The First and Only Interpretive Definition of “Plant-Based Diet”
Plant-Based: What does this mean? How do you know you are doing it?
These questions have nagged at me a great deal over the past few years because this is the single most important piece of advice given by all variety of longevity studies from the China Study to the Blue Zones. The words are thrown out there all the time with no definition. Even I, an expert in nutrition, do not know exactly what they are saying. Now you and I know that French fries, sugar and soda are plant-based. Surely we need to be more specific than that! Does it mean “no animal products whatsoever”, as in vegan? Well that is not how Blue Zone communities eat. Not a single one is vegan. Is it amount by weight? Is it proportion of calories? Let’s see how Nicoya and other Blue Zones compare to our Standard American Diet on these two metrics.
What is a “Plant-Based” Diet: Blue Zones vs USA?
Based on Calories:
The average person in the US gets about 70% of their calories from plants while Blue Zones get about 80% of their calories from plants. In practical terms, it is more important which plants and in what form. Americans need to eat more unrefined, whole plant foods, especially low-glycemic vegetables and less baked goods and sugar. But in terms of the proportion of total calories, only replacing 10% of their animal food with plant food will match Blue Zone levels.
Based on Weight:
The average person in the US gets about 2/3 of the weight of their food from plant products where Blue zones get 70% to 90% of their food from plants. This is starting to paint a clearer picture because the plant foods with lots of weight but few calories are low glycemic vegetables followed by fruit, high glycemic vegetables and cooked beans and grains. Sugars, sugary foods, fried foods (donuts and French fries) have a lot more calories per ounce and per milliliter of volume as well. Volume is important because it produces a sensation of fullness by stretching your stomach. This is the idea of “calorie density”, eating more food and feeling full while consuming less calories.
Based on Protein Contribution:
I have previously noted that Blue Zones eat a similar amount of protein per kilogram of body weight to people in the US. To be very clear, this research has not supported the idea that people in the US to eat too much protein nor more than Blue Zones. What is important is where the protein comes from! Blue Zones get more of their protein from plants, especially beans but also nuts. People in the US get about 65% of their protein from animal sources while people living in Blue Zones traditionally get 40% to 50% of their protein from animal sources.
What Can I Do Today?
Reduce your animal protein consumption by 1/3. US Women average about 7 ounces of animal protein per day so reduce to about 5 ounces of meat, fish, eggs and cheese a day and replace the other 2 ounces with 1/3 cup of cooked beans with each meal (yes, including breakfast!), 1 cup of cooked beans per day! US Men consume about 10 ounces of animal protein per day and would need to reduce to 7 ounces per day. Men need about ½ cup of cooked beans with each meal or 1 ½ cups per day to replace the animal protein. In addition, women should add 1 ounce (1/4 cup) of nuts and seeds to your daily routine and men should eat about 1.5 ounces per day or about 1/3 cup.
This gentle nudge of shifting 1/3 of your protein from animal sources to plant sources will align you perfectly with the blue zones and achieve the intention of a “plant-based diet”.
Beans and Legumes:
Beans, legumes and pulses are enormously nutritious beyond their protein content. As a nation, the US has essentially forgotten about this food group. Soy is fine if non-GMO and organic but soy is part of this larger food group that in its entirety is so very health promoting. Legumes are rich in fiber, folate and minerals. I see an entire series of blogs ahead on the joy of eating beans and recipes that include them in creative and delicious ways!
Nuts and Seeds:
Again, this group of “plant embryos” are so packed with nutrition that we as a nation largely ignore. While rich in protein and fiber, this group also contains healthy fats and oils. They are practically the sole source of vitamin E which we all are deficient in, everyone! Though you would generally think of almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and flax, so too are chocolate, coffee and coconut in the nuts and seeds category. There are also two fruits which, from a nutrition profile perspective align more with nuts and seeds than fruit, olives and avocado. This category also inspires many possible future blogs with endless possibilities for delicious ways to get your nuts and seeds in every day!
I sure hope this has been helpful to you because the investigation was certainly helpful to me. Having an engineering background means I need numbers! I need to know how words translate into action. I bet you do to!