A plant-based diet may well be your most potent tool in the fight to optimize your health. You have many variations to choose from, and this way of eating may help protect against conditions such as obesity and diabetes.
If you’re looking for something to bump your health and nutrition up a notch, it may be time to start thinking about a plant-based diet.
As its name suggests, this eating plan puts the focus squarely on plants, with an effort made to reduce consumption of animal-based foods such as red meat. Plant-based foods are among the healthiest on the planet, so going this route can give your body the nourishment it needs to perform at its very best.
If you’ve been consuming a standard American diet for your entire life, making the switch to plant-based eating plan can be an adjustment. However, many people have found that the payoff that comes with this switch more than compensates for any sacrifices required.
Taking the plunge is only the beginning. After making the transition to plant-based living, many people find the biggest challenge lies with remaining on the path. Fortunately, there are tips that can help you increase your likelihood of sticking with your healthy new lifestyle.
If you think following a plant-based diet means completely eliminating animal foods, think again. There are many different plant-based eating plans to consider. There’s one in particular that requires you to abstain from all animal products, but there are others that give you the freedom to include some animal foods in your diet.
With that said, let’s take a journey into the wonderful world of plant-based eating.
In this article, we will:
- Explain what a plant-based diet is
- Look at various types of plant-based eating plans
- Explain the differences between vegan and plant-based eating
- Discuss whether a plant-based diet is healthy
- List healthy plant foods to include in this eating plan
- Talk about plant foods that you should avoid
- List the benefits of plant-based eating
- Offer tips that can help you thrive on a plant-based diet
- Share simple plant-based recipes
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is an eating plan in which most or all of the foods you consume are derived from plants.
There are many reasons why people choose this diet. Some make this choice based on environmental concerns and a desire to make food and lifestyle choices that are green and eco-friendly. Others choose a plant-based diet because out of concern for animals and a desire to exclude or reduce animal flesh from their eating plan.
And many people adopt a plant-based lifestyle for health reasons. Research shows that making plant-derived foods the central part of your diet can benefit your health in many ways.
Plant-based diet vs. vegan
You’ve probably heard the term “vegan” used to describe those who exclude animal foods from their diet.
So, how exactly does a plant-based diet differ from a vegan diet?
All vegan diets are plant-based. However, not all plant-based diets are vegan.
A vegan diet is a very rigorous form of plant-based eating. Under this diet, no animal-based foods are allowed. That means no eggs, dairy, meat, poultry or seafood.
The vegan diet is plant-based, but there are other types of plant-based eating plans to consider. Most plant-based diets give you a lot more freedom than a vegan eating plan. There is room to include some animal foods if you choose to do so.
Though a vegan eating plan can be restrictive, many choose it due to ethical and health concerns. Some people use other types of plant-based diets as a path for segueing into veganism.
For other people, a vegan lifestyle is simply too austere, and a less rigorous type of plant-based diet is a more appropriate match. This allows them to reap the benefits of a diet centered on plant foods, while giving them the freedom to add other menu items that suit their preferences and lifestyle.
Next, we’ll take a look at some common types of plant-based diets.
Types of plant-based diets
A plant-based diet isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. It comes in a few variations. There’s room to shape this eating plan to fit your needs and preferences. And it can grow and evolve to suit your changing lifestyle.
Here’s a list of plant-based diets:
1. Lacto-ovo vegetarian
Love scrambled eggs for breakfast and grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch? If so, you may be best suited for lacto-ovo vegetarian diet.
With this type of eating plan, dairy products such as cheese and milk are allowed, as well as eggs. However, those on this diet do not eat meat, poultry or seafood.
An ovo-vegetarian eats eggs, but all other animal products are excluded. This means that meat, poultry, seafood and dairy aren’t on this eating plan.
A lacto-vegetarian diet allows dairy products such as milk and cheese. However, all other animal products are excluded from this diet. That means no eggs, meat, poultry or seafood.
A vegan eating plan is the strictest and most restrictive choice among plant-based diets. With a vegan diet, all animal products are excluded. The vegan diet is free of seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy and meat. Many vegans also choose to exclude honey, a natural sweetener made by bees.
A vegetarian follows the same rules as a lacto-ovo vegetarian. That means that, among animal-based products, eggs and dairy foods are allowed. All other animal products are verboten. That means no meat, seafood and poultry.
If you like the idea of plant-based eating but would rather not give up fish, a pescatarian diet may be a good fit for you. Pescatarians are also referred to as pesco-vegetarians.
Among animal products, a pescatarian diet includes eggs, dairy and seafood. Meat and poultry aren’t allowed.
7. Semi-vegetarian or flexitarian
Not all environments offer food choices that exclude animal products. Some people are most comfortable with a diet that gives them the freedom to adapt to these circumstances. And others are reluctant to commit to a path that locks them into too many restrictions.
If that sounds like you, a semi-vegetarian (also known as flexitarian) eating plan may be your best bet among plant-based diets. This diet includes eggs and dairy. It also allows you the freedom to consume small amounts of meat, poultry and fish.
Is a plant-based diet healthy?
A plant-based diet has the potential to do great things for your health. But these diets are not all cut from the same cloth. Some plant-based eating plans are very healthy, while others can be just as harmful as a junk-food diet.
One area in which a plant-based diet can have tremendous impact is heart health.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looked at the dietary data of 209,000 people collected over a span of two decades. The researchers looked at the heart disease risk related to three types of plant-based eating plans:
- The first eating plan emphasized the consumption of all plant foods while reducing intake of all animal foods. That means intake of dairy foods such as milk and cheese was reduced, along with intake of eggs, fish and meat and chicken. Also, intake of foods containing animal products – such as pizza, mayonnaise and certain soups – was reduced.
- With the second plant-based diet, consumption of healthy plant foods was emphasized. This includes whole foods such as unrefined grains, fruits, nuts, legumes and healthy oils. This diet reduced intake of plant foods that were less healthy. It also reduced intake of animal foods.
- The third eating plan emphasized consumption of plant foods that have been deemed unhealthy. This includes processed fruit juices, as well as foods such as white rice, pasta, French fries, potato chips, processed breads and cereals, and drinks that have been sweetened with sugar. This diet reduced intake of both animal foods and healthy plant foods.
Best and worst choices
The researchers found that those who followed the second plant-based diet – the one that emphasizes healthy plant foods – had the lowest risk of heart disease. As an added plus, those on this eating plan were also leaner and more active.
Which of the three diets produced the least favorable health outcome? That distinction goes to the third plant-based diet on the list – the one based largely around highly processed plant foods. The research shows that those on this eating plan had a notably higher risk of heart disease.
So, studies show a plant-based diet can be good for your health. But for it to have this effect, it must include nourishing whole foods while limiting those that are highly processed.
What to eat on a plant-based diet
The best foods to include in your plant-based diet are those that are as close to their natural state as possible. This means whole foods, derived from plants.
Here are some healthy plant foods to include in your eating plan:
Your body uses plant protein to build muscle and create healthy new cells. Include some or all of these protein foods in your diet:
Healthy fats support heart wellness, and they help the body in countless other ways. These fats nourish your body:
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Nut butters
- Coconut meat
Fruits and vegetables
Ideally, fruits and veggies should constitute the bulk of your diet. There are no foods in this group that are off-limits. This list of choices in this food group includes:
- Honeydew melons
- Bok choy
- Sweet potatoes
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds that are raw and unsalted offer the most health benefits. All items in this category are healthy, but keep in mind that they are high in calories and fat. Here are some great choices:
- Macadamia nuts
- Brazil nuts
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
Whole grains can support your health. Here are some picks to consider:
- Brown rice
- Brown rice pasta
These plant beverages support wellness:
Foods to avoid
Basically, the idea here is to limit consumption of plant foods that are highly processed or fried. Many of these foods contain undesirable ingredients, such as excessive sodium and unhealthy fats. Here are a few foods to avoid:
- French fries
- White bread
- White pasta
- Pastries made with refined grains
- White sugar
- Barbecue sauce
- Potato chips
- Processed fruit juices
Benefits of plant-based eating
The best way to get inspired about starting or sticking with a plant-based diet is to take a look at all the health benefits that this eating plan provides. By eating mainly plant-based foods, you can trim your waistline and reduce your risk of getting certain common chronic diseases.
Here are some health benefits of adopting a plant diet:
1. May prevent heart disease
A plant-based diet can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
However, as previously mentioned, a lot depends on the type of plant foods you consume. You can lower your risk of heart attack by eating healthy whole plant foods. If you consume plant foods that are processed, fried or loaded with sugar, you won’t realize the same benefits.
2. May prevent cancer
Research indicates that plant-based eating may make you less likely to develop certain types of cancer.
A 2012 study that included 69,000 participants determined that vegetarian diets were associated with a much lower risk of gastrointestinal cancer. This was especially true for lacto-ovo vegetarians – vegetarians who consume eggs and dairy.
Studies also show that those on a plant-based diet have a lower risk of developing colorectal cancer than non-vegetarians. Among plant-based eaters, pescatarians (those who eat plant-based foods and fish) have the greatest protection from this disease. Compared to non-vegetarians, pescatarians are 43 percent less likely to develop this type of cancer.
3. May prevent cognitive decline
Alzheimer’s disease is all too common in older adults. And those in this age group who are lucky enough to avoid this condition often suffer from varying degrees of cognitive decline.
Research indicates that a diet that contains lots of fruits and vegetables can help protect brain health and stave off cognitive impairment. A meta-analysis of nine studies was published in 2012 in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. The meta-analysis concluded that increased consumption of fruits and vegetables is linked with a reduced risk of dementia and cognitive impairment.
4. May protect against diabetes
Diabetes is a chronic disease that is associated with high blood sugar. It can be managed via diet, and research shows that plant-based eating can be used to successfully treat and prevent this condition.
A study conducted between 2002 and 2006 looked at 22,434 men and 38,469 women. It included participants on many different types of plant-based diets.
The study found that prevalence of type 2 diabetes increased from 2.9 percent in vegans to 7.9 percent in non-vegetarians. The prevalence of diabetes was intermediate in participants who ate lacto-ovo vegetarian (3.2 percent), pescatarian (4.8 percent) and semi-vegetarian (6.1 percent) diets. After adjusting for variables such as age, sex, ethnicity, alcohol use, sleep habits and physical activity, vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, pescatarians and semi-vegetarians all had a lower risk of diabetes than those on a non-vegetarian diet.
5. May protect against obesity
Obesity is more rampant than ever, and it can have serious health consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity in the U.S. was 42.4 percent in 2017-2018. Obesity can make you more likely to develop conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Research shows that vegetarian diets may protect against obesity. In the same 2002-2006 study discussed in the section on diabetes, those on a vegetarian diet had a lower body mass index (BMI) than non-vegetarians. Among vegetarians, vegans had the lowest BMI.
6. Supports healthy weight loss
Many people have a hard time shedding excess pounds. Research shows that plant-based eating supports healthy weight loss.
In one study involving 65 overweight and obese adults, participants on a plant-based diet consisting mainly of healthy whole foods lost a lot more weight than those in the control group. Furthermore, they were able to sustain that weight loss over a one-year follow-up period.
Tips for thriving on a plant-based diet
These tips will help you flourish on a plant-based diet, and stick with it over the long haul:
1. Pick the right plant-based diet for your situation
As mentioned, you have a wide range of plant-based diets to consider. Your choices run the gamut from an animal-free vegan diet to a semi-vegetarian diet that includes small quantities of meat and fish.
Pick the right diet for your needs and preferences, and don’t be overly ambitious. Your goal here is to pick an eating plan that will be easy for you to stick with over the long term. Remember, you can always level up to a more restrictive type of plant-based eating if you choose to, after you’ve become comfortable with the initial plan that got the ball rolling.
2. Start a food journal
A food journal is a record of the food you eat on any given diet. With plant-based diets, it’s important to keep track of your eating choices. This is especially true of plant-based eating plans that include some animal foods; you’ll want to make sure most of your calories come from plants, not animals.
Use a food journal to help you keep a record of everything you’ve eaten. Getting into the swing of this may seem awkward at first, but eventually it will become second nature.
3. Give yourself constant motivation
To increase your odds of sticking with plant-based eating, it helps to constantly remind yourself of why you’ve chosen to adopt this diet.
For example, if you want a leaner, fitter body, create a vision board with images of the physique you’d like to attain. And if you’ve transitioned to plant-based eating for health reasons, make of list of all the health benefits associated with this diet. Refer to it at least a couple times a week, and make sure to take a look at it during moments when your willpower or conviction has begun to waver.
Motivating yourself in this way can help give you the fortitude and perseverance to achieve long-term success on your diet.
4. Keep it simple
If you prefer cooking your own meals, find a few delicious recipes that are easy to make. If you’d rather spend zero time in the kitchen, consider subscribing to a meal delivery service. These services deliver food to your door, which means you won’t have to spend any time cooking. This frees up your schedule while giving you access to healthy, professionally prepared meals.
5. Find healthy substitutes for cravings
You may find yourself craving foods from your old standard American diet. Find healthy substitutes for these cravings.
For example, if you’re missing beef, try a meat substitute, such as the ones made by Beyond Meat. And if you’re longing for some dairy ice cream, hit the grocery store and purchase a vegan alternative.
6. Keep track of your successes
With time, you’re likely to log significant successes with your plant-based diet. This may include everything from weight loss to improved health and cognition.
It can be all too easy to overlook these gains, so make sure to keep track of them. Maintain an ongoing list of all the ways in which eating plant foods has improved your life. Consulting this list can help fuel your resolve during moments of doubt or weakness.
7. Prevent B12 deficiency
B12 deficiency is seen in meat eaters, but it’s especially common for those on certain types of plant-based diets. It can cause symptoms such as irritability, disturbed vision and depression. Supplement with B12 to make sure your body is getting what it needs in this area.
Easy plant-based recipes
These recipes make plant-based eating easy and delicious:
Matching red miso with nutrient-dense Brussels sprouts, this recipe is free of animal foods and full of savory flavor.
This yummy recipe is both plant-based and low-carb, and it gives you the choice of using either dairy cheese or its vegan counterpart.
This meatless recipe is made with veggies and chickpeas, and it brings the flavor of India to your table.
Looking for something pescatarian? This catfish recipe perfectly complements a vegetable meal.
If you’re ready to embark on a plant-based lifestyle, start by choosing the eating plan that’s right for you. Then stock up on the foods you need to support your new diet.
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