Dietitian Blog, MNT Guidelines | Nov 11 2020

Plant-based diets: What’s all the hype?

bowl full of chick peas, herbs, slaw, tomatoes next to fork

Health care professionals continue to recommend a plant-based diet to help treat obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even reduce a person’s overall mortality risk. Foods derived from plants are often nutrient-dense, meaning they are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and low in calories. Enjoying a plant-based diet doesn’t prevent an individual from consuming animal products, but rather places plant-based foods in a more prominent role in the diet.

Following a plant-based diet can have numerous benefits including, reducing or improving chronic disease management, being budget-friendly, and having a positive environmental impact by reducing the need for unsustainable agricultural practices. If a plant-based diet has such a strong body of evidence supporting its use, then what is holding your patient or client back from joining the plant-based movement?

Common concerns about plant-based diets

A research study utilized a mail-in survey to analyze 415 randomly selected adults’ perceived barriers and benefits of consuming a plant-based diet. Even though most reported they were well-informed on the benefits of the diet, there were a few barriers that seemed to be shared by many respondents. The majority of the participants felt that they needed more information before adopting a plant-based diet or felt a lack of desire to change eating habits. Others felt that there would be a lack of plant-based options when eating out or plant-based meals would lack taste and palatability when compared to a Western diet. Armed with this information, dietitians can anticipate these common concerns and be prepared to address them with patients and clients.

“Enjoying a plant-based diet doesn’t prevent an individual from consuming animal products, but rather places plant-based foods in a more prominent role in the diet.”

Navigating potential nutritional deficiencies

When first introducing a plant-based diet to your patients or clients, ensure they have plenty of information. A big concern is that they will not be able to get enough protein, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. However, the majority of Americans who have nutritional deficiencies are eating a Western diet. To address concerns about inadequate protein intake, discuss complementary protein foods they are likely familiar with and enjoy. By combining certain plant-based foods, your patients and clients can consume all of the same essential amino acids that they would get from an animal protein. Easy dishes like, beans and rice or hummus and pita can provide all the protein they need from plant-based sources.

Certain vitamins and minerals may also be difficult to obtain without animal-based foods, but dietitians can work with patients and clients to get creative and strategic with food choices. Adequate calcium and vitamin D may seem difficult without including dairy products, however, promote plant-based sources including, tofu, dark leafy greens, plant milk, and even fortified cereal or orange juice. Vitamin B12 is the most common vitamin deficiency for vegans and vegetarians, so supplementation is often recommended. However, there are some non-animal sources of B12 such as, nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, and certain plant milk.

Ease your patient or client into incorporating more plant-based foods by counseling them on filling half of their plate with fruits and vegetables. Over time, encourage them to add in more plant-based foods to substitute for animal products. With an increase in plant-based foods, your patient or client will naturally increase their daily fiber intake. Remind them that, with increased fiber, they also need to increase their fluid intake. Adequate hydration can ease symptoms of gas, bloating, and even stomach cramps.

Prepare for success

For motivation and to demonstrate how delicious plant-based meals can be, provide recommendations to reputable cookbooks, websites, and social media pages. These ideas will help get patients and clients excited about trying new plant-based meals. Start with very simple recipes with a few ingredients and supply shopping lists featuring plant-based staples like, beans, plant milk, oatmeal, and frozen vegetables. For many individuals, the perceived cost of eating a plant-based diet is a barrier. However, the majority of plant-based foods are, in fact, inexpensive. Steer your patients or clients away from expensive processed foods, if the cost is a concern. If your client enjoys eating out, go over their favorite restaurant menus, and teach them how to choose a plant-based dish. With these strategies, all health care providers can support their client’s transition to plant-based eating.

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Karlsen MC, Pollard KJ. Strategies for practitioners to support patients in plant-based eating. J Geriatr Cardiol.2017;14(5):338-341. doi:10.11909/j.issn.1671-5411.2017.05.006
Lea EJ, Crawford D, Worsley A. Public views of the benefits and barriers to the consumption of a plant-based diet. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006;60(7):828-837. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602387.
Tuso P. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal. 2013;17(2):61-66. doi:10.7812/tpp/12-085.
Sara O'Brien, MS, RDN

About Sara O’Brien

Sara O'Brien, MS, RDN, is the Regional Access Manager for Nutricia North America. Previously she worked as a pediatric dietitian and clinical nutrition manager in both outpatient and acute care settings. She completed a combined bachelor's degree and dietetic internship at the University of Connecticut and a Master’s Degree in Dietetics at the University of Rhode Island. Sara is a specialist in pediatric nutrition and believes in an individualized patient-focused approach to nutrition

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