Plant-based Does Not Have to Mean Vegan

There has been a lot of controversy and discussion surrounding the recent Netflix documentary Game Changers. This film, produced by James Cameron, touts the positive impact of a wholly plant-based or vegan diet on everything from the environment to overall health and body composition to athletic performance. This film stretched a lot of facts and led many to believe that by not consuming animal protein, they could achieve optimal health. I do not fully agree with this conclusion, but I do believe that one can still follow a plant-based diet that includes meat, poultry, fish, and diary.

There is a solid body of evidence based on scientific research that supports the inclusion of high-quality animal protein in the diet. My goal in writing this post is to present my viewpoint on this topic and give some advice on how to be healthy, environmentally conscientious, and maintain a plant-based diet while still consuming animal products.

How To Eat More Plants

Most of my patients report eating vegetables and fruits, but many are not eating enough to support their needs. One of the biggest benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet is the increased intake of plants, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. I recommend that my patients, regardless of whether they consume meat, aim to make 50% of every meal, including breakfast, a fresh vegetable. If the thought of eating vegetables for breakfast is not a pleasant one, then I recommend moving that serving to a snack, like carrots and hummus. Ways to accomplish vegetables at breakfast include throwing spinach or kale into a smoothie, adding peppers, onions, and mushrooms into eggs, or grating fresh carrots into oatmeal, alongside 2 tablespoons of raisins, 2 tablespoons of sliced almonds, and cinnamon. DELICIOUS. Lunch and dinner are more obvious. Think beyond salads and discover different vegetable soups, stuff a whole wheat pita with cucumbers, tomatoes, and greens, or roast broccoli, cauliflower, and butternut squash, which you can find pre-chopped for your convenience, and pair with leftover chicken breast from dinner. The easiest option is buying a vegetable tray, like the ones served at parties, and challenge yourself to finish the whole thing in five days. No chopping or prep work required! Fresh vegetables and fruits are the easiest thing to consume since you can eat most of them raw. Make sure they are visible in your fridge so you see them daily and remember to include them. Ensuring 50-75% of each meal is plant-based takes some forethought, but the payoff in terms of health and weight management is huge.

Portion Control of Protein Is Important

While protein is essential to life, and beef, eggs, chicken, fish, and dairy are some of the best sources with the highest bioavailability—this refers to the body’s ability to absorb and utilize the protein from the food source—portion control is important. Every person’s needs for protein are different depending on age, physical activity, athletic goals, body composition, and other factors. I normally recommend 3-6 ounces of protein per meal. Using a food scale and weighing the protein after cooking is the best way to identify if your portion size is close to this level. Remember: Just because protein is essential does not always mean more is better. Excessive protein consumption, while not detrimental to the health of most individuals, will lead to weight gain, just like the excessive consumption of fat and carbohydrates will lead to weight gain, so always be mindful of the amount you consume.

Support the Farmers Who Do It Right

Many of my patients have spoken to me about their rationale for becoming vegan, and one of the biggest reasons is the treatment of animals. I agree with the importance of humane livestock practices, but we must be careful when conducting science with a predetermined ethical bias. That goes for both sides of this debate. Holistically managed agriculture is a new type of farming that rotates animals and where they graze. These are free-roaming animals who live similarly to how they would in the wild. This style of farming is meant to be a carbon-neutral process, which will not harm the atmosphere as factory farming does. Holistically managed agriculture not only produces a better-quality product but is kinder to animals, better for the planet, and provides one avenue for a more sustainable food supply. I recommend getting meat from a farmers market so you can meet the farmers themselves, ask how they raise their animals, and maybe even visit their farm. Stores like Whole Foods are using animal welfare ratings to help educate consumers on how meat is raised and handled.

Documentaries like Game Changers are intended to make us question whether consuming meat is good for our health and the environment. I am hoping that we can focus more on what is proven to be true, which is that a diet high in plants and low in processed foods is beneficial. We know that protein is essential to life, health, and wellness and that the consumption of meat as part of a balanced diet will not harm our health. It is possible to consume an omnivorous diet while still protecting the environment and achieving optimal health. I think author Michael Pollen says it best, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

In Health & Happiness,  Jessica Murgueytio MS.RD.LD.CDE

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