DECATUR, Ill. — Whether it’s due to health concerns, ethics or sustainability, American diets are changing. While only 6% of Americans are vegetarian and 3% vegan, almost 40% are shifting toward eating more plant-based foods according to a 2018 Nielsen Report.

Plant-based diets are trending. The Mediterranean Diet – a meal pattern with a high proportion of plant foods – was ranked the “Best Overall Diet” in 2020 by The U.S. News & World Report. And the Produce for Better Health Foundation is encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables with their “Have A Plant” campaign.

“It’s a way to get people stressing less about ‘I have to eat healthy,’ but thinking more about ‘If I can just eat more plants,’ ” said Caitlin Mellendorf, University of Illinois Extension Nutrition and Wellness Educator and registered dietitian.

Vegan, Vegetarian & Plant-Based

The terms vegan, vegetarian and plant-based are often thrown around interchangeably, but each diet includes plenty of plant-based foods with variations based on personal preference.

  • Plant-based: Proportionally includes more foods from plant sources.
  • Semi-vegetarian/flexitarian: Plant-based, occasionally includes eggs, dairy and meat products.
  • Vegetarian: Plant-based, excludes animal flesh foods.
  • Lacto-ovo: Vegetarian, but includes eats milk, dairy and eggs.
  • Pescatarian: Mostly vegetarian, but includes seafood.
  • Vegan: No animal foods or products.

“Shifting toward more plant-based foods is trending,” Mellendorf said. “In the research, we see regularly the reiteration that people who eat more produce have better health.”

Nutritional research shows that diets centered around plant-based foods, such as the Mediterranean or vegetarian diets, have a variety of health benefits. In 2016, the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics confirmed that appropriately planned vegetarian and vegan diets are nutritionally adequate for everyone from pregnant women to children to athletes. These plant-based diets reduce risks of health conditions such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain types of cancer and obesity.

Plant-based diets are high in fiber and provide all the nutrients our bodies need when planned well. Vegetarians may rely on some animal foods for their daily protein needs. Both vegetarians and vegans use plant-based protein sources such as beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy foods and protein powders.

“Because all animal foods lack Vitamin B-12, vegan diets are missing this nutrient,” Mellendorf said. “Vegans should include supplements, nutritional yeast and foods with added B-12, such as fortified soymilk or breakfast cereals.”

Tips for starting a plant-based diet

  • Focus on vegetables: Make vegetables the focus of meals. Good options include lettuce and leafy green salads, roasted or grilled vegetables and vegetable sauces like tomato pasta sauce.
  • Snack on plants: Munch on vegetables with a healthy dip such as guacamole or almond butter. Fresh and dried fruits make great snacks, as do unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Add plant proteins: Combine plant proteins with meats like beef and bean chili or egg and bean burritos.
  • Try a Meatless Monday: Cook a vegetarian meal once a week.
  • Rotate whole grains: From brown rice, farro, quinoa, oatmeal and more, explore the long list of whole grains. Grain bowls and grain salads are very filling.

Mediterranean Bean Salad (4 servings)

  • 1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
  • 3 celery ribs, finely chopped
  • 1 small sweet red pepper, finely chopped 1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar 1 Tbsp Dijon mustard 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • 1/8 tsp pepper Shredded lettuce
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese, optional
  1. In a large bowl, combine beans, celery, red pepper and onion.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, mustard, basil and pepper.
  3. Add oil mixture to bean mixture and toss to coat.
  4. Serve over lettuce and sprinkle with cheese, if using.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 250 calories,10g fat, 570mg sodium, 31g carbohydrate, 2g fiber, 11g protein.
 

For recipes and more information about vegetarian and vegan diets, visit the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and Oldways.

The University of Illinois Extension Nutrition & Wellness program encourages individuals, families and communities to live healthier through online and in-person skill sharing. Learn about managing diabetes, safely preserving foods, being food-safe at home and making healthier choices when shopping, cooking and meal planning. Find us on Facebook or Twitter.

30-second PSA – Americans diets are starting to change for the better with 40% of people trying plant-based diets. Adding more fruits and vegetables to your plate is an easy way to eat healthier says University of Illinois Extension Educator Caitlin Mellendorf. Research shows plant-based diets reduce risks of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and depression. To try a more plant-focused diet, go for leafy greens like spinach, kale and collards. Cook a vegetarian meal once a week. When planning your meals, start with vegetables as your centerpiece and include smaller portions of meat.

Source: Caitlin Mellendorf, MS, RD, University of Illinois Extension, Nutrition & Wellness Educator serving DeWitt, Macon, and Piatt Counties, (217) 877-6042.

News Writer: Emily Steele, Publicity Promotion Associate

Contact

Caitlin Mellendorf
Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness
Macon Extension Office
3351 N. President Howard Brown Blvd., Decatur, IL 62521
(217) 877-6042