’s evidence that it can help prevent heart disease.

If patients are interested in trying a plant-based diet, there isn’t any reason to recommend against it as long as nutritional needs are met. Keep an eye on common nutrient deficiencies, particularly iron, vitamin A, zinc, and certain B vitamins. But whichever diet patients choose, encourage them to focus on eating whole foods, not processed products.

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