Plant-Based Diet or Animal Protein

Ask the Nutritionist

Q: Why do you recommend a plant-based diet but also advocate animal proteins at the same time?

Diane, Framingham, Massachusetts 

A: A plant-based diet is one of the most common recommendations that we make, but it is important to clarify exactly what "plant-based" means.

There are many sources of protein in a plant-based diet, such as nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, and quinoa that round out the fruits and vegetables you would expect to see on a vegetarian plate. Choosing to make at least half your grains whole, eating a variety of seasonal produce, and incorporating these plant-based proteins will ensure you are getting the benefits of a balanced diet.

However, a completely plant-based diet is not the only form of healthful eating available to you. Fatty fish, such as wild salmon, provides beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and lean proteins, such as chicken or ground turkey, can be incorporated into your meals in balanced portions (3-4 ounce servings or a portion the size of a deck of cards.) Red meat, which includes beef, bacon, sausage, and other processed meats like hot dogs, should be limited due to high levels of saturated fat. However, they don't have to be eliminated completely. Enjoy these foods on occasion and be sure to round out the plate with whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Also consider trying the more omega-3 rich and leaner grass-fed beef versus the highly marbled grain-fed or ground beef, and consider choosing organic chicken, turkey and eggs.

We recommend you find what works best for you. No matter what you choose, start by filling at least half of your plate with a variety of phytonutrient-rich fruits and vegetables. Then add some fiber-rich whole grain and a form of lean protein or fatty fish, or, on occasion, red meat, which you might enjoy. These animal-based proteins, when enjoyed in moderate portions and accompanied by plant-based foods, can be incorporated into a healthful, balanced diet.

For more information about diet and cancer, visit other topics in our Health Library:

Incorporating Protein into a Vegetarian Diet
Diet and Lung Cancer
Nutrition and Cancer Survivorship 

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