issue Winter 2022

Nutrition: Working a Plant-Based Diet Into Your Life

By Melissa Bernstein, PhD, RDN, LD, FAND, DipACLM

Lifestyle Medicine is an evidence-based intervention to prevent, treat and reverse chronic illness and population-health epidemics through healthy behaviors, including what are often referred to as the six pillars of wellness: good nutrition, regular exercise, quality sleep, stress resiliency, addiction avoidance and social connectedness. Three College of Health Professions faculty members were asked to pick one of the pillars and comment on the lifestyle modifications that can benefit individuals and communities.

Are you one of the millions of people thinking about adopting a plant-based, whole-foods diet? Plant-based eating patterns and food products have grown in popularity, and more options are available for those who are interested in giving a plant-based lifestyle a try. Currently, one out of four Americans is eating less meat than in previous years.

Healthy eating is promoted by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine as one of the best ways to promote health and prevent, treat and even reverse many chronic diseases. Specifically, by following a whole-food, plant-based eating pattern, nutritional needs are met by focusing on natural, minimally processed plant foods based primarily on a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Although there are many different types of whole foods, when it comes to plant-based diets, the name itself describes the foods that are included in this eating pattern. Plant-based foods are those that come exclusively from plants and do not include animal ingredients such as meat, milk, seafood, dairy or eggs. Whole foods are natural foods that are not heavily processed, meaning they are unrefined or only minimally refined. For some people, following a plant-based diet means eating predominantly foods from plant origin with only occasional meat, fish, egg, dairy or poultry.

Eating more whole, plant-based foods is a great way to achieve a nutrient-dense diet while minimizing excess calories, sugar, fat and potentially harmful substances that could contribute to increased risk of chronic and degenerative diseases. There are many reasons for adopting a plant-based diet:

  • High diet quality: Optimal nutrition can be achieved by providing wholesome, nutrient-dense and minimally processed foods.
  • Weight management: Naturally lower in calories and higher in nutrients and fiber, plant foods support a healthy body weight.
  • Prevention and reversal of chronic diseases: Including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, gastrointestinal conditions, cancer and autoimmune diseases.
  • Longevity and quality of life: Eating more whole, unprocessed plant foods supports increased longevity, higher quality of life and reduced mortality.
  • Sustainability: Plant-based diets are more environmentally sustainable, because they reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.

Some people worry that if they eat fewer animal products they might not get enough dietary protein. There are many great plant-based sources of protein, including soy; seitan; nutritional yeast; whole grains, including quinoa; potatoes; legumes, such as lentils and chickpeas; seeds, including chia seeds and hemp seeds; nuts; edamame; and sprouted-grain breads.

Dr. Melissa Bernstein is an associate professor, program director and chair of the Department of Nutrition in the College of Health Professions. She is a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a Diplomat of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

Opinions expressed in "Through the Microscope" columns are solely those of the authors and are not intended to represent those of Rosalind Franklin University.