We hope you enjoyed trying some tasty new recipes from the food bloggers, dietitians, and other organizations we have connected with. Now that the 2 week challenge is over, here are some great things to consider moving forward!

Note: It’s always a good idea to talk with your health professional team about changes you are making in your diet—- especially, if you have a history of diseases, health conditions, or are on any kind of medications.

Benefits of Plant-based Eating:

Health There are many reasons to follow a plant-based lifestyle, including the countless health benefits! Plant-based diets are associated with lower rates of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, a variety of cancers, and obesity (Tusco et al. 2013Le, Sabaté 2014). Research from the Adventist cohort study published in May 2014 found that vegan and vegetarian diets were associated with lower rates of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and a variety of cancers. The authors specifically state, that the vegan diet offered greatest protection for hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Vegan men, specifically, had the greatest risk reduction of mortality from cardiovascular disease, as compared to all other dietary patterns (Le, 2014). There are plenty of cultural groups around the world that eat a diet composed of primarily plants and limited animal products, and many of them are free of disease and living graciously into their hundreds (Mishra, 2009)!
Environment “Seventy percent of the new diseases that have emerged in humans over recent decades are of animal origin and, in part, directly related to the human quest for more animal-sourced food”  states an FAO article from 2013. Additionally, 80% of all antibiotics used in America are, in fact, used for livestock, and  it is believed to play a huge part in the wide-spread of antibiotic resistance (Johns Hopkins Livable Future, 2010). When humans desire a large amount of animal products in their diet, it requires mass production of animals—at unnatural consequences. These animals have to live in confined spaces called CAFOs where they are unable to move and diseases can be spread like wildfire. Animal agriculture has a large carbon footprint (meaning it releases more greenhouse gasses into the air) than plant-based foods.  New research published in June 2014 shows that a vegan diet is associated with the lowest greenhouse gas emissions compared to vegetarians, fish-eaters, and meat-eaters. Additionally, animal products requires more water for production than plant. Americans are among the top for the world’s supplier of meat. The UNEP reported that in 2009, America was the global leader in the grams of meat produced per person, per day! Cutting back on meat, dairy, and cheese—even if it’s just a couple times a week—- and replacing it with whole, plant-based alternatives can help address both the environmental and chronic disease crises in our world today.
Animals Lowering the amount of animal products in your diet can also help benefit the animals. Many animals and animal products people in America consume are not from small farms where chickens run free and cows roam the land. Most farm animals are confined to small spaces, very unnatural lifestyles, and are injected with antibiotics to prevent disease and to grow quickly. Choosing to cutback on factory farmed animal products and animal products in general is a huge win for the animals — meaning that they don’t have to live lives of torture and the demand for their products is much smaller.

For more benefits, see the Meatless Monday Campaign!

Nutritional Considerations of Plant-based Diets:

Despite the benefits of going plant-based, it’s also important that it’s properly planned. Like any other diet or lifestyle —- meat or no meat—- not eating balanced can result in a number of deficiencies.  In fact, most Americans are actually deficient in potassium and fiber because their diets lack adequate plant-based foods.  Plants — fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains— are excellent sources of fiber. Including a wide variety of them at meals and snacks is a sure way to get enough! Some common concerns people have when they adopt a more plant-based lifestyle are briefly touched in the list below. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a whole list of science-based resources to help answer any of your burning questions about going veg or following this lifestyle.

  1. ProteinBeans, chickpeas, lentils, edamame, tofu, tempeh, peas, whole grains (e.g. oatmeal, quinoa, wild rice),  seeds (e.g. flax, chia, sunflower, hemp), nuts (e.g. peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts), and  even veggies — like kale and broccoli— contain protein! Vegan and vegetarian adults, should aim for 0.4- 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight  (e.g. 0.4 grams x 130 lbs= 52 grams of protein). Those following a vegan or vegetarian diet will get plenty of protein if they are eating enough calories from the foods recommended above.
  2. Iron:  Iron is found in a widely in plant foods. Good sources are typically beans, lentils, nuts, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables. The iron found in plant-based foods is not as well absorbed as the iron found in meat, which actually turns out to be a good thing since too much iron from animal foods increases risk of chronic diseases ( i.e. cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes). Pairing iron rich plant foods, such as beans, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables, with Vitamin C rich foods (e.g. citrus fruits, strawberries, tomatoes, green leafy vegetables) can help increase iron absorption by nearly 6-fold. Additionally, onion and garlic may also help increase iron absorption. Not to mention, your body can either accept or reject plant-based iron based on how much iron your body already has, versus animal-iron where you have no choice but to absorb. Typically, adult men need 8 mg per day, and adult women need 18 mg per day. However, needs may vary for different for activity or other health conditions. Consult your doctor or dietitian. Meeting iron needs on a plant-based diet is not difficult, especially if a wide variety of whole, plant- based foods are eaten.
  3. Calcium: Most people in America just think about calcium for bone health, but it actually has other roles in the body too— like helping with muscle movement, nerve signaling, hormone and enzyme production, and more.  Surprisingly, there are a variety of great plant-sources of calcium. In our “Ingredient of the Day | Kale“, I dove into the benefits of including plant-based sources of calcium in your diet. Kale, collards, broccoli, bok choy, mustard greens, figs, oranges, calcium-set tofu, fortified plant-base milks, and more are sources of calcium.  It is recommended that adults 19-50 years old consume 1000 mg of calcium per day.  It’s important to note that strong bones aren’t just made by calcium.  Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Potassium, Magnesium are also important for bone structure— and are found widely in plant-based foods.
  4. Zinc: It is recommended that adult men get 11 mg and  adult women get 8 grams of zinc per day, which can be obtained relatively easily if you eat foods like lentils, beans, cashews, chia seeds, and oatmeal.
  5. Omega 3Despite common perception, Omega 3 is also found in plant-based foods and not just seafood. Chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, soy, and sea vegetables  are also sources of Omega 3. Aim to eat a serving of 1 of these foods per day.
  6. Vitamin D: There are very few foods that humans eat that are naturally a good source of vitamin D. Most of our Vitamin D comes from the sun. In winter, this can be very difficult for most Americans to obtain. Supplementation may be required.
  7. Vitamin B12: If meat and other animal products are excluded from your diet, it’s important that you supplement with vitamin B12 and/or foods that have been fortified with B12, such as plant-based milks and fortified nutritional yeast. Vitamin B12 is critical for the brain and nervous system—and not getting adequate vitamin B12 can result in irreversible damage. The body is good at storing and recycling B12 in the body, so it can take several years for a deficiency to be present. Taking a 500 mg supplement daily or a 1,000 mg twice a week should be sufficient to meet your body’s need for B12. Also to note, it’s recommended that people over the age of 50 years regardless of the amount of animal products they consume should consider taking a B12 supplement since the body has a more difficult time getting B12 from animal foods with aging.

It doesn’t need to be all or nothing lifestyle. You may consider adopting a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle—- or maybe not.  Either way, eating more meatless meals and trying some alternative products can provide a number of benefits to the environment and to your body. A shift towards a plant-based diet will provide you a number of health benefits, especially if you are currently not eating enough fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. This is a great video to check-out about benefits of being flexitarian! Also, most people that become vegetarian or vegan don’t just do this overnight. It’s a gradual lifestyle shift— learning how to use plants and plant-proteins for meals and snacks.

It can often be overwhelming to consider all the numbers of nutrients your body needs, so focus on the bigger picture. That’s why I recommended in the first week of the challenge to use Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen Checklist , the Balanced Eating Plate, and the Cultural Pyramids from Oldways.  In all honesty, as a dietitian I don’t count the specific nutrients I eat everyday. I do, however, think about the kinds of foods I choose to eat, how balanced my plate is, and what purpose the food serves my body.

For additional support for healthy, plant-based eating, stop by my Facebook page where I share resources for eating healthy and meal ideas.

Good luck, you’ve got this!