Are you trying to eat a more plant-based diet? Nutrition research has found that plant-based eating patterns are associated with lower risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, certain cancers and depression. In older adults, a plant based-diet can improve mental function and decrease the risk of frailty.

Are you trying to eat a more plant-based diet? Nutrition research has found that plant-based eating patterns are associated with lower risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, certain cancers and depression. In older adults, a plant based-diet can improve mental function and decrease the risk of frailty.

When you hear “plant-based diet,” you might think we are talking about a vegetarian or vegan diet. A vegan diet is devoid of any animal product, either eaten or used (as in wool or leather). A vegetarian diet will often include animal products like milk and eggs. However, a plant-based diet focuses on incorporating more whole plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, herbs and spices, into your regular daily diet. Plant-based diets still include meat, poultry, seafood, milk and eggs but in smaller portions.

There are many benefits to consuming a more plant-based diet. Decreased risk of disease is foremost, but there are other benefits, as well. Plants are nutrient dense, meaning they pack a lot of nutrition in a few calories, allowing you to eat the same volume of food and take in fewer calories. They are also high in fiber, which helps with gut health. Plants are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytosterols that all help to fight illness and disease.

Adapting a more plant-based diet can be done gradually. Following are some suggestions on how to begin.

Start slow. Think about meals you already enjoy and how they can be adapted to be meatless. Ideas might be an all veggie stir fry, a rice and bean burrito or pasta primavera.

Visualize your plate. Try to fill 3/4 of it with fruits, vegetables (including potatoes) and whole grains. Keep your meat portion to just 1/4 of your plate.

Start with a meatless breakfast and add a fruit or vegetable. Most breakfast meat is high in fat and salt, so eliminating the meat at breakfast is a good start. Try cereal with a sliced banana, yogurt with berries or scrambled eggs with mushrooms and spinach.

Eliminate most highly processed foods. Following a plant-based diet won’t be nearly as beneficial if you keep high fat, high sugar, high sodium foods in your diet. This includes processed plant foods like many of the meat substitutes that are available.

Cut down on your meat portions. Allow just two ounces of meat per serving when making a casserole. Or, substitute mushrooms or beans for the meat. Keep meat portions to about the size and thickness of the palm of your hand.

Try to go completely meatless one day a week. This might look like a veggie omelet with fruit for breakfast; a large meatless salad loaded with veggies and nuts with some whole grain crackers for lunch; and spaghetti with marinara for dinner.

Be creative! Think of ways to add more fruit or vegetables to your usual diet. Add berries or orange slices to your green salad; use mashed avocado on your turkey sandwich, instead of mayonnaise; try a sliced banana on your peanut butter sandwich; add beans to your soup or salad; dip your veggie sticks in hummus, instead of ranch dressing; or stir some chopped spinach into a soup or spaghetti sauce.

Add more whole grains. Snack on popcorn, instead of chips; find a whole grain bread, cracker or cereal that you like. Experiment with whole grains like barley, millet, quinoa or brown rice.

Add savory foods. Emphasize those foods that add a meaty complexity to dishes to make them more satisfying to meat lovers. Soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, mushrooms and nuts are examples of foods rich in that savory flavor.

Don’t worry about getting enough protein in your diet. It is extremely unlikely that you would become protein deficient, as most of us are used to eating far more protein than we actually need. Plenty of plants are good sources for protein, including beans, nuts and seeds. Dairy products and eggs are also good sources of protein.

It’s always surprising to me how many people I talk to that don’t eat even a single serving of a fruit or vegetable on a daily basis. Take baby steps each day to increase your intake of plant foods. Little by little, the benefits add up.

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