Dropping the phrase “plant-based diet” is hip when talking nutrition these days. But why is it so hot right now? Lauren Manaker, RDN, who is based in Charleston, South Carolina, suspects it’s because of increased awareness of the health and environmental benefits that come along with eating this way. Some of that could be the result of documentaries that throw shade at eating meat and other animal products, such as What the Health (2017), Cowspiracy (2014), and Forks Over Knives (2011).
But what does “plant-based diet” mean, anyway? Is it the same thing as being vegetarian or vegan? Or does this diet just mean you make an effort to pack more veggies into your meals?
Technically, all of the above interpretations are correct. “Some people use the term ‘plant-based diet’ as a synonym for the vegan diet,” says Summer Yule, RDN, a nutritionist based in Hartford, Connecticut. “Others may use the term in a broader way that includes all vegetarian diets, and I’ve also seen people use ‘plant-based’ to mean diets that are composed mostly, but not entirely, of plant foods.”
The main idea is to make plant-based foods the central part of your meals. “A plant-based diet emphasizes foods like fruits, vegetables, and beans, and limits foods like meats, dairy, and eggs,” Manaker says. From there, more restrictions could be put in place depending on how strict you want to be. “It may completely eliminate foods from animals or just limit intake, depending on the individual’s interpretation,” Manaker says.
That means meat and seafood don’t necessarily need to be off-limits — you might just decide to cut down on how frequently you eat those items.
Think of “plant-based” as a broad category of diets, with other more specific diets falling under its umbrella. For example, the Mediterranean diet is a version of a plant-based diet because even though it incorporates fish and poultry, the emphasis is on plant-based foods, Manaker says.
Vegetarian and vegan diets are also plant-based. (1) Whole30, a popular diet and lifestyle plan, doesn’t usually qualify. “The Whole30 diet traditionally is heavier on animal proteins, though it is possible to follow this diet in a plant-based way,” Manaker says.
Most people who adopt this way of eating do it for the potential health benefits. “There have been many cardiac benefits linked to eating this way, like reduced cholesterol,” Manaker says. “Some studies suggest that eating a plant-based diet may improve fertility parameters, and it also may reduce your risk of developing [type 2] diabetes.” A review published in July 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Public Health supports her statement.
One study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in July 2017, linked diets rich in healthy plant foods (such as nuts, whole grains, fruits, veggies, and oils) with a significantly lower risk of heart disease.
Another study, this one published in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology in May 2017, found that following a plant-based diet can help prevent and treat type 2 diabetes, and it cites research that suggests this diet may help reduce the risk of other chronic illnesses, including cancer. (4) And a review published in October 2018 in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care suggested that following a plant-based diet can have a positive impact on emotional and physical well-being, quality of life, and general health for people living with type 2 diabetes, while also improving physical markers of the condition in this population. (5)
For Black Americans, who are disproportionately impacted by many chronic diseases, following a plant-based diet may help reduce the risk of developing heart disease and potentially cancer, according to one review published in December 2019 in Nutrients.
Some research has also suggested that a diet containing higher levels of plant protein is linked with a lower rate of early death from all causes; one review of studies (involving over 715,000 participants in total) and published in July 2020 in the BMJ found that participants whose diets contained the most plant-based protein had a 6 percent lower risk of premature death than individuals who consumed less protein overall. (7)
Other research seems to support opting for plant protein, too: One study of 135,000 individuals found a link between increased intake of fruits, vegetables, and legumes and a lower risk of all-cause early death, with participants reaping maximum health benefits at three to four servings per day — an amount that anyone following a plant-based diet is likely to meet
Food List of What to Eat, Limit, and Avoid
What to Eat and Drink
* Vegetables (including kale, spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, sweet potatoes, asparagus, bell peppers, and broccoli)
* Fruits (such as avocado, strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, apples, grapes, bananas, grapefruit, and oranges)
* Whole grains (such as quinoa, farro, brown rice, whole-wheat bread, and whole-wheat pasta)
* Nuts (walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, and cashews all count)
* Seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and hemp seeds)
* Tea (including green, lavender, chamomile, or ginger)
What to Limit (or Avoid Entirely, Depending on How Strict You Decide to Be)
* Dairy (including milk and cheese)
* Meat and poultry (like chicken, beef, and pork)
* Processed animal meats, such as sausages and hot dogs
* All animal products (including eggs, dairy, and meat if you’re following a vegan diet)
* Refined grains (such as “white” foods, like white pasta, rice, and bread)
* Sweets (like cookies, brownies, and cake)
* Sweetened beverages, such as soda, and fruit juice
* Potatoes and french fries (3)
* Honey (if not vegan)
Checkout some yummy ideas below.
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