What It Actually Means to Eat a 'Plant-Based' Diet (And Why It's Easier Than You Might Think)

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What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term “plant-based diet”?

If you’re like many of the 1,000 consumers who recently participated in a survey distributed by California Walnuts, words like vegetarian or vegan might pop into your brain first.

According to the survey results, about two thirds of respondents said they had heard of the term, but even still, more than half were confused about what it means and how it works.

“What they found was that there’s a lot of confusion about what it means and how to do it,” explained Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, R.D., a California-based nutrition and fitness consultant and representative for California Walnuts.

“People wondered about the hurdles and obstacles involved and whether or not it’s ‘too hard’ to do. And looking at definitions, consumers really felt not that it was off-putting, but that it was exclusionary versus inclusionary. Like, meat-free versus full of plants, plus…”

Bazilian said that those who were unfamiliar with or confused about the term, felt that it would be challenging to follow because it would take a drastic overhaul of their current diet and require a lot of willpower. 

“Some felt that it was all or nothing, like if you’re on plant-based you’re all in or you’re not in,” she said. “So there’s part of the hiccup when people are like, ‘I like my fish, or I like my eggs or I like my meat.’ Of course, that’s not the case, though.”

According to Bazilian, a plant-based diet—which is heavily referenced in the latest report on dietary guidelines from the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services—is not about only eating fruits and vegetables and completely excluding other food groups, but more so, simply adding more plant-based foods like seeds, nuts, beans and yes, fruits and vegetables into your daily meals when the opportunity presents itself.

“I call it ‘plant-amped,’” Bazilian said.  “I think plant-based is really about what’s in, not what’s out. So focusing on adding instead of subtracting is a really good way to go.”

Why such a huge emphasis on plant-based foods, though?

Essentially, by eating more whole foods you’ll increase your intake of important nutrients that support better overall health and even weight loss. Additionally, whole foods tend to help you feel full and satiated for longer, especially those that are high in fiber.

Not to mention, plant-based foods like vegetables and fruits are nutrient-dense, meaning they provide our bodies with the vitamins and minerals needed to function optimally. These nutrients also play a role in reducing your risk for chronic diseases.

Essentially, eating more veggies is one of the best ways to establish and maintain good health and also a healthy weight.

“These new dietary guidelines are to help form policy and help health professionals,” Bazilian explained. “The consumer materials that will come out of it may or may not define plant-based, I don’t know how deeply they’ll go into it, but the science supporting it is just incontestable.”

She continued, “It’s just stacking and stacking and stacking. And this came out of the survey, people are health-inspired, so they’re willing to make changes if they can feel healthier, live longer, lose weight—and there’s evidence to support it.”

What changes should you make, and how can you easily implement them into your already established diet?

Bazilian’s first and most important piece of advice is to just keep it simple.

“I always try to keep it simple—one meal, one food, one day at a time if I can,” she said. “To help my clients, I always see where they’re at first. I try to layer in foods first and try to encourage them to add a soup or salad to their day.”

Bazilian says it’s all about looking for opportunities to add one more veggie-based meal a day or maybe even just one plant-based food a day. Then, slowly start to add more until you’ve worked your way up to a level where plant-based foods are regularly a part of nearly every meal or snack you eat.

“Also with clients, I see if they like a food, and if they like it, I tell them to add it to their day and enjoy it,” Bazilian added. “And then all of these benefits start happening and then people are like, ‘Alright, give me another.’ The less nutritious foods start squeezing out naturally.

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