8 August 2019

Plant-Based Diet: A Trend or Healthy Habit?

Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, NASM-CPT

Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist
Certified Personal Trainer

Ask 10 different health professionals to define “plant-based” and you’ll get 10 different answers. While the parameters are up for debate, one thing is clear: people should eat more plants, regardless of the method used to produce them.

You’ve probably heard the term “plant-based” during water cooler office chats, on the news or even from your doctor. To put its social media prevalence into perspective, the hashtag #plantbased currently tags 22 million posts on Instagram, the platform of the day for dietary influencers.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I normally advise clients to buck dietary trends. But plant-based is an exception as long as it’s followed within sensible parameters. Some may define plant-based as vegetarian or vegan, but there’s room for meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs while still anchoring your plate with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. These plant foods can be traditionally or organically produced and fresh, canned or frozen.

Some may define plant-based as vegetarian or vegan, but there’s room for meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs while still anchoring your plate with fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The U.S. government’s MyPlate is an easy-to-follow, no-nonsense guide to a plant-based diet. Given that it advises filling half of a 9-inch plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with grains (half of them whole) and the remaining quarter with a protein of choice, MyPlate clearly recommends a diet that is at least 75 percent derived from plants.

Plants Provide Necessary Nutrients

Fruits and vegetables provide nutrients that aren’t found in animal products, most notably antioxidants, fiber and minerals. Vitamin C, for example, is necessary for the formation of collagen, the main structural protein in connective tissue. It also protects against free radical damage and aids in the absorption of iron. Present in very small amounts in raw animal foods, vitamin C is best obtained via produce like bell peppers, citrus fruits, kiwi, berries and even broccoli.

Fiber, which is necessary for digestive mobility, is found exclusively in plant products. Fruits and vegetables with edible peels provide both soluble and insoluble fiber. The inside of an apple, for example, provides soluble fiber, which slows digestion and helps control blood glucose and lower cholesterol. An apple peel provides insoluble fiber, also known as “roughage” or “bulk,” which is indigestible and improves regularity.

Potassium, listed alongside fiber as a shortfall nutrient in the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans, is a mineral crucial to nerve and muscle function. It works in conjunction with sodium, which is omnipresent in many diets. Excessive sodium intake paired with inadequate intake of potassium can increase blood pressure. Bananas are widely regarded as an excellent source of potassium, but potatoes, sweet potatoes, and beet greens actually provide more of this important mineral per serving.

Don’t Discriminate on Your Plate

The benefits of adapting a plant-based diet are clear and the best strategy for health is to include more fruits and vegetables at each meal. While everyone should add more plants to their plates, they should do so according to taste, time and budget. Farming and processing methods, on the other hand, should not be of concern. Here’s why:

  • “Organic” doesn’t signify greater nutritional value, only limitations on the substances that can be used for pest and weed control. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), “produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest.”
  • Organic does not equal pesticide-free. In some cases, organic crops are sprayed with more pounds of biopesticides per acre than their conventional counterparts. Because naturally derived pesticides may not be as effective, they may need to be utilized more frequently. Moreover, there are a handful of synthetic pesticides approved for organic use in some markets where viable natural alternatives do not exist.
  • Whether from organic or conventional substances, pesticide residues are insignificant to human health. For example, a woman could consume 13, 204 servings of blueberries with the highest level of pesticide residue allowed by the USDA in one day without any effect.[1] Pesticides work on pests, not people! Besides, the dose makes the poison. Pesticide residues, if present at all, are equivalent to a few drops in an Olympic swimming pool.

“Organic” doesn’t signify greater nutritional value, only limitations on the substances that can be used for pest and weed control.

While fresh produce may taste the best, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are equally as good nutritionally. The latter are typically picked at the height of ripeness and processed within hours afterwards. This helps preserve nutrients. Just avoid canned produce with added sugars or sodium.  What matters most is quantity in this case to keep your plate three quarters full of vegetables and fruits. Whichever types you choose, rest assured they are safe to consume and offer many health benefits that only plants can provide.

Nicole Rodriguez is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer based in Long Beach, New York, USA. Contact her at enjoyfoodenjoylife.com. Also, learn about her as a CropLife International Food Hero

[1] Pesticide Residue Calculator, Safe Fruits and Veggies, Alliance for Food & Farming, https://www.safefruitsandveggies.com/calculate/#

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