What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

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A plant-based diet is one that includes plants, such as fruits, vegetables, seeds, legumes, and grains. A plant-based diet can also include foods derived from plants, such as soups, smoothies, certain baked goods, pizza, meatless burgers, and more. You usually don’t eat meat or fish on a plant-based diet and you also avoid dairy products and eggs.

There is some confusion among healthy eaters about the exact definition of a plant-based diet. While there is no “official” source or set of rules to follow, these guidelines will help you distinguish the eating style from other popular diets and give you some plant-based menu suggestions to try on your own.

Diet Guidelines

If you choose to adopt a plant-based lifestyle, you don’t have to necessarily give up meat, fish, and dairy for good. Plant-based diets are more of a lifestyle than a set of strict rules.

Certain diets (like a gluten-free diet for people with celiac disease) require that you avoid any trace of certain nutrients in order to maintain health and safety. Other diets require that you avoid certain foods (like meat) for ethical reasons.

A plant-based eating plan simply asks that you prioritize plant-derived foods over meat, fish, and dairy.

Different Types

Many diets that you are probably already familiar with can be considered plant-based diets because they emphasize plant-derived foods and minimize meat and dairy.

  • Vegetarian diet: On this diet, you avoid meat, seafood, and poultry. Some vegetarians eat eggs and dairy (lacto-ovo vegetarians), and those people would not necessarily be considered plant-based eaters unless they limit their consumption.
  • Vegan diet: On this diet, you avoid meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products or any food made with those ingredients. The diet does not restrict processed foods, added sugars, or fat. It does not require consumption of whole foods.
  • Whole foods plant-based diet: You avoid meat, seafood, poultry, and dairy, and eat plant foods in their whole form, especially vegetables, fruits, legumes, and seeds and nuts.
  • Mediterranean diet: This diet emphasizes plant-based eating but encourages consumption of fish and allows for small amounts of chicken, dairy products, eggs, and red meat.
  • Flexitarian diet: Also known as a “flexible vegetarian” diet, this eating plan emphasizes plant-based foods but allows for occasional allowances of foods that are not typically considered vegetarian.
  • Raw food diet: Usually a vegan diet, you’d avoid all foods that you avoid on the vegan eating plan along with any foods cooked at temperatures greater than 118°F.
  • Fruitarian diet: A vegan diet that is mostly fruit.
  • Macrobiotic diet: This is usually a vegan diet that emphasizes natural, organic whole foods that are grown locally. Plant-based foods are emphasized, but meat and seafood may be consumed occasionally.

Is It Healthy?

You might assume that eating a diet full of salads, smoothies, and vegetable-based soups is more healthy than other eating styles. In some cases, it is. In fact, a published paper recently suggested that “physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.” But not all plant-based diets are healthy.

For example, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology examined the difference between a healthy plant-based diet (one that included primarily whole foods) and a less healthy plant-based diet (one that included more processed foods). Study authors concluded that healthy plant-based diets were associated with a significantly lower risk for coronary heart disease, whereas an unhealthy plant-based diet is associated with higher risk.

So, if you are hoping to boost your health with a plant-based diet, it’s important to remember that diet quality matters when it comes to overall health outcomes. If you are looking to reduce your risk for a certain condition, there have been studies examining the relationship between plant-based diets and your risk for specific diseases.

Plant-Based Diets for Heart Health

Evidence has shown that plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease. In addition to the study above, there have been numerous studies that link vegetarian diets, vegan diets, and other plant-based eating plans to specific heart-related outcomes.

For example, research demonstrated that when people following a low-fat diet also chose plant-based foods, they were more successful at lowering their cholesterol.

Plant-Based Diets and Diabetes

Several studies have shown that eating a plant-based diet may help to reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes and may even help to treat the disease once diagnosed. In fact, in an article for NutritionFacts.org, Michael Greger M.D. FACLM stated that “plant-based diets not only appear to guard against getting diabetes in the first place, they may successfully treat the disease better than the diabetic diets patients typically are placed on, benefiting both weight and cholesterol.”

Plant-Based Diets and Cancer

Studies have shown that people who follow vegetarian and vegan diets have lower rates of cancer, with some researchers citing a 10–12 percent reduction in overall cancer risk. In addition, consumption of certain meat products (such as processed meat) is linked to higher rates of cancer.

Plant-Based Diets for Weight Loss

Following a plant-based diet is likely to help you lose weight, according to research. Some of the weight loss may occur simply because changing your eating pattern requires you to become more thoughtful about your food choices and helps you to learn eating practices that are helpful for weight loss, like meal planning and increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables. For this reason, many physicians recommend plant-based eating for their patients who need to slim down.

Tips to Start

If you are new to the vegetarian lifestyle, there’s no need to be intimidated. Meatless diets are easier to follow than ever. The key is to stock your kitchen with healthy plant-based foods so you don’t feel deprived.

  • Take it one step at a time: If you’re not sure if you’re ready for the full commitment, take small steps to eat less meat. Take advantage of Meatless Mondays or challenge yourself to eat two to three meals each week that do not include meat or dairy.
  • Make healthy swaps: You can still eat almost all of your favorite foods when you follow a plant-based diet. You just have to make a few clever swaps. Love burgers? Grill a portobello mushroom and place it on a bun with your favorite toppings. Enjoy pizza with colorful veggies instead of meat and cheese. Add soy protein powder to your smoothies instead of yogurt.
  • Learn to love legumes: Beans are your friends when you start a plant-based program. Legumes provide protein and fiber which gives you the sense of fullness and satiety that you may have enjoyed when you ate meat. Stock up on canned beans or, better yet, cook your own to cut sodium.
  • Go whole grain as often as possible: Choose whole grain bread and pasta when you can. Like legumes, whole grains also provide protein and fiber which can make sticking to your new eating plan easier.
  • Eat the rainbow: Just like any eating plan, you can get stuck in a rut with plant-based eating. As you venture away from meat and dairy, try to eat colorful fruits and vegetables to promote variety in your diet. Enjoy bright orange peppers, blueberries, leafy greens, purple eggplant, red potatoes, or pink passionfruit.
  • Enlist the whole family: It might be hard to shift to plant-based eating if you do so alone. Try to get your kids and spouse on board. If necessary, try it for a week and see how it goes.
  • Save money with frozen and bulk foods: Plant-based eating doesn’t have to be expensive. Fresh fruits and vegetables are flavorful and have the best texture. But frozen foods are usually just as nutritious. Keep frozen berries, peas, corn, and other veggies on hand to throw into recipes. Buy seeds and nuts in bulk to save money.
  • Plan meals in advance: You’ll be more successful with any diet change if you plan meals in advance. That way, you won’t revert back to old habits when you’re hungry. Have cut veggies and fresh fruit ready to grab in the refrigerator and prep meals for the week on Sundays.
  • Use a meal service: If you have very little time to plan and prepare meals, consider using a meal kit delivery service or membership program. As plant-based diets have become more popular, many of the most popular meal kit programs offer them. And membership services like Forks Over Knives are smart resources as well.

Sample Meal Plan

So what do you put on the table when you are avoiding meat and dairy? There are plenty of options. These are just a few of the types of meals you might enjoy.

Plant-Based Breakfast Ideas

  • Monday: Oatmeal with nuts and bananas
  • Tuesday: Avocado toast with a bowl of berries
  • Wednesday: Vegan zucchini bread
  • Thursday: Tofu scramble with sauteed veggies
  • Friday: Fruit smoothie with soy protein powder

Plant-Based Lunch Ideas

  • Monday: Creamy broccoli soup (make it creamy with white beans instead of dairy)
  • Tuesday: Dairy-free corn chowder
  • Wednesday: Mixed grain salad with grilled vegetables
  • Thursday: Whole grain wrap sandwich with avocado and sliced veggies
  • Friday: Portobello mushroom burger

Plant-Based Dinner Ideas

  • Monday: Three-bean chili
  • Tuesday: Zucchini noodles with olive oil and tomatoes
  • Wednesday: Spaghetti and meatballs made with mushrooms
  • Thursday: Eggplant lasagna with dairy-free cheese
  • Friday: Loaded sweet potatoes

A Word From Tips For Healthy Living

Plant-based diets have gained popularity not only in the health and medical community, but also among fitness fanatics, athletes, and environmentalists. If you adopt the eating plan, you are likely to see improvement in the way you look or feel. But remember that the quality of your diet matters most.

A plant-based diet full of processed foods, added sugars, and sodium is probably not going to give you the results you desire. The best diet for you is a healthy diet that you can stick to for the long-term. Make gradual changes and enlist the help of a registered dietitian if necessary to put together a plan that keeps you healthy and satisfied.

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