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Becoming More Plant-Based With Our Diets

A plant-based diet can boost your health and wellness. Julie Merrell, clinical dietitian, discusses how a plant-based diet works.
Becoming More Plant-Based With Our Diets
Julie Merrell, RDN
Julie Merrell is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Ridgecrest Regional Hospital. She performs nutrition assessments of inpatients at the hospital and does nutrition consults through outpatient services. She graduated in Dietetics from Brigham Young University and completed her Dietetic internship through Brigham Young University in 2014.

Julie spends most of her time with her almost 2 year old daughter and husband, playing video games, reading Brandon Sanderson novels and doing food experiments in the kitchen. If she won the lottery, Julie would pay off her mortgage and go to culinary school for funsies.

Prakash Chandran (Host): March is National Nutrition Month and we’re focusing on the importance of making informed food choices and developing better eating habits. Today we’re talking about plant-based diets and how adopting one can lower your risk and reduce symptoms of certain chronic diseases including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and more. I’m Prakash Chandran and in this episode of Ridgecrest Regional Hospital Health Matters Podcast, we’re going to be talking about becoming more plant-based with our diets. Here to discuss is Julie Merrell, a Registered Dietician Nutritionist at Ridgecrest Regional Hospital. Julie, thanks so much for educating us today.

Julie Merrell, RDN (Guest): You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure to come and meet, this is my first podcast, so this is a fun experience.

Host: This is going to be great. And I know our audience is excited to hear about this topic. I’ve been hearing so much about plant-based diets and so I’d love to just start with learning a little bit about what that exactly means.

Julie: Well it is rather trending right now. The term plant-based, I believe it’s pretty new. One thing we can look at is comparing it to vegan diets, so a lot of people know a vegan diet means no animal products. That includes no dairy, no meat, no cheese. However, vegans also tend to focus on the diet changes because of ethical reasons. And plant-based diet will have a lot of overlap, strictly speaking. It’s only food originating from plants. So, none of the meat, dairy or cheese that I mentioned from before, but what I really like about it is called plant-based and so even if your foundation of the diet is from plants, you can still incorporate the other things and not be strictly traditionally vegan. But have lots of plants in your diet and just focus on having that and to make it more flexible for you.

Host: Yeah, that’s interesting. I always thought that being a vegan meant that you were plant-based but it sounds like what you’re saying is there are slight differences, so, even though there’s overlap, you’re saying that maybe vegan is a little bit more strict. Can you talk a little bit more about those details?

Julie: So, for example some vegans will actually avoid honey as an example because even though honey is not an animal product itself, it is a byproduct of using animals because the bees are sort of used as farms and then the honey is the byproduct and we take the honey from the bees. So, some vegans actually don’t even eat honey. So, a lot of vegans will actually ethically – they just don’t want to use the treatment of animals for their food.

So, that’s I would say the major difference. Plant-based is really just focusing on the food benefits that you want to eat. And a vegan might have a more ethical twist to it.

Host: That’s a good distinction to know about the ethical reasons versus the health benefit reasons of eating plant-based. So, let’s go into that a little bit. How does eating a plant-based diet reduce the risk of chronic diseases we talked about at the top of the episode?

Julie: So, there are lots of reasons that incorporating more plants into your diet is a good thing. One, most things that come from plants, fruits, vegetables, whole grains; they are very nutrient dense. So, the amount of energy that you get from it also comes with more vitamins, more minerals, more phytochemicals, things like colors – the things that give it color, those can have an effect on our diet as well. And I’m even going to venture to say the nutrients we don’t even know about that are in our food, will have benefits to us and we can’t replicate that with pills or supplements because some of these things we don’t even know about.

One of the other biggest things is the more plants you have in your diet; the more fiber obviously. And there are several diseases as well, that just tend to have better results with people that focus more on plant-based foods. Weight control can be easier with plant-based diet because of lower calories, lower energy usage. A heart healthy diets, they tend to benefit because there is going to be less saturated fats, less cholesterol. Cholesterol is only found in animal foods. The more plant-based foods that you eat, the less dietary cholesterol you are going to be eating. Kidney disease. A lot of times kidney disease patients have to restrict the amount of protein that they eat because the protein will stress the kidneys out.

But generally speaking, if it’s not an animal based protein, the body processes it a lot easier. So, a vegetarian diet with kidney disease is more – is less stressful on the body than an animal protein would be. I just recently saw a study for diabetes where if the patients were eating – they ate tofu burgers instead of hamburgers as part of their diet and it had the same amount of protein, the same amount of calories, but because the tofu is plant-based, they actually found that the beta cells in the pancreas which is what helps you make insulin, actually responded better with the vegetarian protein. And any sort of disease that has an inflammatory side such as gout, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease; they all have had better rate with a plant-based diet rather than animal proteins just because the plant-based diet won’t let your body become quite as inflamed. It’s less stressful on the body.

Host: Yeah, there’s a couple of things that you mentioned there that I want to highlight. One is that cholesterol fact. I really had no idea that cholesterol only existed in meat products so if you’re eating plant-based, you basically avoid that all together. So, that is pretty nuts and something new that I just learned today.

Julie: I will say it’s not just meat products though, it’s animal products. So, milk, butter, those will have some cholesterol as well. So, if you have to be really strict with your heart disease diet and you are limiting dietary cholesterol, plant-based really helps you do that naturally.

Host: Yeah, it really sounds like that and one of the questions I was going to ask you but I think you kind of answered it was do you need to adopt a strictly vegetarian or vegan diet to reap these benefits and I think one of the things that you said is there are things that we don’t even know about that are going to potentially give you those benefits that you’re discussing and we’re going to discover it later, right? Isn’t that correct?

Julie: Yeah, so there are somethings that we just don’t know. I mean we don’t know everything in science, and we don’t know everything about what makes an apple an apple. So, if we were to try to make a supplement that was an apple; we wouldn’t be able to replicate it perfectly.

Host: Yeah, of course. We definitely – we haven’t gotten to that level of technology yet. So, let’s talk a little bit about an example of what a plant-based meal looks like.

Julie: Anything that is a plant-based meal you can first think of if you put your plate out in front of you, you can have a quarter of your plate vegetables, a quarter of it be fruit, one quarter of it would be whole grains, and then the last quarter is our protein section and so when you compare most people’s normal diet to plan-based diet, the only change you have to make is just looking at the protein that you’re eating. So, instead of incorporating chicken into your meal, you can try doing chick peas instead. So, really small changes can make the big difference with making a meal plant-based or not.

Host: Can you really get the same amount of protein with say chickpeas or other beans that you can from a slice of chicken?

Julie: So, the level of protein is going to be different. Because if you think about it practically speaking, if you have one chicken breast on the table, it is going to have some amount of fat, but it’s also going to have mostly protein because it’s a muscle from the chicken. Whereas the chickpea, it has protein in it and amino acids, but it also has starch because that’s just the nature of plants. The good news is most of the American diet actually has more protein than is necessary for an average person. Just because our American culture and society is so meat-based.

Host: So, yeah, that’s interesting to hear that you can still get some protein out of the things like kidney beans and chickpeas even though it does have some of those other things just based on being a plant. I’m curious as to how or what are easy ways that people can start incorporating a plant-based diet into their lifestyle.

Julie: So, one thing to start with is just take a look at what – how many fruits and vegetables you are already eating. Because for a lot of people, we are not eating enough, so by simply including more fruits and vegetables, you are already increasing the plant foundation of your diet. So, one, just look at the fruit and vegetables you’re eating and try to eat some at every meal. That’s just a simple one there.

If you make half your plate fruits and vegetables, then you’ll know that half of what you’re eating is going to be plant-based for sure. The other thing to look at would be take a look at what recipes you have at home and just start using smaller amounts of meat. Do you really need an entire pound of meat when you are making dinner? Could it do half a pound of meat? And by just doing that, you can do less of the animal product and more of the tomato sauce for example.

Some people can make a game out of it and when you’re doing your meal planning, just choose meatless Mondays, so just trying new things once a week can help you get more plant-based foods.

Host: Yeah, I really like that, meatless Mondays. And I’ve heard there’s like a couple initiatives going on including I know James Cameron’s wife is also doing that whole one meal a day or I think it’s one meal a week initiative to where your eating completely plant-based and some of the things that you highlighted in today’s episode is just the amount of health benefits that you can get from eating plant-based. So, I want to thank you so much Julie, for educating us today on the importance of plant-based diets. Is there anything else that you wanted to leave our audience with?

Julie: I just say, it is possible, just making small changes and it is completely affordable as well. Most of the people say oh I can only eat beans and rice for lunch, so beans and rice is actually a perfect example of a plant-based meal and they’re very affordable. It’s just take it as a fun experiment to try. Try something new. Try something with plants.

Host: Yeah try something new. Try something with plants. And just see how it goes and I think what you had mentioned that meatless Mondays just maybe trying it one day a week and seeing how much different you feel I think can be a good wedge or a segue into trying to make your diet overall more plant-based because the studies have shown that the health benefits are truly vast. So, Julie, thank you so much again and for more information please visit My guest today has been Julie Merrell RDN. I’m Prakash Chandran. Thank you so much for listening.