These days, many folks are choosing to go plant-based, even if it’s just some of the time. There is no true clinical definition of what ‘plant-based’ means, but most that are adopting this lifestyle seem to be cutting back on animal products like dairy, meat and poultry or eliminating animal products altogether. Instead, plates are being filled mainly with plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts, seeds and healthy fats.

What’s On a Healthy Plant-Based Plate?

If you look at how to build a healthy plate, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows you a plant-based, or as I like to call it, a plant-forward plate that can include animal foods. To create a balanced plate, half of it should be filled with fruit and vegetables, one-quarter with starches (including whole grains) and the last quarter should be filled with protein. The protein can be animal-based like lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs; or plant-based like beans, tofu, nut butter or lentils. The last part of the plate is serving with a glass of low-fat or nonfat milk or yogurt. Whether you choose animal protein to complete you plate or plant-protein — that plate is still filled with plants and both can fit into a healthy lifestyle.

About 90% of folks don’t meet their daily recommended amount of veggies, 85% don’t meet their daily recommended amount of fruit and most everyone doesn’t get their recommended daily amount of whole grains. We certainly do need to add plants to create better diets. But animal foods certainly also contribute healthy nutrients that are lacking in the diet such as iron from meat and poultry, and calcium and vitamin D from milk. What you choose to eat is up to you — there are many ways you can have a healthful diet. But when you do up your plants, there may be some changes you notice. Here are a few of them.

Improved Bowel Health

Registered dietitian nutritionist and author, Malina Malkani, MS, RDN, CDN explains that “when people start eating a plant-based diet that includes more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, the increase in fiber intake often leads to improvements in digestive health.” When you get enough fiber in your diet – most folks get less than half the recommended amount – it “helps stools pass easily and regularly through the intestinal tract which can help prevent constipation and hemorrhoids associated with straining during bowel movements,” Malkani says.

Improved Cholesterol Levels

Once you’re eating plant-based for several months, you may also notice improvements in your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. According to Malkani, “replacing animal-based foods with plant-based foods in the diet helps replace saturated fats in the diet with heart-healthy fats, which, in turn, helps lower blood levels of LDL cholesterol and supports cardiovascular health.”

Improvements In Some Micronutrients, But Not All

Adding more plants to your diet can increase some important micronutrients in your diet, which can be detected usually by a blood test. According to a modeling study published in Nutrients, people who doubled their usually consumed plant-based foods had improved intake of magnesium, iron, folate, and vitamins C and E. However, these folks were still lacking important nutrients including protein, calcium, and vitamins A and D. The 2020-2025 dietary guidelines for Americans identify calcium and vitamin D as nutrients of concern for all Americans in every life stage. However, when the study looked at folks who doubled their usual dairy intake of milk, cheese, and yogurt there were improvements in calcium, and vitamins A and D. This study shows us that the conjunction of animal foods (here dairy foods) together with plant-based foods can help close some of the nutrient gaps that are currently present among Americans of all ages.

Improved Gut Health

Thanks to an increased fiber intake folks who go plant-based may also start noticing improvements to their gut health. “This is due to the fermentation of some plant fibers by friendly intestinal bacteria which promotes the health of the gut microbiome and, in turn, may help promote immunity, reduce distress associated with some food intolerances, and may even improve absorption of essential nutrients including calcium, iron and magnesium,” says Malkani.

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