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Choose A Plant-Based Diet For Optimal Health

by Karen Smith, RD, LDN

It ‘s no secret that despite all the diet books, supplements, and increased media attention on Americans’ growing waistlines, obesity rates have not decreased. In fact, according to the Journal of American Medicine, more than one third (34.9%) of U.S. adults are obese, with no decrease in sight. As a result, health care costs to treat some of the leading causes of preventable death, including obesity-related conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancers, have skyrocketed.

There is hope, though. Nutrition is a (if not the) key factor in preventing (and in some cases reversing) chronic diseases associated with obesity. As a registered dietitian, I’m frequently asked, “What are the best foods to eat to promote weight loss?”  My response? Eat mostly plants, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, and nuts, and limit (or altogether avoid) consumption of animal products.

In randomized trials, a plant-based diet has been clinically proven to not only reduce one’s risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and certain cancers, but to reverse atherosclerosis (the build-up of fats, cholesterol, and other substances on artery walls that restricts blood flow). Choosing a plant-based diet not only is a smart decision for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight and preventing disease, but unlike the slew of fad diets, diet pills, and supplements on the market, it can be easily maintained for a lifetime with positive benefits for the individual, his or her family, and the environment.

Consider the following:

  1. Plants are our only source of dietary fiber, a nutrient known to have protective properties against heart disease, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and certain types of cancer. On average, Americans consume only 15 grams of fiber daily. The Institute of Medicine recommends that women consume 21 grams and men consume 30 grams of fiber per day. Fully 97% of Americans are deficient in fiber. Meats, dairy products, and eggs contain zero fiber.
  2. Plant-based diets provide ample protein minus the cholesterol associated with animal products. On average, vegetarians and vegans consume more than 70% more protein than they need daily.
  3. Plants are rich in potassium, a mineral required by every cell in the body to function. The Journal of the American College of Cardiology published a review of studies on potassium intake in relation to heart disease and stroke, and concluded that increased potassium consumption is recommended for decreased risk of stroke. High-potassium foods include apricots, artichokes, avocadoes, bananas, beets, Brussels sprouts, chard, collard greens, dates, cantaloupe, nectarines, oranges, parsnips, potatoes, prunes, sweet potatoes, spinach, and tomatoes.
  4. Aside from the numerous health benefits associated with a plant-based diet, there are environmental benefits as well. Cutting out meat from your diet reduces your carbon footprint and saves water and land since the production of meats and dairy products require significantly greater environmental resources than plants.

Transitioning to a plant-based diet doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You don’t need an all-or-nothing mentality. For instance, choose one or two days a week  (to start) to be vegetarian or vegan. Find vegetarian and vegan recipes online and in vegetarian/vegan cookbooks; when dining out ask for vegetarian/vegan options. Keep grab-and-go fruits and vegetables (think apples, bananas, oranges, pears, baby carrots, and celery and bell pepper sticks) available for snacking; replace high-fat dips with hummus; or start your day with a fruit and non-dairy milk smoothie or a bowl of oatmeal topped with raisins and a handful of walnuts. If you’d like more information, both www.pcrm.org and www.nutritionfacts.org are wonderful resources.

Karen Smith, RD, LDN is the Dietician at Regal Heights and Regency Healthcare and Rehabilitation Centers, part of the Nationwide Health Care Services group of rehabilitation facilities that includes Regal Heights and Regency in Delaware, and Renaissance, Sterling and Ridgeview in Pennsylvania. For more information, call Regency (regencyhcr.com) at 302-654-8400 or Regal Heights (regalheightshealthcare.com) at 302-998-0181.

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