DECATUR, Ill. — Whether it’s due to health concerns, ethics or sustainability, American diets are changing. While only 6% of Americans are vegetarian and 3% vegan, almost 40% are shifting toward eating more plant-based foods, according to a 2018 Nielsen Report.
Plant-based diets are trending. The Mediterranean Diet — a meal pattern with a high proportion of plant foods — was ranked the “Best Overall Diet” in 2020 by The U.S. News and World Report.
And the Produce for Better Health Foundation is encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables with their “Have A Plant” campaign.
“It’s a way to get people stressing less about ‘I have to eat healthy,’ but thinking more about ‘If I can just eat more plants,’” said Caitlin Mellendorf, University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator and registered dietitian.
The terms vegan, vegetarian and plant based are often thrown around interchangeably, but each diet includes plenty of plant-based foods with variations based on personal preference.
• Plant based: Proportionally includes more foods from plant sources.
• Semi-vegetarian/flexitarian: Plant based, occasionally includes eggs, dairy and meat products.
• Vegetarian: Plant based, excludes animal flesh foods.
• Lacto-ovo: Vegetarian, but includes eats milk, dairy and eggs.
• Pescatarian: Mostly vegetarian, but includes seafood.
• Vegan: No animal foods or products.
“Shifting toward more plant-based foods is trending,” Mellendorf said. “In the research, we see regularly the reiteration that people who eat more produce have better health.”
Nutritional research shows that diets centered around plant-based foods, such as the Mediterranean or vegetarian diets, have a variety of health benefits.
In 2016, the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics confirmed that appropriately planned vegetarian and vegan diets are nutritionally adequate for everyone from pregnant women to children to athletes.
These plant-based diets reduce risks of health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer and obesity.
Plant-based diets are high in fiber and provide all the nutrients our bodies need when planned well. Vegetarians may rely on some animal foods for their daily protein needs.
Both vegetarians and vegans use plant-based protein sources such as beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy foods and protein powders.
“Because all animal foods lack Vitamin B-12, vegan diets are missing this nutrient,” Mellendorf said. “Vegans should include supplements, nutritional yeast and foods with added B-12, such as fortified soymilk or breakfast cereals.”
Tips For Starting A Plant-Based Diet
• Focus on vegetables: Make vegetables the focus of meals. Good options include lettuce and leafy green salads, roasted or grilled vegetables and vegetable sauces like tomato pasta sauce.
• Snack on plants: Munch on vegetables with a healthy dip such as guacamole or almond butter. Fresh and dried fruits make great snacks, as do unsalted nuts and seeds.
• Add plant proteins: Combine plant proteins with meats like beef and bean chili or egg and bean burritos.
• Try a Meatless Monday: Cook a vegetarian meal once a week.
• Rotate whole grains: From brown rice, farro, quinoa, oatmeal and more, explore the long list of whole grains. Grain bowls and grain salads are very filling.
Mediterranean Bean Salad
1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
3 celery ribs, finely chopped
1 small sweet red pepper, finely chopped
1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese, optional
In a large bowl, combine beans, celery, red pepper and onion.
In a small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, mustard, basil and pepper.
Add oil mixture to bean mixture and toss to coat.
Serve over lettuce and sprinkle with cheese, if using.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 250 calories, 10g fat, 570mg sodium, 31g carbohydrate, 2g fiber, 11g protein.
For recipes and more information about vegetarian and vegan diets, visit the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Oldways.