Plant-based diet? Well, here’s what it means

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Car­rie Den­nett Love­land Re­porter-Her­ald file

The con­cept of eat­ing a “plant-based” diet is tossed around fre­quently, but it’s a la­bel that can be con­fus­ing. Some peo­ple shy away from the no­tion be­cause they as­sume that plant-based is code for ve­gan. On the other hand, it’s easy to think that eat­ing all plants and no an­i­mals guar­an­tees that your diet is health­ful and nu­tri­tious. But does it?

The re­search in sup­port of plant-based di­ets is boun­ti­ful, which is likely be­cause of what they in­clude — vi­ta­mins, min­er­als, phy­tonu­tri­ents and fiber — as much as what they don’t — ex­cess sat­u­rated fat. But one lim­i­ta­tion of much of that re­search is that it de­fines “plant-based” as veg­e­tar­ian. Plant-based di­ets can take many forms, from ve­gan to veg­e­tar­ian to flex­i­tar­ian to om­ni­vore. The com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor is that they make plant foods the fo­cal point of the plate. If you choose to eat an­i­mal foods like meat, poul­try, fish, eggs or dairy, they play smaller, sup­port­ing roles.

The other lim­i­ta­tion is that the re­search tends to treat all plant-based di­ets equally, with­out re­gard to food qual­ity. The fact is that many peo­ple fo­cus on avoid­ing cer­tain foods but are blind to whether the rest of their diet is nu­tri­tion­ally ad­e­quate. This is one of the per­ils of de­mo­niz­ing spe­cific foods — no one food makes or breaks a diet, and it’s your over­all eat­ing pat­tern that mat­ters most for health and well­be­ing.

That’s not the mes­sage you get from many of the re­cent plant-based diet “doc­u­men­tary” (in other words, pro­pa­ganda) films. The lat­est, “What the Health,” blames an­i­mal foods for ev­ery ill known to man and woman. While ex­ces­sive amounts of an­i­mal pro­tein and fat aren’t good for us, that doesn’t mean that mod­er­ate amounts in the con­text of a plant-rich diet are harm­ful. An ex­ces­sive amount of any­thing isn’t good — even wa­ter — and a cup­cake is a cup­cake, even if it’s ve­gan.

A re­cent study pub­lished in the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Col­lege of Car­di­ol­ogy seems to agree. It found that when it comes to the plants you eat, qual­ity does count — and om­ni­vores have a place at the plant-based ta­ble, too.

The study, which came from the Har­vard T.H. Chan School of Pub­lic Health, in­cluded more than 200,000 women and men from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Pro­fes­sion­als Fol­low-up Study, aimed to get a clearer an­swer on both quan­tity and qual­ity of plant foods needed to see a ben­e­fit for health. This in­cluded the role of an­i­mal foods. Re­searchers mea­sured what pro­por­tion of each par­tic­i­pant’s diet was plant-based, and whether those plant foods were health­ful — veg­eta­bles, fruits, whole grains — or un­health­ful — sweet­ened bev­er­ages, re­fined grains, sweets.

They found that a diet rich in health­ful plant foods is as­so­ci­ated with a sub­stan­tially lower risk of de­vel­op­ing heart dis­ease, while a plant-based diet that em­pha­sizes lesshealth­ful plant foods is as­so­ci­ated with in­creased risk of heart dis­ease. Those eat­ing a nu­tri­tious plant-based diet while also be­ing more phys­i­cally ac­tive fare even bet­ter. In a 2016 study, the re­searchers found sim­i­lar re­sults for the risk of de­vel­op­ing Type 2 di­a­betes.

The study also supports the value of a plant-rich diet even for om­ni­vores. In­di­vid­u­als who ate the least plant foods were eat­ing about five or six serv­ings of an­i­mal foods per day, while those with the most plant foods were eat­ing three serv­ings of an­i­mal foods. This means that re­duc­ing — not elim­i­nat­ing — an­i­mal foods even slightly while in­creas­ing healthy plant foods has ben­e­fits for pre­vent­ing heart dis­ease and di­a­betes. This al­lows a lot of flex­i­bil­ity with eat­ing. The tra­di­tional Mediter­ranean diet fol­lows this pat­tern, as do other health­ful di­etary pat­terns from around the globe.

While as­so­ci­a­tion does not prove cause and ef­fect, there are var­i­ous phys­i­o­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms that may ex­plain the health ben­e­fits of a plant-based diet. Whole and min­i­mally pro­cessed plant foods are rich in vi­ta­mins, min­er­als, phy­tonu­tri­ents and an­tiox- idants, along with hearthealthy un­sat­u­rated fats and di­etary fiber. To­gether, this can pro­mote healthy blood pres­sure, blood sugar and choles­terol lev­els, while low­er­ing in­flam­ma­tion and nour­ish­ing your gut mi­cro­biota. To reap these ben­e­fits, here’s what to eat more of:

• Whole grains and foods made from whole grain flour

• Fruits and veg­eta­bles • Nuts, beans and lentils • Veg­etable oils (olive oil, canola oil, sun­flower oil) in dress­ings and for cook­ing

• Tea and cof­fee • Healthy an­i­mal foods like fish, dairy (other than ice cream) and eggs

At the same time, here’s what to eat less of:

• Fruit juices and sug­ar­sweet­ened bev­er­ages

• Re­fined grains and foods made from white flour

• French fries, potato or corn chips, and baked or mashed pota­toes

• Sweets (candy, pas­tries, desserts)

• Less-health­ful an­i­mal foods (but­ter, lard, meat, ice cream)

In this era of “free-from” foods (lac­tose-free, gluten­free, GMO-free), this study is a re­minder that for nu­tri­tion and health, what you do eat mat­ters as much as, if not more than, what you don’t eat.

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