Plant-Forward Diet: Why It’s The Next Big Thing in Nutrition & Health
Diets rich in plants have long been touted for their health benefits, and recently, there’s been a renewed interest in plant-based diets. But for those who want to improve their health (or that of the environment) by eating more plants but without having to go fully plant-based, is there another option? Yes! Enter: the plant-forward diet.
What is a plant-forward diet?
At its core, a plant-forward diet focuses primarily on nutrient-dense plant-based foods but is not limited to them. This way of eating allows for you to consume meat, poultry, and seafood (without the sides of guilt and shame), but these foods are no longer consistently the main feature of your meals or your diet overall. It’s a role reversal of sorts—plant-based foods take center stage and animal foods are the backup singers.
Some might call this approach a “lazy vegetarian” or “vegetarian with benefits.” Some might go so far as to call it a cop-out. As a dietitian, I could not disagree more.
It makes me sad to hear clients, friends, and family members say they don’t eat many plant-based foods because they could “never be vegetarian.” The two are not mutually exclusive, my friend. You do not have to commit to a 24/7 vegetarian or vegan lifestyle to enjoy and reap the benefits of a plant-rich diet.
Plant-forward eating is a sustainable compromise that celebrates the evidence-based benefits of putting plants forward (from both a health and environmental perspective) and on consuming a wide variety of plant-based foods (and you’ll soon find out why).
Plant-forward vs plant-based
A plant-forward diet is essentially the new plant-based diet. When the term “plant-based” first went mainstream several years ago, it meant a diet that was mostly, but not entirely plants. Over the next few years, it would evolve to become synonymous with a vegan diet… as in, plants only.
But what about those of us who want to eat a plant-centric diet but not give up the Greek yogurt in breakfast, the occasional “dad’s famous burger”, or salmon Sundays? A plant-forward diet is the solution!
Meat less instead of meatless
With a plant-forward diet, the focus is on eating less meat, instead of going meatless, as there is no quality evidence to support the need to completely remove animal proteins from your diet for optimal health. As long as you put plants forward, of course!
Benefits of a plant-forward diet
There are numerous health benefits of eating less meat and more plants. A plant-forward diet supports:
- a healthy gut microbiome
- heart health
- weight management
- blood sugar control
- the environment
- and more!
Go plant-forward for your gut microbiome
Plant-based foods are your only natural source of fiber—my (second) favorite f-word! Certain fibers (known as prebiotics) act as fuel for your good gut bacteria, enabling them to survive, thrive, outcompete potentially pathogenic bacteria, and support countless processes throughout your body related to digestion and gut health, weight management, heart health, immunity, and much, much more. How? As these bacteria ferment (their way of “eating”) fiber, they gift us with their waste products or “metabolites” (sometimes referred to as postbiotics).
Although there’s still a lot we don’t know about the different health-promoting metabolites the bacteria can produce, we do know that an important group of them called short-chain fatty acids boasts quite a resume. They act as signaling molecules by binding to and activating cell receptors throughout the body that regulate fat storage, blood pressure, insulin secretion and blood sugar control, appetite, and cholesterol production—to name just a few things.
The short-chain fatty acid butyrate is of particular interest because it is the main source of energy for the cells lining your colon. You read the right—by feeding your gut bacteria their favorite fuel source (fiber), they’re able to produce fuel for the cells that line your gut so that they can function properly and maintain the integrity of your gut lining.
I’ve just barely scratched the surface here on the how a plant-forward diet can transform the gut microbiome. If you’re intrigued, I go into much greater detail in my new book, The Plant-Forward Solution: Reboot Your Diet, Lose Weight & Build Lifelong Health by Eating More Plants & Less Meat!
Go plant-forward for heart health
Many of the cardiovascular benefits of a plant-forward diet tie back to fiber. A higher intake of fiber is associated with lower body weight, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and improved blood sugar control in those with diabetes, lower cholesterol, and lower blood pressure—these just so happen to be the major diet-related and controllable risk factors for CVD.
And where this if fiber you will also find a variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other plant nutrients (aka phytonutrients) with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects tagging along. Many health benefits associated with fiber may partially be mediated by these sidekicks. For example, vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and polyphenols are found abundantly in fiber-rich plant foods and have all been linked to supporting a healthier heart.
A plant-forward diet is also lower in saturated fat since saturated fat is found primarily in animal-based foods. A high intake of saturated fat has been shown to increase well-known heart disease risk factors—notably, LDL-cholesterol levels (aka the “bad” cholesterol).
Go plant-forward for weight loss and blood sugar control
How might a plant-forward diet help with weight loss/management? Fiber for the win (again)! Indirectly, we know that high fiber intake can influence your gut microbiome’s composition and activity in a way that supports weight management. Directly, fiber essentially “fills you up without filling you out”. Once in the stomach, fiber is not broken down and absorbed like the other carbohydrate types (sugar and starch). Instead, a certain fiber type (soluble fiber) absorbs water to form a gel that slows stomach emptying and digestion, which keeps you fuller for longer, and entraps sugars, cholesterol, and fats, slowing their absorption into the bloodstream (even preventing some from being absorbed altogether).
Plus, since whole and less-processed plant-based foods are generally high in fiber and/or water and low in fat, they provide more bulk, weight, and/or volume in fewer calories, giving you more belly-filling bang for your calorie buck.
P.S. If you’re a recovering carbophobe like me and the thought of carb-rich foods sends shivers down your spine, check out my recent article: The Real Facts About Carbohydrates Explained: Mythbuster Edition.
Go plant-forward for the environment
Animal-based foods tend to be more resource-intensive than plant-based ones (there are exceptions, of course)—with beef and dairy being the heavy hitters here. Cattle release methane—a potent greenhouse gas (GHG)—through belching as well as in manure.
There is a growing consensus within the scientific community that reducing meat consumption could help mitigate the global climate and water crises as diets higher in plant-based foods than animal ones have been shown to carry a lower environmental footprint, in terms of GHG emissions and land, energy, and water use.
Bottom line: plant-forward diet
As you can see, there are numerous benefits of eating more plants and less meat, and I’ve just barely scratched the surface here on the benefits of a plant-forward diet.
This more flexible approach to eating that doesn’t require you to completely eliminate animal products is not only sustainable for life, but it can also support a healthier and longer life. It’s true, many trendy diets promise optimal health and longevity, but the only dietary patterns that a wealth of scientific evidence spanning decades supports actually deliver on these promises are those rich in healthful plant-based foods.
If you’re ready to experience a plant-forward diet for yourself, check out my new book The Plant-Forward Solution: Reboot Your Diet, Lose Weight & Build Lifelong Health by Eating More Plants & Less Meat, which includes more on the science behind a plant-forward approach, tons of plant-forward recipes, and a 28-day plant-forward reset!