Interest in plant-based diets has been growing, in part because of documentaries like Forks over Knives, the book The China Study, and even endorsement by President Clinton.

Interest in plant-based diets has been growing, in part because of documentaries like Forks over Knives, the book The China Study, and even endorsement by President Clinton. The latest diet survey for Americans show that we are eating triple the recommended amount of fat and added sugars, while just 15 percent of us are getting the recommended servings of whole grains, and only 59 percent eat the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables every day. This means we are missing out on important nutrients, like potassium, calcium, vitamin D and fiber, while eating too many calories.

Why is a plant-based diet recommended? Studies show that people who consume a mostly plant based diet can benefit from lowered LDL “bad” cholesterol levels, lower triglycerides, lower blood pressure, lower CRP (a marker of inflammation and disease risk), lower BMI (weight), decreased risk of death, improved blood glucose, and possible regression of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

All plant foods have fiber, which is needed for healthy digestion, constipation prevention and a healthy heart. Americans average about 15 grams of fiber in their daily diet; it’s recommended that we get 25 grams to 35 grams every day. Plant foods are nutrient-dense, meaning they provide a lot of nutrition in few calories. For example, an apple has about 80 calories and provides fiber, vitamin C, potassium, vitamin A, folate, calcium, and iron. By comparison, a donut gives you 200+ calories, fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugar.

Plants provide essential vitamins and minerals that have been shown to help prevent disease and decrease the risks of diabetes, heart attack, stroke and cancer. Antioxidants, which are necessary to fight off chronic disease, are unique to plants. Some plants, like nuts and avocados, do have fat, but it is a heart healthy kind of fat that our bodies need. In addition, there is something to be said for improving environmental health by choosing more plants, instead of animals.

However, there is some disagreement on what should be included or excluded on a plant-based diet. Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, believes a plant based diet can include some lean meats, egg whites and skim milk. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, director of the cardiovascular prevention and reversal program at Cleveland Clinic, and Dr. T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, recommend no animal products at all, along with no soy and no nuts. Then there are those that eat only raw plants (nothing cooked above 118 degrees), or those that allow dairy or eggs but no other animal products.

I think the best approach is a whole foods, plant-based, low-fat diet that encourages plants in their whole form; lots of fruits and vegetables; whole grains; inclusion of beans, nuts, and seeds; and limited animal fat from dairy and meats. Remember that following a plant-based diet won’t be beneficial if you do not cut back on highly processed foods containing sodium, added sugars and fats.

The concern people often have when starting a plant-based diet is that they won’t be getting enough protein or iron. It is extremely unlikely that you would become deficient in protein. We are used to eating more protein than we need from animal sources. There are plenty of plant sources of protein and iron, including beans, nuts, seeds and quinoa. A vegetarian diet is appropriate for anyone older than 2 years of age.

Ready to start? Following are some suggestions for increasing the plants in your diet.

Use your plate to guide you. Reserve half of your plate for fruits and vegetables; one fourth for a whole-grain pasta or bread, brown rice, potato or other carbohydrate; and one fourth for protein-meat, fish, poultry, egg or beans.

Try going meatless just one day a week, or even just one meal a week, to start with. Meatless Mondays is a campaign started by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to improve personal health and the health of the planet. The movement is gaining in popularity with more and more restaurants and schools participating. Visit for more ideas.

Reduce your portion sizes of meat and choose lean meats. Make a stir-fry with lots of vegetables and just a little meat. Use half as much hamburger in things like spaghetti, and replace the other half with mushrooms.

Think rainbow. Eating six apples a day doesn’t cut it. Eat a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables to reap the most benefits. Different fruits and vegetables provide different essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Be creative. Instead of jelly on that peanut butter sandwich, try applesauce. Throw some berries or orange slices in with your green salad. Use mashed avocado as a sandwich spread, instead of mayonnaise. Add some fruit to your bowl of cereal. Puree beans for a quick bean dip, instead of a sour cream based dip. Add some nuts to your salad, cereal or yogurt. Make a trail mix of nuts, dried fruit and whole-grain cereal. Use nut butters as a spread on fruits. Add beans to your salad or soup. Snack on popcorn, instead of chips. Next time you buy pasta or bread, try a whole-grain variety.

Little changes can make a big difference in your health. Get started today!

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.