Ask a dietitian: Should I eat a plant-based diet?

December 14, 2018 Providence Health Team

Eating a plant-based diet offers a variety of potential health benefits.

There are several different types of vegetarian diets to choose from.

If you’re interested in getting started, visit your primary care provider and a registered dietitian to ensure that all of your nutritional needs are being met.

There are a variety of potential health benefits to eating a plant-based diet , including diabetes prevention, maintaining a healthy weight, and preventing heart disease. However, in order to reap these benefits, eating vegetarian does involve some careful planning. It is important, particularly for vegans, to ensure that your body receives all of the nutrients it requires.

Jennifer Troupe, a registered dietitian at Providence Medical Group in Missoula, Montana, suggests that there are other paths to healthy eating that may be easier to follow. “There are some benefits to eating a plant-based diet, certainly,” she agrees. “But you have to be very careful how you do it.”

What are some of the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet?

Vegetarianism is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.

Following a primarily plant-based diet could help lower the risk of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.

Going vegan may help control rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

A reduction in red meat could offer benefits for prevention of type 2 diabetes.

Research suggests plant-based diets could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease events by around 40%, and the risk of cerebral vascular disease events by around 29%.

“I don’t generally advocate for a strictly vegetarian diet,” Troupe says. “As far as nutritional guidelines, I recommend getting all food groups — along the lines of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) dietary approach or the Mediterranean Diet.  Both meal plans emphasize reducing red meat consumption and utilizing fish, chicken, lowfat dairy, beans and legumes as protein sources. The base of the diet should be provided by fruits, vegetables (at least 8 servings/day) and whole grains. Fat sources are derived mainly from plant sources, such as olive oil.”

What are the different types of vegetarian diets?

There are a number of variations, some more restrictive than others. These include:

Vegan: no meat/poultry/fish, or any products derived from animals, including eggs or dairy

Lacto-ovo: no meat/poultry/fish, but eggs and dairy are eaten

Lacto-vegetarian: no meat/poultry/fish/eggs, but dairy is consumed

Ovo-vegetarian: eggs are okay, but no other meat or dairy is allowed

Partial vegetarians:

  • Pesco-vegetarian or Pescatarian: avoids meat, but will eat fish
  • Pollo-vegetarians: avoids meat, but will eat poultry

For those interested in going vegan, Troupe recommends that you carefully consider exactly why. “Ethical issues related to animals are often a factor,” she says, “but if you’re simply interested in preventing chronic disease, you can consume a diet that contains animal products and be as healthy as someone who eats vegan; however, those animal protein choices should be low in saturated fat and prepared using healthy cooking methods such as baking, searing or grilling.”

Some new vegetarians express concern about getting enough protein. Interestingly, lacto-ovo vegetarians generally don’t have to worry about that, “An egg has the highest biological value of protein,” Troupe says. “You’re going to get everything you need from that egg.”

What’s the best way to get started?

“Speak with your primary care provider and make a visit to a registered dietitian to ensure you are eating from all the food groups that provide necessary vitamins and minerals for health; specifically, vegans are at high risk for nutritional deficiencies without proper education and planning,” says Troupe.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has a wealth of information that covers basic nutritional advice, recipes, shopping lists, and additional resources and support regarding a vegan meal plan.

Also, don’t miss the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 10 Tips for Vegetarians.

Can plant-based diets help fix “mindless eating”?

“Americans would be healthier if we avoided ‘mindless eating.’ If we paid more attention to what we put into our bodies, the rates of many chronic diseases would decrease significantly,” Troupe says. “Following a plant-based diet can be positive at least to the extent that a vegetarian or vegan is being mindful of what they eat. For most people who are otherwise healthy, a good rule of thumb for everyday eating can be, ‘Everything’s all right, as long as it’s in moderation.’ Moderation in all things really is the key.”

Looking for a provider to partner with in achieving a healthier lifestyle? Find a Providence provider near you in our online directory.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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