Eating “plant-forward” means making plants the center of your plate and reducing your intake of animal products. Find out why eating more plants should be a way of life.

You have probably heard the phrase “eat your vegetables” since you were young. Eating your vegetables may sound like an old-fashioned rule, but do not dismiss it: this simple advice is actually supported by scientific evidence and can have a major impact on your well-being.

Plant-based foods can have many benefits for your health, which is why more and more people are choosing to follow a plant-forward diet. Keep reading to explore what a plant-forward diet is, how it can help your body, and ways to make small, sustainable changes to include more plants in your daily life.

What is a plant-forward diet?

The growing popularity of diets with little to no meat has introduced various plant-based options, making it confusing to keep track of them all. Vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, and plant-forward diets all focus on consuming predominantly plant-based foods, but they are each different in their own way.

A vegan diet is a type of diet that consists solely of plant-based foods, eliminating any products derived from animals, including meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. Vegetarians, on the other hand, follow a mostly plant-based diet, but they may still consume dairy products and eggs. Flexitarians are vegetarians who occasionally eat meat or fish but primarily focus on plant-based foods. The term "plant-forward" refers to a style of cooking and eating that emphasizes the consumption of plant-based foods, without being strictly limited to them. In a plant-forward diet, meat may be included in meals, but it typically does not serve as the main focus of the dish.

The positive impacts of eating more plants

Let’s explore the potential health benefits of eating more plants by examining the research.

Plant-forward diets can improve body weight, cholesterol, insulin sensitivity, and liver fat

One study evaluated the effects of a low-fat vegan diet on body weight, insulin resistance, cholesterol, and fat in liver cells in 244 overweight adults over 16 weeks. The subjects were randomly assigned to either a low-fat vegan diet or a control group with no diet changes . The vegan diet consisted of approximately 75% carbohydrates, 15% protein, and 10% fat, and included vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruits without animal products or added fats. Health metrics were measured at baseline and at 16 weeks. By the end of the trial, the mean body weight decreased by 14.11 lb in the intervention group compared to 1.1 lb in the control group. Also, in the intervention group, total and LDL cholesterol levels decreased by 0.5 mmol/L and 0.4 mmol/L, respectively, while the control group showed no significant changes. Fasting plasma insulin concentration decreased by 21.6 pmol/L in the intervention group, with no significant change in the control group. And of the 44 participants who had their liver fat levels measured, the intervention group's liver fat content decreased by 34.4%, while the control group experienced no significant change.

Plant-forward diets can improve body mass index, body weight, fat mass, and insulin sensitivity

In one study, researchers investigated the impact of plant protein within a plant-based diet on weight management, body composition, and insulin resistance in 75 people with overweight or obesity throughout a 16-week randomized clinical trial. Subjects were randomly assigned to either a vegan or a control group, where the vegan group was asked to eat primarily vegetables, grains, legumes, and fruits while limiting daily fat to 20 to 30 g each day and avoiding added oils and animal products. Throughout the trial, the control group was asked to maintain their regular diet, including animal products. Both groups were assessed at baseline and again after 16 weeks.

While the control group’s daily plant protein intake did not change much for the duration of the trial (from 30.3 g to 27.1 g), the vegan group significantly increased their plant protein (from 31.5 g to 47.5 g). This was accompanied by significant changes in body mass index (-2 kg/m2), body weight (-14.33 lb), fat mass (-9.48 lb), and insulin resistance index (-1) that were only seen in the vegan group. Insulin resistance was calculated using the HOMA-IR, an index that measures how resistant the body is to the effects of insulin. A higher HOMA-IR indicates higher insulin resistance. The researchers concluded that for every 1 g decrease in animal protein intake, there was a corresponding 0.088 lb reduction in fat mass. Conversely, each 1 g increase in plant protein resulted in a 0.1 lb reduction in fat mass. In total, the average increase of 19.2 g of plant protein in the vegan group was connected to a 1.94 lb decrease in fat mass.

Plant-forward diets can lower the risk of colorectal cancer

A study assessed the relationship between vegetarian dietary patterns and the occurrence of new colorectal cancer cases among 77,659 adults. The subjects were recruited between 2002 and 2007 and completed a food frequency questionnaire where their diets were classified into four vegetarian dietary patterns (vegan, vegetarian with dairy and eggs, vegetarian with fish, and flexitarian) and one non-vegetarian. Over a 7.3 year follow-up period, state cancer registries were analyzed and revealed 490 new cases of colorectal cancer. It appeared that vegetarians fared better than non-vegetarians, having a 22% less risk of developing colorectal cancer than non-vegetarians. Specifically, vegans had a 16% less risk, vegetarians with dairy and eggs had an 18% less risk, vegetarians with fish had a 43% less risk, and flexitarians had an 8% less risk of developing colorectal cancer than those who included meat in their diets.

Plant-forward diets can improve gut microbiome diversity and abundance

An additional study compared the effects of vegan, vegetarian, and omnivorous dietary patterns on the gut microbiota in 101 healthy adults. The recruited subjects included 26 vegans, 32 vegetarians, and 43 omnivores who consumed both plant- and animal-based foods. The subjects were required to have maintained their respective diets for over 12 months. After completing a food frequency questionnaire over 14 days, the subjects provided a fecal sample that examined their microbiota profiles.

The researchers saw that bacteroidetes were more abundant in plant-forward eaters than omnivores. Bacteroidetes are bacteria in the gut that can provide protection from pathogens, help break down dietary fibers, and supply nutrients to other microbes in the gut. Also, microbial diversity was lower in omnivores than in those who primarily ate plants. Microbial diversity is used to describe the number of different bacterial species present in the gut. When the diversity of the microbiome decreases, it is considered an indicator of an unhealthy microbiome and has been linked to different chronic conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. While these specific differences among the subjects were found, the researchers did note that while the type of diet can influence gut bacteria, it does not necessarily define its exact composition. Lifestyle factors may have a greater impact on shaping our gut bacteria than just diet alone.

Plant-forward diets can improve risk factors for chronic disease and lower the risk of ischemic heart disease and cancer

A 2017 systematic review of 108 cross-sectional and cohort prospective studies investigated the relationship between vegetarian and vegan diets, risk factors for chronic diseases (body mass index (BMI), cholesterol, and blood glucose), overall death rates, and the occurrence and mortality of cardiovascular diseases and cancer. While the prospective cohort studies did not find that a vegetarian diet led to lower overall death rates or death from cardiovascular disease, a vegetarian diet was significantly associated with a 25% reduced risk of ischemic heart disease and a significantly lower risk of total cancer incidence in both vegetarians (-8%) and vegans (-15%) compared to omnivores. In addition, the cross-sectional studies saw that a vegetarian diet was significantly linked to lower BMI (-1.49), total cholesterol (-28.16 mg/dL), LDL cholesterol (-21.27 mg/dL), HDL-cholesterol (-2.72 mg/dL), triglycerides (-11.39 mg/dL), and blood glucose levels (-5.08 mg/dL) compared to omnivores. Similarly, a vegan diet was associated with lower BMI (-1.72), total cholesterol (-31.02 mg/dL), LDL-cholesterol (-22.87 mg/dL), and blood glucose levels (-6.38 mg/dL), but no significant differences in HDL-cholesterol and triglycerides compared to omnivores.

Plant-forward diets can improve systolic blood pressure

One systematic review with meta-analysis was done to compare blood pressure outcomes among vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores in 15 randomized controlled trials during which 856 subjects followed their diets for at least two weeks. The study found that the plant-forward diets had a significant impact on lowering systolic blood pressure compared to an omnivore diet, with a mean difference of -2.655 mm Hg. A vegan diet led to a greater reduction in systolic blood pressure (-3.118 mm Hg) compared to a vegetarian diet (-1.752 mm Hg). Likewise, the plant-forward diets significantly lowered diastolic blood pressure compared to control diets, with a mean difference of -1.687 mm Hg. A vegan diet led to a greater reduction in diastolic blood pressure (-1.920 mm Hg), while a vegetarian diet showed no change in diastolic blood pressure reduction. The study suggests that while both vegetarian and vegan diets are effective in reducing systolic blood pressure, vegan diets are effective in lowering both systolic and diastolic blood pressure than other types of vegetarian diets that include animal products like dairy and eggs.

Why eating plants is so beneficial

Plant-forward diets can be advantageous for health due to their high nutrient density and low levels of saturated fat. By focusing on whole plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, people can increase their intake of important vitamins, minerals, and fiber while reducing their risk of many health issues. In fact, one potential explanation for plant-forward dietary benefits is their high fiber content, specifically viscous fiber. Also known as soluble fiber, viscous fiber is a dietary fiber that dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance in the stomach. This gel-like substance can slow down digestion and increase feelings of fullness. This helps lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar levels, and weight loss. Foods rich in viscous fiber include oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley, and psyllium.

Plant-forward diets can also be helpful for weight loss because plant foods tend to be less calorie-dense and have less fat than animal-derived foods. Plus, plant-based foods contain beneficial compounds like polyphenols, phenolic acids, flavonoids, and alkaloids. Recent research suggests that consuming a diet high in these natural anti-obesity compounds can help inhibit weight gain.

Tips for eating plant-forward

Transitioning to a plant-forward diet can feel intimidating and overwhelming if you are trying to tackle it all at once.  So, ease into it!  Remember that plant-forward means you do not have to completely remove all animal-based foods from your diet if you prefer not to. The goal is simply to add more plant-based foods onto your plate. Here are a few tips to get started.

Start slow and start small.

There is no need to overhaul your entire diet in one fell swoop. In fact, doing so may be counterproductive. Instead, begin incorporating small plant-forward strategies into your diet by going meatless once a week. Try swapping your usual snacks for plant-based alternatives, like dehydrated vegetable chips instead of beef jerky or carrots and hummus instead of salami. And experiment with plant-based meat substitutes, such as plant-derived burgers or chicken. While these processed substitutes should not replace whole vegetables or plant proteins, they can help you enjoy the familiar taste of your meat-based meals while transitioning.

Let animal protein play a supporting role in your meal.

Rather than meat, think of vegetables as the star of your meal. You can do this by revitalizing your favorite meals, such as hearty stews or scrumptious lasagnas, and packing in some extra veggies while cutting back on meat. Experiment with new vegetables in your go-to dishes and discover umami-rich ingredients like mushrooms or nuts to mimic a savory “meaty” flavor. And if you have meat lovers at your table, you can always offer them a choice to add meat as a separate topping or sauce for their pasta.

Explore new ways to enjoy protein

It is time to debunk the meat-only protein myth! You might be surprised by how many plant-based foods can give you plenty of protein. Beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds are not only delicious but also rich protein sources. Just one cup of chickpeas has 15 g of protein. One ounce of almonds (roughly 23) contains 6.2 g of protein. And don’t forget about soy - think tofu, tempeh, and edamame. Just half a block of tofu has 23 g of protein.

The bottom line

Research shows that eating more plants and less meat may boost health in many ways, from aiding in weight loss to improving heart health and gut microbiome to regulating blood sugar and blood pressure, and reducing cancer risk. Plant-forward diets are rich in fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals that can help you feel full, energized, and satisfied. Whether you go vegan, vegetarian, or flexitarian, eating more plants can positively affect your health and well-being.