When it comes to eating for good health, is it possible to enjoy the benefits of a plant-based diet without actually going ‘fully vegan’? It sure is, and it’s a growing trend called flexitarianism — or plant-forward eating.
We only have to take a quick look at Google to see how much interest in plant-based eating has surged over the past ten years. Searches containing the word ‘vegan’ have exploded by over five hundred percent in that time; and searches containing the term ‘plant based’ were practically non-existent back then!
And while people cite all kinds of reasons for going plant-based (from ethical concerns to environmental ones), one of the most commonly held beliefs is that a vegan diet is a healthy one — and when done properly, it can be! But a lot of the health benefits associated with veganism actually come from boosting the number and variety of plants in a person’s diet, rather than from removing the foods that come from an animal source.
So let’s take a look at the science behind boosting our health using the power of plants, even if we still want to enjoy meat, chicken, eggs, seafood and dairy in moderation.
Firstly, eating a diverse diet of colourful plants means consuming a wider variety of health-promoting nutrients. It just makes sense! A more varied diet means more varied nutritional intake, and a colourful plate of food will always outperform any multivitamin.
Think leafy greens for iron, which is used to help move oxygen around the body; citrus fruits and broccoli for vitamin C, which supports the immune system and promotes healthy skin; and of course carrots, well known for their vitamin A content, to support eye health. And let’s not forget the antioxidants in berries and olives, which protect cells from damage.
(These are just examples. The list could go on and on.)
There’s no one single superfood here; the key is variety. Lots of colour means lots of nutrition. It means better health and potentially less risk of certain lifestyle diseases like heart disease, obesity and some cancers.
The other reason plants are so powerful is fibre — and in particular, the types of fibre that feed the ‘good bacteria’ in the gut. We call these types of fibre ‘prebiotic fibre’ and research has shown that eating more of them can actually feed the beneficial microbes in our large intestines, which in turn may help to promote whole-body health.
So, as we can see, there are plenty of reasons for putting more plants on our plates. And luckily, there are loads of ways to go about it too.
Firstly, it’s time to forget the idea of a side salad, and to start making plants the heroes of our meals instead. We should fill ours plate with vegetables, whole grains and legumes before adding a serve of animal-based protein. You might also like to experiment with completely plant-based recipes on occasion, or consider Meat Free Mondays, where the whole family enjoys plant-based foods for one day each week.
There are so many ways to go about it. Choose the way that works for you, knowing you’re looking after your health. And for a more complete understanding of how many plants to put on your plate, check out this easy-to-understand summary of the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
And if you’re still in doubt, you might like to consider finding a registered nutritionist or accredited practising dietitian who can help you gain a better understanding of dietary targets and serving sizes that are appropriate for you and your goals.