The phrase “plant-based diet” has reached buzzword status, and like all buzzwords, it’s prone to misuse, exaggerations, and misinterpretations. Let’s get to the truth about what the plant-based diet actually is, before it loses its meaning entirely.
What a Plant-Based Diet Actually Means
A plant-based diet means that you get the bulk of your daily calories from plant-based foods, as opposed to animal-based foods. In particular, plant-based eaters seek out minimally processed forms of plants. Sweet potatoes are great; sweet potato tater tots, not so much.
We know what you’re thinking: “But isn’t that just vegan?” Sorry to make things more complicated, but plant-based eating isn’t the exact same thing as vegan. Although the two are similar, and many people do use them interchangeably, the two terms have some crucial differences:
A plant-based diet is a style of eating that focuses on health. It prioritizes whole, nutrient-dense, minimally processed plant foods, with a goal of optimal nutrition.
Veganism is a lifestyle choice that extends beyond food. Although people may choose vegan foods for a variety of reasons (such as the environment or their health), veganism by definition is an ethical choice with the goal of not harming or exploiting animals. Vegans can and do eat “junk food,” as long as, say, no eggs were cracked or piggies harmed.
Often, vegan food will be labeled in stores as “plant-based” to appeal to a wider audience. Another reason these two terms are so often confused is that many vegans eat a plant-based diet devoid of both animal products and heavily processed foods (buh-bye, veggie bacon).
What to Eat on a Plant-Based Diet
“Plant-based” is pretty vague, and that’s kind of intentional. The idea is to choose healthy foods on a regular basis, and not get bogged down with rules that become too restrictive or make you feel overly deprived.
“The essence of it is to make plant-based foods the majority of your diet, and that means different things to different people,” says Rachel Begun, MS, RDN, a nutritionist and chef in Los Angeles. Some argue it means no animal products, while others say it means fewer animal products. “It’s flexible and customizable to each person’s individual needs.”
Plant-based eaters may never agree on how much—if any—animal products can be included, but ultimately, the goal is to eat all or mostly plants.
If you want to eat a plant-based diet, here are the foods you might incorporate:
A wide variety of fruits and vegetables, including “starchy” ones like potatoes and peas
Lots of whole grains, which provide bulk and heartiness to the meal
Beans and legumes, which provide lean protein and fiber
Nuts and seeds, which help add adequate calories and healthy fat to the otherwise lean diet
What *Not* to Eat on a Plant-Based Diet
How strictly you adhere to the Do-Nots depends on your interpretation of that murky plant-based label.
On a plant-based diet, you should avoid or limit the following foods:
Meat (including chicken, fish, and seafood)
Refined sugars and other sweeteners
Refined, white flour
Hyper-processed foods, including items like “meatless chicken patties” or “non-dairy ice cream.”
A word of caution: As “plant-based” continues to earn a health halo, it is starting to appear on the front of food products that are, well, anything but healthy.
For example, the popular Beyond Burger made from pea protein boasts of being “plant-based” on its packaging in large, green font. The patty is definitely vegan and does have less saturated fat than a beef burger, but it’s a stretch to call it “plant-based” due to the amount of processing involved.
So, What’s the Big Deal with the Plant-Based Diet?
Add up all those fruits, veggies, beans, and grains, and you’re working with a ton of micronutrients that sustain every aspect of your body.
“Plant-based diets are high in fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals,” says Jamie Lopez, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian in New York City. These goodies “all work together to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, maintain a healthy body weight, promote healthy gut microbiome, and help maintain regular digestive health.”
Plant-based diets also tend to be lower in saturated fat and sodium, which may contribute to the development of chronic illnesses. (Learn more about the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat here.)
The proof is in the numbers: In a study from Diabetes Care, 22,434 men and 38,469 women from the Seventh-Day Adventist church were assessed for various health metrics. (This denomination typically promotes healthy lifestyle choices, including a vegetarian diet, exercise, and abstinence from drinking and smoking.)
Despite similar cultural lifestyles, differing dietary choices showed an impact: Those who ate plant-based diets had the lowest average body mass index and the lowest prevalence of type 2 diabetes, compared to participants who ate vegetarian, pescatarian, or non-vegetarian diets—even after researchers adjusted for activity levels, sleep habits, and alcohol use.
When it comes to the heart, a plant-based diet may be another powerful way to improve heart health, along with the DASH diet recommended by the American Heart Association. A 2015 study from the Journal of Hypertension evaluated the blood pressure of nearly 100,000 men and women with various dietary habits.
Participants who ate fewer than one serving of meat a month (including seafood) had a lower risk of hypertension than those who ate meat at least once a day. This could stem from the reduction in saturated fat, which is abundant in animal products.
But here’s the big one: A 2016 study followed more than 200,000 adults who were free of chronic disease at the start of the study. Those who adhered the closest to a true plant-based diet (i.e. eating mostly unprocessed plants while avoiding animal foods and sugar) had the lowest incidence of type 2 diabetes. The further they strayed from the diet guidelines, the higher the incidence of type 2 diabetes.
The takeaway? Although “plant-based” is a vague term open to interpretation, the data shows that the more you stick to plants, the better health results you’ll likely have. “Just like any dietary pattern, a plant-based diet is only as healthful as the choices that are made,” says Begun.
OK, So What’s the Catch with the Plant-Based Diet?
A plant-based diet may be a tough one to stick to if you’ve grown up eating the Standard American Diet, which tends to include abundant quantities of meat, dairy, and eggs.
Another issue is simply adjusting to the higher fiber intake. Americans who aren’t used to eating such ample portions of veggies and beans may feel gassy and bloated at first, but this should pass (pun intended) once the digestive system adapts. In fact, adequate fiber intake helps prevent constipation.
And finally, like any change in diet, you may need to find new sources of certain nutrients—namely, vitamin B12, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids. While the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states you can obtain adequate levels of all essential nutrients on a plant-based diet, you might need to get them from foods you weren’t eating before.
Should You Try a Plant-Based Diet?
Let’s put it this way: “Everyone benefits from making plant-based foods a greater part of their diet,” says Begun. “The body of research examining plant-based eating is overwhelmingly positive.”
If done well, a plant-based diet can be a sustainable, satisfying, and even pleasurable way of life. Even if you can’t commit 100 percent, even small steps in the plant-based direction can bloom healthy results.