Plant-Based Diets: A Balanced Review

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I am a chronically slow eater. To the point where people comment on it regularly and it affects when I go out to eat and when I eat at other people’s homes. I had a few choking incidents as a kid and I’m 90% certain I have generalized anxiety disorder, although it’s never been officially diagnosed.

Most people chalk it up to that they eat REALLY fast, and that’s part of it. But the other part is that I’m so terrified of choking that it affects my daily life. I probably should see a therapist.

What does this have to do with plant-based diets?

Well, my fear of choking is why I’m considering a plant-based diet. They’re easier to consume and help alleviate my anxiety, which is actually recommended for people that suffer from anxiety and then have a hard time eating anything in general. Read: It helps me eat what I need to eat.

Types of Plant-Based Diets

But there’s a TON of other reasons people choose a plant-based diet and, like everything else, deciding to incorporate more plants in your diet falls on a spectrum. Some people flex in meat and sweets, others are vegan, consuming no animal products. But making sure that you’re getting all your nutrients and not becoming deficient in protein or critical fats, is important to being successful.

It really depends on your time management skills, careful planning, and your needs in terms of macros and nutrients. Each person is different, so the more you know about yourself, the more you can incorporate into a plant-based diet.

You can be flexitarian or semi-vegetarian, which, according to Katherine McManus of Harvard Health Publishing, is a diet made up of mainly plants, but includes dairy and eggs, and occasionally meat, seafood or poultry.

There is of course, pescatarian, which includes dairy, eggs, and seafood, but no poultry or meat.

Or you can go completely vegetarian which is no seafood, poultry, or meat, but includes eggs and dairy.

Or vegan, which is no animal products (some people go really extreme and even include honey in this).

But again, which one you choose depends on your goals, needs, and reasoning. If I decide to transition to a plant-based diet, I will likely choose a flexitarian diet because I still need complete sources of protein to maintain my athletic performance and need an increased amount of protein that I need to obtain easily.

The health benefits here, when your plant-based diet is appropriately planned, can get you all the necessary nutrients and macros you need during the day. Research does warn that some vegans might need to supplement their diets with Vitamin B12 to ensure proper energy levels and delivery of nutrients to the body.

Health benefits

Generally speaking though, research is starting to show that moving towards a plant-based diet of any kind is helping prevent diseases that affect millions of Americans every year.

In preventing heart disease, a combined study of 76,000 people and 65,000 Seventh-Day Adventists (a religious group of people who avoid drinking, smoking, and caffeine, of which 40% are vegetarian) found that the risk of death by heart disease was lowered 19-25%, although the author states that fewer deaths in both groups were found overall, which could contribute to that factor.

Concerning Type 2 Diabetes, after accounting for caloric intake, BMI (which we know to be an outdated measurement of health, but that’s what they used), and amount of exercise, those who were vegetarian or followed a plant-based diet cut their risk of Type 2 Diabetes in half. Crazy. But also cutting processed meats from your diet also significantly reduced the risk for women, according to a Harvard-based Women’s Health Study.

With cancer, an illness my family is VERY familiar with, pescatarians actually performed the best in this study like because of the intake of omega-3 fatty acids and other beneficial nutrients that seafood provides that vegetarians and other plant-based diets that exclude fish do not provide. Following a plant-based diet, overall, showed a decrease in cancer risks, and also showed that eliminating red meat altogether eliminated a risk factor for colon cancer.

If you want more information you can check out the summaries of the studies here.

BUt here’s the caveat…..

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Remember how I mentioned that a plant-based diet has to be appropriately planned? While I have nothing against people who participate in a plant-based diet, I absolutely advocate for proper education, proper execution, and sound reasoning because you can quickly derail your progress and become nutrient deficient, which can cause health problems.

Like any other eating habits, you should indulge occasionally and watch the sweets and processed foods. I think this is where a lot of people run into trouble. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

So, make sure you do your research and plan out your meals so that you’re not lacking anything if you go plant-based. When you plan, make sure that you pay special attention to:

Protein: Because plants are mostly carbs and aren’t complete sources of protein, getting the proper amount of protein and amino acid variety is something to note. Your body needs 9 essential amino acids to build/repair muscle tissue, all 9 of which are found in meat. Experts say that eating a wide variety of plant protein sources throughout the day should be sufficient enough to cover your bases.

Vitamin B12: This vitamin is ONLY found in animal products, so most vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy products are safe here. Vegans, however, risk a deficiency in Vitamin B12 because they consume no animal products, so supplementation here is necessary to avoid neurological problems and anemia.

Iron: Another factor in keeping anemia at bay, you can get enough iron through plants but keep in mind that it’s non-heme iron, which basically just means that it’s not absorbed as easily or is readily available to be used by the body like it is in meats. To counter this, make sure that you’re consuming enough Vitamin C to increase absorption rates.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: If you’re a pescatarian, you should be fine here. For those that eliminate fish from their diet, Omega-3’s could prove cumbersome to absorb. Fish, eggs, and meat are primary sources of DHA and other fatty acids our body needs, and our bodies are inefficient at converting DHA, ALA, and EPA into compounds for our bodies to use. Experts have recommended also using a supplement here to keep inflammation, brain fog, etc, from occurring.

There’s more information here for your reading pleasure.

Concluding Remarks

While the benefits of a plant-based diet abound, careful planning and adequate education ensure that you’ll get the nutrients you need. This is important because a few critical nutrients only come from animal products, so supplementation and a variety of plant protein sources will be a key factor.

I think it’s worth it if you’re going plant-based for the right reasons and you’re smart about it. If not, you’re opening yourself up to some major deficiencies and problems down the road.

In love and light,

Les

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