Q: What exactly is a plant-based diet? I hear about this for cancer prevention but am confused.
A: In general, when you hear the phrase plant-based diet it means that the majority of what you eat comes from plant foods – vegetables, fruits, grain products, beans, nuts and seeds. Some people or groups use the phrase to mean a vegetarian diet (with no meat or poultry), or even a vegan diet (with no animal products at all). A plant-based diet – whether or not it’s vegetarian – is at the heart of nutrition recommendations to promote overall health and reduce cancer risk. This allows us to get plenty of the plant foods that supply dietary fiber and nutrients and phytochemicals, while more easily managing our weight as we fill up on foods that are generally relatively low in in calories.
If someone chooses to include meat, fish or dairy products, these foods play a supporting, rather than starring, role. Although highly processed foods like chips, crackers and pastries may technically be plant-based, these foods won’t provide the health benefits from whole and minimally processed foods and can lead to eating more calories than you need. So, choose a balanced, predominantly whole-foods, plant-based diet to help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.
The New American Plate from the American Institute for Cancer Research is a good model that can help you implement a plant-based diet to lower risk for many cancers. In this model, at least two-thirds of your plate is filled with plant foods like vegetables, whole grains, beans, and fruit. The rest of your plate, one-third or less can contains animal foods like fish, poultry, meat or dairy products. This is a flexible way to enjoy more colorful plant foods, yet incorporate more modest amounts of meat and dairy.
For help working towards a plant-based diet, sign up for the New American Plate Challenge, a free 12-week weight loss program focusing on eating smart and moving more.