For years, researchers have praised the health benefits of a plant-based diet, citing studies that show eating less meat lowers the risk of diabetes, heart disease and several other diseases.

For years, researchers have praised the health benefits of a plant-based diet, citing studies that show eating less meat lowers the risk of diabetes, heart disease and several other diseases. Yet according to a November 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just one in 10 Americans gets the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables — at least 1 ½ to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables.

Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean going vegetarian. It means that plant foods take up the majority of your plate, which leaves little room for processed foods. The Mediterranean Diet is a plant-based diet, as is the DASH diet.

There are multiple benefits to a plant-based diet, including the following five.

1. Protection from chronic disease. Seven of the top 10 causes of death are chronic diseases. Plants help protect against chronic disease in several ways. For example, eating more plants can help reduce blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Fiber-rich plants help improve insulin sensitivity and decrease insulin resistance, both of which protect against diabetes. Plus, plants are the best source for essential vitamins and minerals and are a unique source for antioxidants that help reduce the risk of cancer.

2. Improved skin. The high water content in plants helps keep your skin hydrated. Plants are loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and such phytochemicals as resveratrol, anthocyanin and lycopene, which promote skin health and collagen production.

3. Improved gut health. Evidence suggests that diets low in plants and high in animal products increase inflammation and disrupt the gut’s microbiome. Diets high in fiber will help keep you from constipation, lower your risk of colon cancer and increase the healthy bacteria in your system.

4. Weight control. Plants are nutrient-dense, meaning they contain an abundance of nutrients with few calories. The fiber and water content in plants can help fill you up without adding a bunch of calories. Epidemiologic studies indicate that, compared to diets with meat, vegetarian diets are associated with lower rates of obesity in adults and children.

5. Improved overall nutrition. The typical American diet is high in fat, sodium and calories, most of which come from highly processed foods. Increasing your fruit and vegetable intake will ensure that you are eating less fat and adding many essential nutrients lacking in the typical diet.

So, what’s the best way to start incorporating more plants into your diet? Following are some easy steps to try.

Try going meatless for just one day or one dinner a week. Replacing the meat with beans is an easy substitution.

Reduce your portions of meat every day. The serving size for meat should be just three to four ounces, so adjust your recipes accordingly. For casseroles, allow about two ounces of meat per person. Try a stir-fry with lots of veggies and just a little meat. Or make your usual spaghetti meat sauce with half the amount of hamburger and use mushrooms or other vegetables to make it hearty. Try a Portobello burger instead of a hamburger.

Be creative. Add fruit to your cereal or salad. Try mashed avocado on a sandwich instead of mayonnaise. Spread your peanut butter sandwich with applesauce or a sliced banana instead of jelly. Add some beans to your salad.

Avoid less healthy plant-based foods such as those made with white flour, sugar or artificial sweeteners.

Whole grains are plants, too. So incorporate more brown rice, quinoa, barley and whole wheat bread into your diet.

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