A recent article in the Washington Post noted that the number of new food and drink products that mentioned plant-based eating grew 268% between 2012 and 2018. There is no getting around it…plant-based eating, from oat milk to chickpea snacks, are filling the shelves of grocery stories.
I sat down with the Plant-Powered Dietitian, Sharon Palmer, to ask her about plant-based eating for the 50+ crowd.
What drew you to be the plant-powered dietitian? Did you grow up in vegetarian household or was it something you discovered in your studies in nutrition and dietetics?
I grew up in a mostly vegetarian household. My parents tried to follow a vegetarian diet for religious reasons, so I grew up eating a lot of healthy, home-made foods and some of the funky vegetarian foods of the 60s and 70s. I then went to school to study nutrition at Loma Linda University, which is a meat-free campus, even back in the 80s. This is the original Blue Zone*in the US. After school, I was more of a flexitarian—I never really had acquired the taste for meat, I always preferred plants. After that I became a pescatarian (one who eats fish) for a while, then moved back to lacto ovo (milk and eggs) vegetarian. About 7 years ago I took a 30-day vegan challenge so that I could personally understand this diet to counsel others. I found that I felt good about my own health and the minimal impact on animals and the planet. So, I’ve been moving along on this diet pattern ever since.
What’s the difference between vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based eating?
Plant-based eating originally was defined as a diet that focuses mostly on plant foods. However, in recent years, more and more experts, groups, restaurants, authors, food companies, and people are using the term plant-based to mean 100% plant-based, as in vegan. In nutrition research, the term is still used more broadly, however most people consider it to mean vegan. Vegetarian is a diet that excludes animal flesh but allows for dairy and eggs. Vegan excludes all animal foods in the diet, including dairy and eggs.
Many older adults, me included, grew up with meat at the center of the plate. How would you suggest we break away from that mindset?
I always suggest that making steps toward a more plant-based diet is a great start towards a healthful, sustainable eating pattern. One of the first things you can do is switch your thinking; not every meal has to have a piece of meat as the star. On a plant-based diet, the plants are the stars. I often start my meal planning with the plant food. For example, if I have a butternut squash in my kitchen, I start thinking about that as the star of my plate—perhaps I will stuff it with lentils and faro or use it in a thick stew with white beans and serve a side salad. The inspiration comes from the seasonal plants. Other things you can do: find plant-based swaps. If your favorite meal is spaghetti Bolognese, try a lentil Bolognese; turn your pepperoni pizza into a broccoli cashew pizza, and your meat lasagna into a kale lasagna. You can also turn to the wonderful variety of ethnic foods that are based on plants, such as falafel, hummus, tofu stir-fry, and Chana masala.
There is a lot of emphasis on quality protein for aging muscle; can older adults get high quality protein in a plant-powered diet and what are the best sources of protein to support muscle mass and strength?
There are many examples of high-quality plant protein foods—similar to the quality of animal protein. The star plant protein is soy—it is similar in quality to animal protein. In addition, pulses (beans, peas, and lentils) are high in quality, too. The important point is that if someone consumes a balanced plant-based diet, with adequate sources of a variety of plants—pulses, soy foods, whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds—they can get the all of the amino acids needed by the body from those foods. It’s not necessary to “combine” or “complement” proteins at each meal. However, it is important to make sure you are selecting a variety of protein-rich foods at each meal to ensure adequate protein intake. One note: vegans may need slightly more protein daily to accommodate for digestibility—the high fiber nature of many plant foods means that the proteins are not quite as digestible. So, it’s a good idea to get servings of protein-rich foods at each meal and snack. And don’t forego soy needlessly—this is a really important plant protein source for vegans. (For more information, see Today’s Dietitian for an article on plant proteins, written by Sharon.)
What are the benefits of plant-powered diets on chronic disease that affect many older adults ?
There is a good body of evidence that suggests plant-based diets, including vegetarian and vegan, are linked with a lower risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some cancers. There is more research coming out on issues such as arthritis, but there is not as much in this area—we need more research. It makes perfect sense that plant-based diets would help those suffering from arthritis as whole plant foods contain powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. Plant-foods can also lower cholesterol, C-Reactive Protein (CRP, a measure of inflammation), and blood pressure levels. A lot of the benefits of a plant-based diet are not as much about what you DON’T eat, it’s more about what you do eat.
How many daily servings of fruits and vegetables do you recommend? Many older adults are concerned about the sugar in fruit; how do you respond to that comment?
I recommend about 3 servings of unsweetened fruit and 6 servings of vegetables per day. I tell people that the natural sugars in fruits are not a problem—fruit should be your dessert at each meal!
Many older adults are weight conscious; how can a plant-based diet help them control calories?
Studies have consistently found that plant-based diets are linked with lower weights. In particular, vegan diets have been linked with a whole category of lowered body mass index (BMI) than non-vegetarian diets. However, diets that include a mostly whole plant foods, such as beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, are very high in fiber and volume, so they can fill you up and satisfy you with fewer calories.
What would you say to encourage an older adult to shift to a plant-based diet?
You can reduce your risk of disease—and even effectively manage diseases, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and hyperlipidemia. It can also help to reduce your carbon footprint. And, it can reduce your levels of chronic inflammation.
Give us 3 tips for those who want to adopt plant-based eating?
- Try Meatless Monday—just one day a week go plant-based for the whole day, once you’ve got this covered you can add a few more days.
- Turn your favorite meals into plant-based versions by swapping out some foods, such as meat for beans, chicken for tofu, and cheese for nuts.
- Try the power bowl formula: whole grains base + plant protein (tempeh, tofu, beans) + veggies + flavorful sauce.
Thanks, Sharon, for helping us understand plant-based eating; I would like to add another tip….check out Sharon’s terrific books, The Plant-Powered Diet and Plant-Powered for Life. Both books are on my shelf!
*For those of you who don’t know, Blue Zones are areas in the world with the longest-lived populations; I’ll write more about Blue Zones in a future post.