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What’s all the buzz about plant-based nutrition?

You have probably heard people talking about a plant-based or vegan diet. Even fast-food chains are getting in on the act with new burgers made from plants.

People are going crazy for these, driving business and exceeding sales expectations. But just because these burgers aren’t made of beef doesn’t make them healthy.

There are important differences between plant-based nutrition and a vegan diet. 

Vegan vs. plant-based

Vegans are those who abstain from eating foods made from animal byproducts — meat, eggs, honey or dairy — or using any animal products, such as leather. This may be for ethical reasons, like animal welfare, or concerns about the environment.

A vegan diet can include things like cookies, soda and a wide array of junk food high in fat, sugar, and salt, some of which are marketed as vegan. 

Whole food plant-based nutrition means eating foods closest to the source with no or minimal processing. As author Michael Pollan puts it, “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.”

A plant-based diet includes a variety of fruits and vegetables — the more color the better, because the colors indicate different nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Other nutritious plant-based foods include whole grains, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds. 

It is important to eat a variety of plants to nourish our bodies. One of the first concerns people have about eating plant-based is that they will not get enough protein. This is an unfounded fear! The U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein intake is that 8 to 10 percent of our calories should come from protein, and most whole plants easily provide enough protein for our needs. 

Fueling vs. reducing

We tend to take a “reductionist” view of nutrition, separating everything into elements of concern.

For example, we worry about counting fat grams, carbs, or grams of protein. In reality, the components in food work together as a symphony. 

When we eat, we are fueling all the processes in our bodies at the cellular level. Food is fuel and we are healthier and happier when we put in “premium” fuel.

A whole food, plant-based diet is the only pattern of eating that has been scientifically proven to reverse cardiovascular disease. Studies have also shown reversal of Type 2 diabetes, as well helping with blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

This is not a temporary diet, but rather a lifestyle change to improve overall health, from our brains to the tips of our toes.

Plant-based diets also are full of fiber. In general, Americans are deficient in fiber. Fiber is important for many reasons, but keeping our gut microbiome at optimal function is one of the biggest reasons to eat more plants.

Why can meat be bad for us?

The World Health Organization lists processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen and recommends that they should be minimized or eliminated from our diets. This includes hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, salami and some deli meats. This means that exposure to these increases our cancer risk, specifically for colorectal cancers.

Red meat – like beef, pork, lamb, and goat – has been classified as a “probable” cause of cancer and could increase our risk of cancer. 

Interested in switching to plant-based?

If you are interested in starting a plant-based diet or want more information about the benefits, the Joe R. Utley Heart Resource Center has many free materials available.

Located in the lobby of the Spartanburg Regional Heart Center, the self-serve kiosk stocks educational resources that will be helpful. 

However, before you begin this way of eating, it is vital that you discuss it with your healthcare provider

Dramatic changes to your blood pressure and blood sugar can occur in just a few days, and it is important to monitor your numbers and your medications. Weight loss is often a side effect of plant-based nutrition.

Whether you choose to move to a plant-based diet for your health, for animal welfare or for the environment, it’s a win-win-win situation. We are here to help! 

Lori Taylor Boyd, MSN, RN-BC, CVN is the coordinator at the Joe R. Utley Heart Resource Center, located in the Heart Center at Spartanburg Medical Center.