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Is a plant-based diet really healthier? Experts weigh in on nutrition for the new year.

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New year, new you? Your nutrition can help you not only look but feel better — and experts point to plant-based diets as a health-forward option for 2024 and beyond.

"Low carbohydrate diets do tend to promote weight loss, but the nutritional value of the diet still really matters. So what you want to be doing is looking for diets that are high in protein and fiber, but you want to be getting those nutrients from plant-based foods more than meat based foods," says Dr. Céline Gounder, a CBS News medical contributor and editor-at-large for public health at KFF Health News. "When you make those adjustments to your diet, we do see a greater weight loss."

Vegan diets aren't the only way to eat plant-based. The Mediterranean diet, for example — which as made headlines for its health benefits — also focuses on whole, plant ingredients. Patterned on the traditional cuisines of the region, the diet emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, legumes, nuts and whole grains.

"This is basically a low carbohydrate diet that's also low in animal fats and proteins," Gounder said. "You're going to have a lot of fish, beans, lentils, whole grains, fruits and vegetables." She also noted the foods tend to be healthier when flavored with herbs and spices as opposed to salt.

Is a plant-based diet healthier than meat?

In terms of protein, Gounder suggests looking towards more plant-based proteins like beans and lentils as opposed to red meat.

And she offered a word of caution about some meat alternatives made with processed plant proteins.

"Things like plant based burgers, for example, are getting more and more popular. They are very high protein, but they may also be high in saturated fats," she explains. "Some of them do have this long list of ultra-processed ingredients, so they may not always be so great for you."

If you are looking for a meat alternative, she suggests looking at the list of ingredients.

"Maybe something like a very simple black bean burger as opposed to some of the other alternatives," she suggests. "If you can't pronounce the words in the list of ingredients, it's probably ultra-processed."

In general, ultra-processed foods are better avoided, nutrition experts say.

"You do see an increased risk in high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, even depression with these ultra-processed foods," Gounder adds. 

Plant-based eating for gut health

Experts also point to plant-based diets as a vital component in supporting gut health.

Dr. Aditya Sreenivasan, a gastroenterologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, said the advice is basically simple: "It's just a matter of quote-unquote 'being healthier' and eating a quote-unquote 'healthy' diet," he recently told CBS News. But he admits that it can be "hard to to meet these criteria, especially living in this country."

What exactly does this way of eating look like?

Focus on whole plant foods, Dr. Shilpa Ravella, transplant gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, previously told CBS News. 

"Whole plant foods are incredibly important for gut health because they provide fiber for our gut microbes, and fiber is the most important nutrient for those gut microbes," Ravella says.

Despite the importance of fiber in our diets, only about 5% of Americans meet the recommended daily amounts.

"In this country we unfortunately have a fiber deficiency," she says. "We need to go beyond those recommended daily amounts for optimal gut health."

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