My family and I recently made the decision to primarily consume a plant-based diet after understanding the health benefits of reducing our meat consumption and increasing our vegetable intake. However, a vegetarian diet isn’t for everyone, nor is it the only way to reap the benefits of fruits and vegetables – even making small changes in your diet can greatly impact your overall health.
Below are a few reasons why a plant-based diet can help you to lead a healthier lifestyle. Even if you are not ready to fully commit to a vegetarian diet, there are still many ways you can increase your fruit and vegetable intake for improved health.
- Reducing or eliminating red meat from a diet reduces the risk of heart disease.
- A plant-based vegan diet (mainly comprised of raw fruits, vegetables, sprouts and nuts) has been proven to reduce diabetic patients’ dependence on diabetes medication. The plant-based diet showed an increase in weight loss and an increase in insulin sensitivity in diabetics.
- A diet rich in vegetables will provide you with a source of valuable vitamins, minerals, and natural substances such as fiber, folate, potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C. Fiber, found in many types of beans, has been shown to contribute to a decreased risk of coronary artery disease. Folate, found in asparagus, cooked spinach, and black eyed peas, helps reduce the chance of a woman having a child with brain or spinal cord defects. Potassium can help one to maintain a healthy blood pressure, and can be found in a variety of sources including prune juice, sweet potatoes and lima beans. Vitamin A helps to ward off infection by keeping the eyes and skin healthy. It can be found in carrots, kale, red peppers, and many other vegetables. Vitamin C can be found in a variety of both fruits and vegetables—it helps to heal cuts and wounds and maintain a healthy mouth.
- To incorporate more vegetables into your diet, consider your favorite dish and how you can add vegetables. Throw in some peppers, onions, tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms into your morning omelet or quesadilla. Add more carrots or green beans, for example, to your favorite soup recipes. Spice up your spaghetti or pizza by adding fresh tomato, bell peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, fresh basil or chopped spinach.
- Add vegetables to your grill this summer—don’t be afraid to marinate your vegetables with the same marinade you would use for your meats or other grilling items. Try grilling Portobello mushrooms, zucchini, asparagus or eggplant.
- You also have the option to drink your vegetables—tomato or carrot juice can be healthy alternatives to eating the vegetables raw. Choose 100 percent juice and low-sodium options.
- Finally, remember that by following a vegetarian diet or incorporating more vegetables into your daily meals, you need to continue to incorporate important nutrients into your diet that we typically associate with meat. This includes protein, iron, calcium, zinc and B12, among others. Many of these nutrients can be found in beans, eggs, nuts, dairy products, soy and breakfast cereal.
Even if a plant-based diet is not right for you, finding ways to include more vegetables in your meals can help to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, reduce risk of diabetes, limit weight gain and increase your nutrient intake. As with starting any diet or exercise plan, always talk with your primary care doctor before making any significant dietary changes.
Gregory Sweat, MD, is the Medical Director of the Shawnee Mission Physicians Group and practices Family Medicine at Shawnee Mission Primary Care - Prairie View Medical Building.