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House Call: Considering moving to a plant-based diet? Here’s what you need to know

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 3, 2020

A clean and healthy vegetarian lunch bowl.  (Dreamstime)
A clean and healthy vegetarian lunch bowl. (Dreamstime)
By Dr. Bob Riggs For The Spokesman-Review

My patients occasionally ask me about, and I frequently recommend moving to, a plant-based diet. During the stay-home order, many people have been experimenting for the first time with plant-based proteins rather than meat. If you’ve read my column, you know I encourage regular consumption of a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The health benefits are enormous.

I’m a proponent of plant-based diets. In fact, as I write this column, I am eating a bowl of brown and wild rice, pinto beans and olive oil. Research shows that plant-based diets lower the risk for heart disease, many cancers and other health problems such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

There are a number of different plant-based diets that are popular. The most studied related to heart health and brain health include the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet and the MIND diet. These diets feature foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and healthy oils like olive oil.

They have plenty of fiber, vitamins and minerals that help lower blood pressure and LDL (bad) cholesterol, reduce the risk of diabetes and help maintain a healthy weight. In other words, these diets are great for people with or at risk for heart disease. You can find the diets online along with their daily recommended allowances.

If you go completely off animal foods, you might need to take vitamin B12 and D supplements. The fiber found in beans, whole grains and fruits and vegetables helps most people’s guts to work better, lowers blood sugars and promotes a healthy gut microbiome.

It’s important to know that not all plant-based foods are alike, so your plant choices are important. For example, white rice is highly processed and depleted of many heart-healthy nutrients found in brown rice.

Fruit juice is not as nutritious as eating fruit since it often contains sugar and is stripped of the fiber and some of the vitamins found in fruit. On occasion, I’ve had patients who dropped meat but replaced them with chips and cookies and didn’t increase the beans and grains, and that doesn’t promote health.

Frozen fruits and vegetables are often cheaper than fresh and are more nutritious than canned ones. We are fortunate to live in a region that is rich with local fruits and vegetables for most of the year. Take advantage!

Consider talking to your health care provider about any major change you’re thinking about making for your diet, especially if you suffer from chronic diseases. Your provider will want to be in the loop to monitor how you’re doing and support you. For a few people, a pure plant-based diet doesn’t work for their body.

I have a patient who is very thin and has had a difficult time her entire life maintaining her weight. She tried a vegetarian diet because she felt strongly about wanting to stop eating meat. But she felt hungry all the time, had very little energy and lost significant weight. That’s not usually the case, but she felt better when she added meat and dairy protein back into her diet.

I also know that for all its benefits, not all of my patients will be completely satisfied with a plant-only diet. You don’t need to go completely vegetarian in order to get the health benefits of a plant-based diet. You can mix it up – maybe start by having 2-3 fewer servings of meat per week, having some meat free days and building from there. Your body will thank you.

Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.

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