Making Better Choices: A Plant-Based Approach
There’s a good deal of myths and half-truths out on the Internet regarding plant-based diets. In more European and American traditions, plant-based diets are often thought of as something relating more to one’s ideological stances as opposed to general health and wellness. Additionally, there is the idea that those looking for optimal results need animal proteins and the like in some shape or form to optimize performance.
The ISSA doesn’t necessarily recommend a plant-based diet, but instead aims to make sure you’re up to date on fitness and nutrition trends to stay relevant with clients and their unique needs and goals. So, let’s dig into the specifics of a plant-based diet to see what your client may have to consider if they decide it meets their needs.
The Basics of a Plant-Based Diet
A plant-based diet is a diet that is free from animal products. There are many different variations, based on a person’s goals. But the strictest definition comes down to fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, lentils and beans, nuts, and everything else that comes from the ground.
This strictest version would be classified as a vegan diet. A vegan diet excludes all animal products in all quantities. Stepping back from this is a traditional vegetarian diet in which a person will also eat dairy products and eggs. Furthermore, a pescatarian diet is one in which a person also includes fish as part of their consumption.
Quality of Animal Protein vs. Plant-Based Protein
One of the biggest sticking points for those opposed to a purely plant-based approach is that proteins contained in plants are “incomplete.” What they mean by this is that the source in and of itself isn’t what is ideal for humans. We evolved to be omnivores, eating everything. But this has been far overblown in the past few decades.
Whereas it’s true that plant-based protein lacks certain amino acids, it’s still pretty easy to get these amino acids from other food sources. Plants are chock full of nutrients. There are 9 amino acids that our bodies require, and 11 that it makes itself. Most plant-based options do not include all 9 amino acids, so it can be necessary to mix foods for the best plant protein make-up. For instance, beans are high in lysine, but are low in methionine. Rice, however, is low in lysine and high in methionine. Put these two ingredients together and you have a whole food, plant-based protein that covers all of your bases.
What Motivates These Diets?
These are simply definitions and do not actually place any intrinsic value on “health” or positive effects. For instance, there are plenty of vegan foods in the grocery store which are still super-processed. These can be great options for those who have goals reflecting personal beliefs about subjects like the environment and the treatment of animals, but they are not in and of themselves “healthy” or a positive choice.
There are still plenty of unhealthy choices that a person can make with a plant-based diet, which is why it’s so important to focus first and foremost on what you wish to achieve. Whereas ISSA doesn’t promote one dietary plan over another, our intent is to simply inform in a manner that will help you help your clients to accomplish their goals and objectives.
The Real Target
As we said before, it’s important for you to keep your goals in mind when you select your choices, whether you’re eating plant-based meals or not. As such, the type of plant-based diet we are referring to in this article is also known as a WFPB diet—or Whole Food, Plant-Based diet. This is a plant-based diet focused on unprocessed food (think the stuff on the perimeter, or outskirts, of the grocery store...you never find produce in the center aisle!).
The true enemy of health tends to be processed foods. This isn’t to say they should or shouldn’t be included, it’s just to say that switching between a protein powder that includes animal products versus one that doesn’t include animal products isn’t going to change a whole lot—you’re still consuming a processed food. Again, not necessarily good or bad, but this will still largely achieve the same objective.
The real difference that comes to bear is between getting protein from chicken versus protein from beans and nuts. The more important element in terms of overall health and wellness has less to do with animal or non-animal, and far more to do with the degree to which it’s processed. Always avoid processed foods as much as you are able.
Some Health Benefits of Plant-Based Nutrition
According to the Cleveland Clinic, following a WFPB diet can result in lower rates of:1
- Heart disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance
- Colon and breast cancers
The National Institutes of Health has also found that the intervention group tested with a plant-based diet saw many long-term benefits in terms of lower cardiovascular disease risk, better cholesterol counts, and more. These are some pretty great positives.2 Who wouldn’t want to reduce their low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol—or reduce risk of cardiovascular disease? But these aren’t the only reasons for selecting such a diet. Furthermore, this isn’t to say that eating animal products will kill you—merely that research points in the direction that limiting animal products may have a positive effect. But that doesn’t mean you have to go to a 100% low-fat vegan diet to see a benefit.
Going Beyond Health and Wellness
There are other prospective reasons to turn to a plant-based diet as well. Whereas some people use plant-based diets as a way to reduce the suffering of animal populations, it also turns out that there are environmental implications here as well.
For instance, one of the single largest contributors to climate change is methane from large herds of cattle, chicken farms, and the rest. “But wait,” some people rebut, “we’ve always had these animals, so why is it an issue now?” The reason is because human cultivation of meat products has far outpaced the natural environment.
If, for instance, cattle ranchers were to stop artificially maintaining populations of their cattle, many would likely die from overpopulation. It’s only through feeds and industrial agriculture that these animal populations exist—which is also leading to their greater-than-nature impact on the planet.
This isn’t to say that every person needs to stop eating meat, rather it’s simply a factor to consider.
A Challenge Seemingly “Impossible” to Overcome
For the most part, plant-based food options created products for people whose plant-based diet was based on purely individual ideological and religious beliefs. Now, though, with people becoming more aware of the impacts of animal products on the environment, some companies have formed to attack the issue head-on.
Knowing that the majority of consumers will only change their behavior if they have a meat substitute that tastes as good, if not better, than meat itself, one company made finding a tasty alternative its primary goal for existing—not from a basis of animal rights, but rather out of trying to help give people an alternative to save the planet.
You’ve likely heard of the “Impossible” Burger3—a plant-based, meatless “burger” that is supposed to trick your senses affecting the dining experience: taste, sight, touch, and smell. A medium-rare Impossible Burger will still “bleed,” yet there is no blood. It’s quite a sight to behold.
We do need to note that this is still a highly processed food, but it’s still another option to replace some meat in your diet, which leads us to the next point.
An “All-or-Nothing” Mentality is Self-Defeating
One of the most common barriers that people place in their own way is to have an “all-or-nothing” mentality. It’s very common to run into.
Another phrase for this is “making the perfect the enemy of the good.” In other words, you don’t have to go 100% plant-based to see benefits. In fact, you can simply replace meat in one meal a day to see some benefits.
If you’re interested in trying out a WFPB Diet, it’s best to start simple, even if it’s just one meal per week you trade out. Everyone starts somewhere. A humble 5% plant-based diet can quickly become 10% of your diet, then 25%, and eventually 50%. If you’re the kind of person whose goal is to completely eliminate animal products, it can be tough to go “cold turkey.”
Food Options to Consider
So, what should you do if you’re looking to reap some of the benefits of a plant-based diet? Well, let’s look at some examples.
We already mentioned that beans and rice is a great combination which constitutes a complete protein source. But there is so much more you can do.
Plants are often less dense in their calories than their meat counterparts, but this isn’t always the case. As such, you should be mindful of your intake—with some foods, you will need to consume more quantity to get the same number of calories, and others less.
Olive oil, nuts and seeds, and other fats are going to contain a lot of calories. But they are also very satiating. Looking for good sources of Omega-3 fatty acids without fish oil? Well, brussel sprouts, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are all great sources.
Sweet potatoes also constitute a great source of vitamins while providing a calorie-dense base for many dishes. For instance, mashed sweet potatoes with olive oil and salt can be incredibly satisfying.
To kick off a plant-based diet, try doing it one meal at a time. This will help you learn what you enjoy, what you don’t, and will enable you to make small changes and, in the long run, be much more successful. Make sure to check out our handy cheat sheet for meals that are easy, tasty and keep well.
If you’re interested in learning more about nutrition and how you can help clients meet all of their health goals, explore the ISSA’s Nutrition Certification course.
Click HERE to download this handout and share with your clients!