How To Start A Plant-Based Diet

The most important health advice I give my patients can be summed up in just a few words — Eat a plant-based diet.

This advice is not just a matter of personal opinion, conjecture, or wishful thinking. It’s backed up by nearly 20 years of my own clinical experience and knowledge, and supported by strong scientific evidence in medical literature.

Of course, there are no guarantees in medicine, and I’m not suggesting that eating more vegetables is foolproof. Genes, the environment, and plain dumb luck can all impact your health. However, mountains of data demonstrate that consuming more plant-based foods (and less animal-derived foods) is the single most important factor under your control that will help you preserve and promote your good health.

The Benefits of Plant-Based Foods

In a moment, I’ll discuss some of the evidence that supports my view, but first I’d like to point out the two main reasons why plant-based meals are so good for you:

  • Plants are loaded with phytonutrients including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, polyphenols, anti-inflammatory agents, and anti-cancer compounds. Eating these compounds regularly is good for your health.
  • A plant-based meal usually means one less meat-based meal. Most people eat way too much meat, a pattern that is clearly associated with an increased risk of chronic disease.

While we’re on the topic, it’s a popular misconception that you can’t get enough protein from a vegetarian diet. Not true. A plant-based diet can absolutely provide all of the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that you need for optimal health. You do not need to worry about combining food types in order to get a balanced array of protein. In most instances, simply eating a wide variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains will ensure that you get all the protein and nutrients you require.

The Evidence is Overwhelming — Plant-Based Foods Are Really Good For You

OK, here’s some of the support for my advice to eat more plants and less meat:

  • The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Diabetes Association both recommend a plant-based diet as being the most effective nutritional approach when it comes to managing blood glucose levels and preventing metabolic conditions such as diabetes.
  • A Lyon Diet Heart Study found that the Mediterranean Diet reduced the incidence of cardiovascular disease by 70% compared to the typical American diet.
  • The American Cancer Society published a recommendation urging cancer survivors to eat a plant-based diet. The National Cancer Institute offered similar advice. The NCI contends that between 30 and 50 percent of cancers are diet-related, and that eating a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fiber-rich foods is the best way to ward off cancer.

Numerous other studies have found a strong correlation between a plant-based diet and longevity, immunity, mental health, and virtually every health measure you can think of.

Food is Medicine

Hippocrates was well ahead of his time when he said: “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food.”  Science is proving that he was right. The authors of a meta-analysis examining 87 separate studies reached the extraordinary conclusion that: “The future of healthcare will involve an evolution toward a paradigm where the prevention and treatment of disease is centered, not on a pill or surgical procedure, but on another serving of fruits and vegetables.”

Vegetarian and Vegan (What is the Difference?)

By now, you are hopefully beginning to appreciate the wisdom of a plant-based diet and how it can help keep you healthy. If you are new to this kind of thinking, then you may have heard terms like vegetarian and vegan, but aren’t sure what exactly they mean.

Well, a vegetarian is a person who eats foods that don’t require the killing of an animal. They’ll still eat eggs and dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese. In contrast, a vegan is someone who doesn’t eat animal flesh or any other products derived from animals. Vegans do not eat eggs, dairy, or honey… and many of them even avoid wearing leather.

People choose to be vegetarian or vegan for many reasons. For some, it’s an ethical or environmental choice. For others, it’s about health and nutrition. Whatever the reason, a plant-based diet is something that all physicians should be encouraging their patients to adopt.  

Recently, I was discussing the benefits of a plant-based diet with one of my patients. He was a heavy meat eater (three times per day) and I was trying to make the case that he should eat more beans. I told him that beans are a large part of my diet… and that I eat some variety of legume nearly every day. That’s when he gave me a quizzical look and I could tell he was confused… or grossed out.

He explained that his only knowledge or experience with beans was “baked beans” from a can, and he honestly thought that I was spooning something like that into my mouth for lunch or dinner every day. I told him that would gross me out too. We laughed about it and then he asked me for a few of my favorite ways to eat beans.  

I pulled out a prescription pad and wrote him a few of my favorite recipes:  

Four Basic Bean Recipes

Italian Style

  1. Saute an onion in olive oil.
  2. Add a green leafy vegetable like spinach, kale, chard or escarole and cook until wilted.  
  3. Add any white bean (like cannellini or butter beans).
  4. Add a few tablespoons of a pesto sauce (store-bought is fine).
  5. Serve over whole grain pasta.

Mexican Style

  1. Saute carrots, celery, and onion in olive oil.
  2. Add pinto and/or black beans.
  3. Season with chili powder, garlic, cumin, and oregano.
  4. Wrap into corn or flour tortillas for a taco or burrito.
  5. Add fresh avocado or guacamole!!!  

Mediterranean Style

  1. Saute red onion, garlic, and summer squash (like zucchini and/or yellow crookneck squash) in olive oil.
  2. Add chickpeas.
  3. Season with lemon juice, parsley, salt, and pepper.

Indian Style

  1. Saute onion in coconut oil in a the bottom of a stockpot.
  2. Add cubed potato and cauliflower florets.
  3. Add a can of coconut milk.
  4. Add kidney beans or chickpeas.
  5. Season with a store bought curry powder blend (or make your own using turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger, mustard seeds, black pepper and cardamom).
  6. Add water as needed and cook until the potato and cauliflower are tender.

Takeaway

Humans have depended on plants for survival for millennia. In fact, we have evolved in tandem with plants such that our bodies have specific receptors that are there to take advantage of the phytonutrients in plant-based foods. The further you get away from whole, plant-based foods (in the form of processed foods, artificial ingredients, and chemical additives), the less likely you are to get the compounds that sustain wellness.

The same thinking applies to the health of our planet. Eating a plant-based diet is good for you, and it’s also good for the environment. Studies show that plant-based eating not only boosts longevity, but it also reduces greenhouse gas emissions while improving species diversity.

Ecologist G. David Tilman summed up 50 years of scientific data well when he said: We showed that the same dietary changes that can add about a decade to our lives can also prevent massive environmental damage.”

I hope that this information (and my bean recipes) will help encourage you to take one step down the path toward a more plant-based diet. While you are enjoying your plant-powered meal, you can savor the fact that you are adding years to your life and doing the planet a great deal of good, too.

Be well,

Dr. Josh

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