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Getting Started with a Plant-Based Diet

Mar 31, 2021 ● By Carrie Jackson
Headshot of Dr. Meena Malhotra, MD in her labcoat

Dr. Meena Malhotra, MD

Dr. Meena Malhotra is the medical director at Heal n Cure, an integrative facility in Glenview that specializes in functional medicine. Few factors are more important to our overall health than what we eat. The quality, quantity and cleanliness of our food can either prevent or cause disease. Plant-based diets have become quite popular recently, with people seeking to reduce their meat intake to improve their health, lower their carbon footprint or for ethical reasons. Nutrition is one of five pillars of health, and Malhotra recommends a plant-based diet to improve liver health, maximize nutrient intake, balance hormones and enhance the body’s ability to repair the ongoing damage. Still, there are many misconceptions about what exactly plant-based eating is and how to best achieve balance.


What are some myths about eating meat?

It’s ingrained in American culture that we need to eat meat at every meal in order to get adequate protein, but this is simply not true. Our ancestors would hunt animals to consume occasionally, but spent most of their time gathering—eating nuts and seeds and berries. That’s how we’re genetically wired. It is quite easy to get all the nutrients you need from a plant-based diet if you think of a rainbow when preparing your meal. Find fruits and vegetables in every color to get the full spectrum of phytonutrients such as purple cabbage, orange peppers, yellow squash, leafy greens and red berries. The focus should be on whole foods that have not been processed or genetically altered. I tell my patients that if it comes from a plant, eat it, and if it’s made in a plant, don’t. Technically, products such as refined sugar, white flour and certain vegetable fats can all be labelled "plant-based," but they are devoid of nutritional benefits and obesogenic. There is room in the diet for unprocessed meat, dairy and eggs, but it should free of chemicals and locally sourced, if possible.


What are the health benefits of a plant-based diet?

Eating a variety of vegetables, fruits and other plant-based foods can help support every system in your body. They contain soluble fibers that nourish the helpful microbial community in the colon to optimize gut balance and health. They also have insoluble fiber that slows the absorption of food, promoting satiety and better glucose control and elimination of waste from the intestinal tract on a regular basis. They are rich in antioxidants, prebiotics, probiotics, anti-inflammatory nutrients and phytochemicals that may reduce oxidative stress, support the liver to promote efficient biotransformation and detoxification, and boost overall immune system function. Plant-based foods also contain micronutrients that can lower your risk of cancer and other diseases.


Why is a meat-heavy diet harmful?

Most farm animals are given antibiotics and extra-high dosages of hormones to fatten up quickly. When we consume those products, that can lead to weight gain, fatty liver, hormonal imbalance and insulin resistance. Since hormones are fat-soluble, they reside primarily in the fatty part of an animal product such as the egg yolk, marbled red meat or skin of the chicken. Consuming too much of this can result in high cholesterol, heart disease, obesity and other preventable conditions. Red meat especially has been tied to stomach, esophageal and colorectal cancer. It’s also calorically dense, so it’s easy to go overboard. With a plant-based diet, which tends to be high in fiber and more nutritionally dense, people can eat larger amounts and not worry about gaining weight.


How can people start transitioning to a plant-based diet?

Start by eliminating meat from one meal a day, and in the rest of the meals, make your plate at least half vegetables. Try new recipes and methods of cooking. Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean just eating salads. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different grains, like bulgur, quinoa, farro and freekeh, and proteins such as lentils, seitan and chickpeas. Organic and non-GMO soybeans are considered a whole source of protein, which means they provide the body with all the essential amino acids it needs. Make sure you have staples like beans, olive oil, rice and oats on hand, and look for recipes from different cultures. A number of Indian, Mediterranean, African and Asian dishes are plant-based and have robust flavors. in addition to anti-inflammatory spices such as turmeric.

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Carrie Jackson is an Evanston-based writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. Connect at