By Caroline Young Bearden, MS, RD, LD, RYT
Cheeseburgers. Steak. Corndogs. Lunch Meat.
That’s what pops up when you Google “American Cuisine.”
However, while the U.S. population still gets most of their protein from animal sources (meat, poultry and eggs), there is no doubt that plant-based eating is a growing trend in our country. And plant-based protein sources, including peanuts and peanut butter, lentils, beans, seeds and soy products are becoming more popular, and for good reason.
For instance, eating more unsaturated fats (in plant-based proteins like peanuts) than saturated fats (in animal proteins) can lower the risk of heart disease and improve healthy (HDL) cholesterol levels. And plant-based foods (including peanuts, beans, vegetables, etc.) have fiber, which helps with digestion and weight maintenance, and can lower your risk of some diseases. One ounce of peanuts gives you 10 percent of your Daily Value (DV) for fiber.
All Foods Fit in a Plant-Forward Diet
While plant-based eating is taking off, there is a simultaneous shift happening in how people view food. There is a growing interest in eating a balanced diet that includes room for indulgence, while restrictive and unsustainable diets are losing their appeal. With that, there is a new wave of registered dietitians taking a “non-diet approach” to helping their clients eat a nutrient-dense diets that honor their physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
So, eating a diet rich in plant-based foods does not need to be extreme or restrictive in order to be nourishing. Instead, it can be plant-forward, where there is an emphasis placed on fruits and vegetables, whole grains and plant-based proteins like peanuts. At the same time, there is room for your Saturday date night cheese plate and your lunchtime chicken teriyaki.
And there’s a scientific reason why the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend we focus on a variety of foods and to include all food groups in our diet. A nourished body and mind requires all macro- and micronutrients found in proteins, grains, fruits and vegetables and dairy foods. The guidelines also encourage balance and flexibility within the diet, which includes protein sources from both plant- and animal- based foods.
Of course, there are circumstances like lactose intolerance or celiac disease where people need to work with registered dietitians to tailor their diets and make sure they meet all their nutrient needs. And it is possible for vegetarians and vegans to receive adequate nutrients, but they typically need to eat more fortified foods and may need to supplement with vitamins like iron and B12.
Baby Steps May Take You Far
Recent research and recommendations suggest you don’t need to give up your Saturday morning scrambled eggs or occasional hamburger to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet.
In fact, taking small steps to replace some animal-based protein foods with plant-based sources could make a positive difference, as suggested by a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
For example, the 2016 study, which included a sample size of over 131,000 people, concluded that substitution of plant protein for animal protein, especially from processed red meat, may result in substantial health benefits. The study found that when just three percent of energy (or calories) from plant protein was subbed for the same amount of protein from processed red meat (like bacon, deli meat, or hot dogs), there was an association with reduced mortality. To put it into context, in a 2,000-calorie diet, three percent is not a lot of calories – 60 to be exact. That’s as easy as swapping your beef jerky snack for a peanut snack, your turkey sandwich for a peanut butter sandwich, or your bacon for soy sausage or tempeh.
Note that it was an observational cohort study, which is not the gold standard in research, or a double-blind randomized trial, therefore a cause-and-effect result was not found. This doesn’t mean that if you keep your weekly bacon habit, you’re going to shorten your life. It just means that including more plant-based proteins, like peanuts, in your diet can benefit your health, and it doesn’t take an entire diet upheaval to do so.
Check out some “plant-forward” recipes to try:
Want to know more? Click here to learn more about protein sources and your protein needs.