The Benefits of Plant-Based Nutrition
By Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., F.A.N.D., Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training, Herbalife Nutrition
May 16, 2017
Plant-based diets and plant-based nutrition are both terms that we’re hearing more and more these days, but the concept of plant-based nutrition is not a new one. Plant-based diets are, for the most part, vegetarian in nature. But a plant-based diet really describes an approach to eating, rather than applying a label — it is a way of eating in which there is an emphasis on plant foods in the form of colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
The benefits of eating more plant foods are well-known and numerous. Plant foods are nutrient-dense, which means that they provide an abundance of nutrients relative to their calorie cost. Fruits, veggies, beans, and whole grains are terrific sources of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, and they’re naturally cholesterol-free. Most contribute a fair amount of fiber, too, so they help to fill you up and keep your digestive tract running smoothly. When you include plenty of these nutritious, filling foods in your diet, it leaves less room in your stomach for less healthy fare.
Plant-Based Proteins, Carbohydrates, and Fats
Protein, carbohydrate, and fat are the “big three” nutrients, which is why they’re called the macronutrients. You need all three in the right balance in order for your body to function properly, and you also need micronutrients in the form of vitamins and minerals. Different plant foods can provide these nutrients to the body, along with phytonutrients, which are naturally existing compounds in plant foods that are believed to contribute to health.
Most foods, from plant or animal, are not strictly proteins, carbs, or fats, although we tend to think of them that way. For instance, the bulk of the calories in whole grains are supplied by carbohydrates, which is why you probably think of brown rice as a carb. But whole grains are also a source of protein, and they contain small amounts of fat too. Some people think of nuts as a protein source, which they are, but they contain a significant amount of fat, as well as dietary fiber.
If you’re thinking about incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, the following are the main sources of protein, carbohydrate, and fat in the plant world. Since some foods provide more than one macronutrient, they are mentioned in more than one category.
The major sources of plant-based protein include beans, peas, and lentils, but whole grains also make a contribution. You may think of whole grains as more of a carb than a protein, and that’s true — most grains have more carbohydrate calories than protein calories. But I include them here because whole grains contribute important essential amino acids to the diet. Most vegans know that in order to obtain the full complement of essential amino acids (the building blocks of proteins in the body), it’s important to consume both legumes (beans, peas, lentils) as well as whole grains. Soy is one of the few complete plant-based proteins, meaning it contains all of the nine essential amino acids that your body cannot produce on its own. Herbalife Nutrition proudly uses soy protein in Herbalife® Formula 1 protein shakes (shake recipes here).
Other Plant-Based Proteins
While most plant-based diets place an emphasis on whole foods, I see no reason not to include other plant-based foods that are derived from these whole foods. So, in addition to legumes and whole grains (brown or wild rice, oats, quinoa, millet, and the like), other sources of plant-based protein include soy milk, soy cheese, soy yogurt, tofu, tempeh, and protein powders made from plant sources such as soy, pea, rice, hemp, oats, or quinoa.
This category includes fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains. Beans, peas, and lentils also contain carbohydrates, but they are primarily a protein source. These whole foods contribute not only carbohydrates — your body’s preferred source of fuel — but they are also great sources of filling fiber. In case you’re wondering, the only natural animal source of carbohydrate is milk. Milk naturally contains the sugar lactose, which is a carbohydrate.
This group includes whole foods like nuts, coconut, seeds, avocado, and olives. It also includes items made from these foods such as nut and seed butters and oils, avocado oil, and olive oil. With the exception of coconut, plant-based fats are primarily unsaturated fats and are generally considered to be better for your health than highly saturated fats found in animal foods.
When most people think of a plant-based diet, they might be thinking only of fruits and vegetables, but beans and grains count too. Herbs and spices used to season foods are plants as well. When you add up all the plant foods you eat in a day, it’s possible you’re already consuming more of a plant-based diet than you thought.