There was a time when vegetarian diets were not very common. That is no longer the case. In fact, an MSN health news report stated that between January and April of 2020, sales of plant-based meat spiked 148 percent over the year before! Moreover, plant-based protein sales in the United States are expected to triple by 2027.
So what is a plant-based diet? Does it mean never eating meat again?
A “whole food plant-based diet” emphasizes foods primarily derived from plants. This includes not only fruits and vegetables, but also whole grains, (oats, brown rice, and quinoa), pulses which are the edible seeds from legumes (beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas), nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, and in some cases, occasional animal-based foods.
There are a variety of categories of plant-based diets, not all of which totally eliminate animal products.
Typically, vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, or seafood, but may eat animal-based products such as dairy or eggs. Meanwhile, most vegans avoid all animal-based foods and ingredients, including not only dairy and eggs, but also honey, gelatin and collagen.
Other variations include:
- Semi-vegetarian, which is basically a typical American diet, but with smaller amounts and/or frequency of animal-based foods
- Pescovegetarian, a mostly plant-based diet, but seafood, eggs and/or dairy may also be consumed
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian a mostly plant-based diet that does not include meat, but may include eggs and/or dairy.
Plant vs. animal protein – does it matter?
We know fruits and vegetables are great for vitamins and whole grains are good sources of fiber, but what about protein? It is a vital nutrient for good health. Protein is the building block for muscle, bone, hormones, antibodies and more. Plus, it takes longer for the body to process, helping us feel full between meals and maintain stable blood sugar levels. Can we really get that from plants?
Animal foods contain “complete protein” – they have all of the essential amino acids the body uses to make its own protein supply. However, most plants only have some of the essential amino acids needed – referred to as “incomplete proteins”. (Of course, there are exceptions to most rules, and this is no different. Soy and quinoa both contain complete proteins.) Because most plants have incomplete proteins, it was thought that the only way to get enough essential amino acids from a plant-based diet was to combine specific plant proteins at the same meal/snack. For example, eating beans and rice is a common combination. Beans contain certain amino acids while rice contains different amino acids, but together they contain all of the essential amino acids.
In recent years, research has revealed that the plant-based diet need not be that structured. Provided a person eats a good variety throughout the day, they can get the needed essential amino acids. Now we know you can eat your rice and lunch and your beans at dinner and it will all still work out.
Do plants really have enough protein?
While it is possible to eat a plant-based diet and get enough protein without any animal-based foods, it will require a little effort. Lean meat, low-fat dairy, and eggs are high-density proteins making it easy to get the needed protein in the diet. It’s quick, easy and requires little thought or planning.
On the other hand, getting enough protein from plants will require some planning. Since most have incomplete proteins, a wide variety is needed to get all of the amino acids. Additionally, since most are not as high-density, they must be consumed in a higher quantity. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule as well.
Authors of a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggested that physicians, patients, and the public should be more educated about plant-based proteins. They note that both peanuts and beef have 26g of protein per 100g of food, yet few know this. (Of course, anyone with food allergies should avoid those foods and ingredients.)
Is plant-based protein worth the effort?
“The biggest benefit of whole, plant-based protein is that it’s coupled with a blend of healthy fats and fiber,” says Wesley McWhorter, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Studies show that healthy fats + fiber + no cholesterol = a diet that is linked to lower risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, overweight, and obesity. How much lower? A 2020 meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal found that “an additional 3% energy from plant proteins a day was associated with a 5% lower risk of death from all causes.” Additionally, dietary plant proteins were associated with favorable changes in blood pressure, waist circumference, body weight, and body composition. By contrast, animal proteins may be high in saturated fats and high cholesterol, both linked to heart disease and other chronic conditions.
Study authors of “Healthy Plant-Based Diet: What Does it Really Mean?” also reported findings from several previous studies:
- Plant-based diets, particularly vegan diets, are associated with significant improvement in CVD (cardiovascular disease) events, lowering risk factors such as diabetes and hypertension, and decreasing symptomatic and scintigraphic myocardial ischemia and coronary artery disease (CAD)
- Authors examined the inverse relationship between plant dietary index (PDI) and incidence of coronary heart disease (CHD) and found higher adherence to PDI was independently associated with lower CHD, and low adherence to PDI was associated with higher CHD
- Vegetarians experience a 29% lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality relative to nonvegetarians.
- Widespread adoption of plant-based nutrition could reduce the incidence of hypertension to 25% of the current rate, and therefore result in savings of nearly 30% of the Medicare budget
Don’t take this to mean that anything non-animal is healthy. “There are also plenty of processed plant-based foods that lack fiber and contain excessive sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats,” says McWhorter. You can eat cookies and drink diet soft drinks all day long and have a low sugar, low cholesterol, low fat, but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It’s important to read the nutrition label and ingredient list to make informed choices.
Is there a down side of plant-based protein?
Depending on the plant-based diet you choose, you may be more likely to be deficient in certain nutrients. For example, those on a strict vegan diet tend to be low in vitamin B12 and iron which are especially vital nutrients for athletes and active individuals.
It is also food for thought that what you see is what you get with fresh, quality meat, but you may find it impossible to know all the additives and fillers in processed plant-based meat alternatives. Check the ingredients listed and try natural meat replacements to avoid products high in soy, sugar, sodium and oils.
Plant-based proteins are known for being high in fiber; however, that can cause gas and/or bloating – especially if you suddenly increase the amount you are eating and your body hasn’t adjusted to it yet. And since many plant-based meat substitutes are made with pea protein – they can do the same thing. Therefore, rather than make a sudden, radical change in your diet, make changes slowly over a period of time. This will help your digestive system adjust, minimizing the discomfort of gas and bloating.
It can also be hard to stick with a diet that limits meat. Making small changes often makes it easier for you to stick with it long term. Trade in your white bread for whole grain. Have a meatless meal once a week. Decrease your meat portion size while increasing your serving sizes for plant-based foods. Some foods like quinoa can take on the flavor of whatever they are cooked with. When you need ground beef, add in a cup of quinoa with it to make it go further in recipes. Over time, you may wish to alter the proportions to reduce the total amount of meat.
Plant-based diet – An ounce of prevention?
So, what does all of this really mean? Adopting a healthier diet for most people means increasing their plant-based food choices. Doing so can reduce the risks of numerous health problems including heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. While medical treatment has tended to treating the effects of these diseases, research such as this shows that many of the health conditions can have progression slowed, or even prevention of the development of the condition simply by altering the diet. Further, just as research has shown that some exercise is better than no exercise, it has also shown this holds true for diet as well. One does not have to completely eliminate all animal foods to improve their health. Even small changes can have a positive effect on health.
Since its inception, the chiropractic profession has had a focus on treating the root cause of health conditions, rather than just the symptoms and nutrition has always been a component of that. These researchers are on that same page noting that “primary and secondary prevention opportunities” have been “left on the table”. Now, with more research to back the concept, it is easier to become educated about a healthy lifestyle and how proper diet and exercise can help prevent many health conditions.
Doctors of chiropractic are trained to help maintain a healthy neuromusculoskeletal system, allowing the brain to communicate with the body without hindrances. Further, they are versed in proper nutrition and biomechanics and can help you devise a plan that will help you reach and maintain a healthy lifestyle that utilizes prevention to alleviate health risks.
Ansel, Karen MS, RDN “What Is Plant-Based Protein and How to Add More to Your Diet” Mar 30, 2021 https://www.msn.com/en-us/health/nutrition/what-is-plant-based-protein-and-how-to-add-more-to-your-diet/ar-BB1f7JgZ
Williams KA Sr, Patel H. Healthy Plant-Based Diet: What Does it Really Mean? J Am Coll Cardiol. 2017 Jul 25;70(4):423-425. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2017.06.006. PMID: 28728685.
Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, et al. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(10):1453–1463. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4182
Williams KA Sr., MD, FACC, ACC Annual Scientific Session – ACC.16 Opening Showcase Session Address: Apr 02, 2016 https://www.acc.org/latest-in-cardiology/articles/2016/04/01/32/acc16-opening-showcase-session-address-kim-allan-williams-sr-md-facc
Naghshi S, Sadeghi O, Willett W C, Esmaillzadeh A. Dietary intake of total, animal, and plant proteins and risk of all cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies BMJ 2020; 370 :m2412 doi:10.1136/bmj.m2412