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March is National Nutrition Month – The Power of a Plant-Based Diet

By Monique Richard, MS, RDN, LDN

Plant-Based DietIt’s National Nutrition Month and I want to shout from the rooftops about the goodness and need for incorporating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins (and water) into our daily diets. It’s time to STOP going ‘on a diet’ and start thinking about your diet as overall choices you make for your health. . . at every meal, every day. When you incorporate these changes according to your individual needs (as advised by your registered dietitian, nutritionist and physician), the changes begin to happen almost immediately—more energy, weight management (loss or gain), blood glucose control, better systemic functions, more sound sleep, radiant skin and so much more. . . things you may not even be able to see or feel.

The evidenced-based research on the impact a vegetarian, or plant-based diet, cannot be refuted. Physicians have seen coronary artery disease reversed, lab markers for diabetes significantly altered, and medications for high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes reduced or eliminated entirely.

Plant-based diet expert Brenda Davis, RDN stated at the first annual Plant-based Prevention of Disease conference in Asheville, NC, “The science is complicated, but the solution is simple. The research on the power and positive health outcomes of a whole foods, plant-based diet has been around for years and years, but if we don’t give our patients and clients the option to go that route, the answer will automatically be a ‘no.’” Davis, a key player in a major diabetes intervention research project in Majuro, Marshall Islands and co-author of nine books, has seen first-hand the dramatic changes on an entire population implementing a plant-based diet.

Let’s see what that looks like and dispel some, often incorrect, perceptions. Plant-based diets can be healthy and adequate for all ages if done correctly. Children and adolescents’ age groups are no exception. The amount of calories each person needs as well as percentage in each macronutrient category (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) is essential to making sure needs are met. Next, micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) and fluid needs also should be assessed and met.

Protein, Carbohydrates, and Fat
Yes, I know what you’re thinking, “Where do you get your protein and can you get enough?” The resounding answer is “Yes.” Vegetarians and vegans can easily meet their protein needs. Most Americans consume two to three times the protein that they need daily; if the body isn’t using it and runs out of storage spaces, the protein will be broken down and stored as fat. Instead of protein from animal sources like chicken, turkey, eggs, or beef you can get it from legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), soybean products like tofu, tempeh, vegetables, quinoa, seitan, and nuts. The legumes and beans are nutritional “powerhouses,” as they contain many essential vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber, are satisfying and very easy on the purse strings.

Carbohydrates come from fruits, vegetables (yes they are a carbohydrate!), and whole grains (brown rice, whole wheat breads, ancient grains, and bulgur). Healthy fats like those in olives, canola, sunflower and olive oils, nuts and nut butters, and avocadoes are very important to our diets, but again keeping it to a minimum and not going overboard is the focus.

Remember though, just because a vegetarian swears off hamburgers and pepperoni pizza doesn’t mean potato chips and cheese pizza are healthier or more nutritious. Getting a variety of these macronutrients in the right amount from whole foods is key to getting all the necessary nutrients.

Vitamins and Minerals
Calcium and Vitamin D
Calcium and Vitamin D are very important for everyone. Bone density is determined in adolescence and young adulthood and Vitamin D and calcium help build strong bones and support growing bodies. Therefore, including good sources of calcium in our diet every day is necessary. Good sources of calcium include: tofu made with calcium sulfate (refer to the label), figs, beans, tahini (sesame butter), green leafy vegetables (collard greens, mustard greens, and kale), and calcium-fortified soymilk, ready-to-eat cereals, and orange juice, which are often fortified with Vitamin D, as well. Vitamin D is also made in the skin from sunlight—just 15-20 minutes of natural sunlight exposure is sufficient.

Vitamin B12
If you continue eating eggs and low-fat dairy products (a lacto-ovo-vegetarian, lacto-meaning milk, ovo-meaning eggs), Vitamin B12 should not be of concern as you should be getting the required amount. Good sources include Vitamin B12-fortified foods—nutritional yeast, soymilk, meat analogs or ready-to-eat cereals. Be sure to read the labels. If you decide to be a vegan (no animal products), however, then a Vitamin B12 (cobalamin) supplement is recommended of no more than 100 percent of the Daily Value.

There are a variety of reasons an individual chooses to follow a plant-based diet, or become a vegetarian. From refusing to contribute to factory farming practices, staving off heart disease or related health problems, to helping contribute to a more sustainable and “green” environment, as well as religious practices, to taste and tolerance preferences.  No matter the reason for choosing a plant-based diet, it can be a healthy, beneficial, and enjoyable choice for you, your family, and all ages alike.

To get started or stay on track, you can check out these trusted websites and resources:
• The Vegetarian Resource Group –
• Physicians Committee for Responsible
Medicine on vegan diets

Information provided by Vegetarian Nutrition, a dietetic practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Accessed January 23, 2015.

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