Transitioning…To a Plant-Based Diet!
Diets can be complicated. Eat this, don’t eat that and avoid those. It can be so overwhelming that you throw your hands up and do nothing to make improvements. The good news is that nutrition is not “all or nothing”. At FoodTherapyMD, we aim for progress, not perfection, and this keeps us always moving in the right direction and making positive changes in our health.
Consider this – studies have shown that adding in ONE serving of leafy, green vegetables a day lowers diabetes risk by 15%. And that’s just ONE serving! Increasing your consumption of cruciferous veggies like kale, collard greens or broccoli by 20% corresponds to a 40% decrease in cancer rates.
It’s well-established that the best diet for disease prevention is one that is predominantly unrefined plants but unfortunately, Americans consume less than 10% of their calories from fruits and vegetables. But even this percentage is misleading because half of our vegetable consumption consists of french fries and potato chips.
But small changes can having amazing health benefits and this is why I often recommend gradually incorporating more whole plant foods into your diet, while slowly decreasing the amount of animal products and processed foods. Doing it this way, you can avoid food cravings and give your taste buds a chance to adjust, and also keep your family members from protesting too much.
Here are a few suggestions on steps you can take as you make your way towards plant-based eating. Take a few weeks to get comfortable with each step, and remember that the goal is to consume 10% or less of your daily calories from animal products, processed foods and sugars, and to eat 10 servings of vegetables, legumes, grains and fruits each day.
Set yourself up to succeed. For a lot of us, home can be a junk food trap. Our cupboards are stocked with processed foods, chips, sweets and soda that call to us at all hours of the night. And even though we tell ourselves that the junk food is “just for the kids,” we know it’s not true. If it’s in the house, eventually you’ll want to eat it. I believe in the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach and if there are no chips available at midnight, you won’t eat chips. Sure, you can always get in the car and go to the store, but it’s good to put as many steps as possible between yourself and unhealthy eating. A good place to start is to keep the unhealthy stuff out of your house, or as hard to get to as possible.
Give your breakfast a facelift. Breakfast is a great way to start incorporating more veggies and fruits into your diet. Instead of sausage, eggs, muffins, etc., try smoothies with berries and spinach, or a bowl of fruit with oatmeal. Without even making any other adjustments, you can easily add 2-3 servings of whole plant foods to your daily diet.
Add a vegetable salad before lunch and dinner. I love salads. They are a fast and simple way to increase whole plant consumption and to keep variety in your diet. These aren’t the iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing kind of salads. These are nutrient-dense salads with a variety of vegetables, like spinach, mesclun greens, snap peas, broccoli, squash or radishes. The variety is the key. That is because there are hundreds of phytonutrients and a single fruit or vegetable can contain dozens of them. Although all phytonutrients are anti-inflammatory, they have different ways in which they function in the body. For example, the phytonutrients in cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, kale, broccoli, collard greens and cauliflower have anticancer effects. And nitrate-rich veggies like beets, swiss chard and arugula contain phytonutrients that are particularly powerful in lowering blood pressure.
Decrease animal protein to one meal a day. So far, the focus has been on adding plants and phytonutrients to the diet, but at some point on the road to better health, you have to take on the elephant in the room – meat. I probably don’t have to do a lot of talking to sell you on the idea that processed meats like bacon, deli and lunch meats, hot dogs, and sausage are really bad for your health. The World Health Organization did my work for me, by officially labeling those foods as carcinogens, in the same category as cigarettes and asbestos! And red meats like unprocessed beef, pork and lamb were labeled as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. This is independent of the inflammatory effects meat has on the heart and blood vessels. So if you are big red meat eater, it’s going to be hard but make the step to limit it to once a day. You can even consider substituting white meat chicken or fish for red meat. Poultry is not health-promoting, but in small amounts, it is likely okay if part of a diet that is predominantly whole plant foods. Fish has some issues as well, like the levels of toxins, but again, in small amounts it can be a part of diets made up of predominantly unrefined plant foods.
Change the portion size of the animal products you eat. One thing I like to tell people is to embrace the habit of using meat like a condiment, as you would ketchup or mustard. You don’t eat ketchup at every meal or even every day, and when you do, it’s a small part of your plate. As you slowly decrease consumption of animal products, it’s also important to replace that food with veggies, fruits, whole grains and legumes. The goal is 10% or less of your calories coming from animal products or processed foods.
Embrace meatless Monday… or Tuesday, or even Wednesday. Give your body a chance to experience longer periods of time without the inflammation that animal products can cause. The inflammatory effects of meat, poultry and eggs subside in about 6 hours, usually just in time for your next meal. Taking a day off is not only good for your overall health but you may be surprised at how good you feel.
Be kind and patient with yourself. The goal with your diet, as in everything in life, is Progress, not Perfection. So if you slip up and find yourself in the fast food drive-thru, don’t be discouraged. Your next meal is a perfect opportunity to get back on track. You can even add an additional serving or two of vegetables to combat the inflammation and oxidative stress that a bad meal can cause.
Good health is a long, sometimes overwhelming journey with lots of twists, turns and forks in the road. Taking small steps can help you achieve lasting and permanent changes that will lead you to a long, disease-free life. I’ll leave you with a question:
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.