If you could improve your diet in one step, eating more plant-based foods would be at the top of the list.
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes are rich in phytochemicals, which may help fight cancer and heart disease. They’re also full of fiber to make you feel full and nourished, which can help with weight loss.
“The combination of fiber and phytochemicals from whole plant-based food sources that are nutrient dense and satiating have independent effects on things like cholesterol and blood pressure,” Maya Vadiveloo, assistant professor of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Rhode Island, told TODAY.
People who most closely follow plant-based diets seem to be protected from dying prematurely from chronic diseases, a review of studies published last year found.
But most Americans still don’t eat enough plant-based foods, experts noted.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the unhealthy foods out there taste good, and also those tend to be what’s most convenient,” said Alexis Supan, a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine in Lyndhurst, Ohio.
“It’s really, really, really easy for me to run out and get a burger and fries right now. It’s not as easy for me to run out and get a healthy salad or just any form of tasty, healthy vegetables.”
You don’t have to be a vegetarian or vegan to enjoy the benefits of a plant-based diet. Here are some of the top choices nutritionists eat every week:
This food was on the list of every expert TODAY interviewed. Beans are packed with nutrition, including magnesium and fiber. Legume consumption is also associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
Beans are versatile, fit into any budget and are easy to prepare, whether you buy them canned or dried. Vadiveloo, who particularly likes black pinto beans and chickpeas, soaks them over the weekend so she can easily add them to tacos, salads or pasta dishes on a weeknight.
If you buy canned beans, rinse them to remove some of the excess salt, she advised. Hummus is another way to enjoy beans.
“This tuber is inexpensive and plentiful in my ‘neck of the woods’ — North Carolina is the main producer in the U.S.,” said Elisabetta Politi, a clinical dietitian at the Duke Lifestyle and Weight Management Center in Durham.
Sweet potatoes have a naturally sweet flavor, which is further enhanced through roasting, and they’re one of the top sources of beta-carotene — a precursor to vitamin A and anthocyanin, a phytochemical. Studies have shown sweet potatoes promote metabolic control.
The piquant pickled cabbage was Supan’s top choice. “It’s really great for gut health and just very tasty, especially if you like spicy stuff,” she noted.
As a fermented food, it naturally contain probiotics and is loaded with vitamins A and C; and minerals such as magnesium, calcium and selenium.
A handful of nuts a day is recommended to help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, said Isabel Maples, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Walnuts may be a particularly good choice. Besides offering plant-based protein, fiber and healthy fats, they contain a trio of minerals — manganese, copper and magnesium — that also help maintain bone health, she added.
“I eat peanut butter pretty much every day, whether it’s at breakfast with a dollop in oatmeal, or on toast, or even a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread,” Vadiveloo said.
“I might do a smoothie with a spinach or kale base, a scoop of almond butter, some chia seeds, a banana and a little bit of either kefir or almond milk.”
Nut butters are high in unsaturated fat and a good source of protein. Vadiveloo advised choosing a natural, low-salt peanut butter with no sugar or palm oil added.
This ancient grain has been a favorite in other countries — mostly Italy — for a long time, but its popularity is now rapidly rising in the U.S. as a nutritious substitute for other common grains, Politi noted.
“Farro has a unique, nutty flavor. It’s rich in fiber and an excellent source of plant-based protein,” she said. “It’s a side dish at my house at least once per week: easy to prepare — cooked like rice — and delicious when served drizzled with a little olive oil and mixed with chopped, steamed green beans.”
“A lot of people avoid it, but it’s easy to make it taste however you want it to taste, just like chicken breasts — it takes on the flavor of whatever you do to it. So tofu is always on my list, it’s just a really healthy lean protein,” Supan said.
She likes to make a spicy tofu stir fry that incorporates lots of vegetables and spices. Vadiveloo buys extra firm tofu for its versatility and ease of use. Grilled, fried or baked, tofu contains protein and is a complete source of the nine essential amino acids the body needs.
Politi called it a nutrition powerhouse for its content of cancer-fighting sulforaphane, “a particularly potent compound that boosts the body’s protective enzymes and flushes out cancer-causing chemicals,” she said. Broccoli is also a good source of protein.
This uncooked sauce is made with fresh parsley, oregano, garlic, oil and vinegar. “That’s just a great way to get in fresh herbs or boost your antioxidants,” Supan said.
Intensely colored fruits and vegetables
They’re richer in phytochemicals than paler options, so choose dark leafy greens such as spinach, intensely orange carrots, bright berries — all of those are packed with antioxidants, Vadiveloo noted.
But all fruits and vegetables are beneficial in people’s diets, she emphasized. Look for what’s seasonal, affordable and fits your lifestyle.
“The fruit or vegetable that you are willing to eat consistently” is always a great choice, Vadiveloo said. “If bananas are widely available where you are, and you’re getting advice that berries are better, I would say just have the banana if that’s what’s going to work best for you.”
Don’t forget frozen fruits and vegetables — they’re just as nutritious, but also convenient and often inexpensive.