First off, you should know that while I do prescribe to a plant-based lifestyle for a variety of reasons, I do not consider myself a vegan or vegetarian, and I do not think meat is inherently bad for you. I will do my best to cover all of the nuances of a plant-based diet from nutrition to systemic implications, but if you still have questions please reach out!
Plant-Based (PB) lifestyles are continuing to gain in popularity to promote personal health and environmental health. Business Insider’s 2020 food trend predictions are overwhelming plant-based. I would say this is every dietitians dream. Regardless of your nutrition approach, people being inspired to eat more vegetables is a good thing. From the Impossible Burger to Oat Milk and mushroom drinks to underrated veggies coming out of the woodwork, 2020 will continue to inspire people to focus a little more on plants. However, the term “plant-based” is pretty vague and if animal-based foods are what you are accustomed to then shifting towards PB is likely overwhelming. The goal of this article is to outline everything you wanted to know about PB diets and practical ways you can lean into this trend that is actually healthy
What does the term plant-based actually mean?
In my opinion, the term plant-based is more of an umbrella term used to describe a conscious effort to eat more-and eat a wider variety of- fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, and legumes. However, do not be surprised when vegans use it as a less offensive term to describe their eating habits to die-hard meat eaters. Shifting towards a PB lifestyle is very fluid and does not mean that you fully exclude meat or animal products. It could simply mean you may be working to decrease the amount of animal products you use through reducing the portion size of meat you eat, not eating meat every day, or even just filling your plate with as many veggies as possible then eating the meat last. Becoming PB may even mean that you limit the amount of dairy, eggs, or seafood you consume, or take measures to determine if your animal-based products are sustainably sourced. For example, I think it’s important to check how your seafood is sourced to ensure that your purchase isn’t harming ocean ecosystems or depleting oceanic populations.
The graphic below outlines where various diets fall based on food variety “allowed” under that particular diet.
Types of Plant-based diets:
Almost anything can be Plant-Based!
Outside of PB diets there are a few other diets that have become pretty trendy over the years, like Keto and Paleo. Most people would say that these are the opposite of PB. However, I think that both of these diets CAN and SHOULD be PB.
Paleo is a little easier to sell, even though people tend to think about Paleo as meat heavy, it really doesn’t have to be. For example, you can have a palm-sized protein (~4 oz), which is about the amount of protein your body can absorb at one time and then the majority of your meal should be vegetables. Grains and legumes are typically excluded and so is dairy, but, nuts, seeds, fruit, and PB fats are also staples of a Paleo diet. So at the end of the day, you can do both.
Keto is another diet that SHOULD be plant based. In my professional opinion, most consumers who take on a Keto diet do so incorrectly in an unsustainable way. I find the majority of my clients that come to me on a Keto diet are doing so in a way that excludes vegetables and and is heavy in animal products. Hear me here, Keto is not an excuse to not eat vegetables! Limiting starchy veg to maintain ketosis is one thing, however, proper keto is about maintaining a ratio of carbs and protein to fat, not just limiting your carbs, otherwise you are basically doing the atkins diet. So if you are trying to maintain a keto diet AND shift to a more PB lifestyle, you should eat plenty of vegetables and PB fats like olive oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil.
PB can quickly become overwhelming when it comes to protein. Let me put your mind at ease, YOU DON’T HAVE TO EAT TOFU. A majority of westerners think of meat first when they think of protein and when they think of PB protein they think of tofu. However, there is actually a wider variety of protein in PB diets compared to animal based diets. Keep in mind, most plant based proteins do not have as much protein as a serving of meat would and getting variety is important to make sure you get a complete protein.
For a list of common PB proteins check out this Healthline article.
Where Does Fat Fit?
First off, fat is SO IMPORTANT for you health. Fat is vital for brain health, nutrient absorption, and energy, so if you've been avoiding fats, now is the time to start adding some healthy fats back into your life!
We may think of a PB diet as relatively high carb, for some it might be and for others it might not be, but as outlined in the comments on PB Keto, fat should still be a star in a PB diet. I personally believe that most people aren’t getting enough high quality fat. Even though the current trend is low carb, most people still haven’t given up their fear of fat, so we are left with protein heavy animal-based diets. When in reality, certain fats can help reduce inflammation, decrease blood sugar spikes, and increase your feelings of fullness after eating.
There are many PB fats that can be found in the form of whole foods or their corresponding oils.
Here are a few good PB ways to increase your fat intake:
Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
PB lifestyles are staples of some of the healthiest populations across the world. The book Blue Zones explores common features of populations that have a higher rate of living to 100 years old. Whether they eat no meat, or view meat as an accent rather than a side, PB diets are key features of longevity in 7 different cultures. Since Longevity is more of a fluid idea, just like a PB lifestyle, let's take a closer look at more tangible health benefits:
So the biggest question here is HOW do PB diets impact these conditions? There are a variety of reasons but I’m just going to give you the highlights...
Plants contain phytochemicals which are powerful antioxidants that help reduce systemic inflammation. Plants are also high in fiber, which prevents your body from absorbing nutrients that may have a negative impact on your health, like saturated fat. Fiber also helps keep you full and satisfied, which helps reduce the overall quantity of what you eat and slows digestion so your blood sugar is less likely to spike and then tank. Lastly, plants are very nutrient dense, filled with a variety of vitamins and minerals that help our bodies work optimally.
You may even be able to see similar benefits while still eating some animal products, much of the damage of a western diet comes from the overconsumption of low nutrient density in processed foods.
Here are other resources on the benefits of PB diets:
Transitioning to a PB Lifestyle
After reading the first part of this article you may be motivated to take on a PB diet, and at the same time completely overwhelmed and confused on where to start. Something to keep in mind is that to make a PB diet stick you’ll want to make very small changes and as you get comfortable overtime, you’ll be motivated and confident in making much larger changes.
Small Action Steps:
Even though this is “everything you need to know about plant-based diets” I’m only going to lightly touch on the environmental perspective. There is so much research available if you want to dig into the specifics. So, here’s the gist; consuming an animal based diet has a much higher impact on the environment than plant-based diets, with a fully organic vegan diet having the lowest impact. Factors that influence environmental health are land use, water use, energy use during production, and animal waste bi-products .
Many people in the agriculture industry will argue on the impact that animals have on the environment, stating that raising livestock is much more sustainable than raising livestock 30 years ago. Basically, we can raise 3x the amount of meat using the same amount of resources, which is great, but in my opinion not enough to truly reverse the impact on the environment. There are also issues with Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO’s) which is where environmental is not only increased but it also decreases the health of the community the CAFO is located near, with higher rates of water and air contamination. On the flip side, there are many ranchers that have government grants to take extra care of the land they use for raising livestock. Additionally, dairy farming is very resourceful when it comes to day to day operations, however, this goes back to the question of if it’s enough to warrant a continued high consumption of dairy products.
Therefore, PB diets with extra consideration for the quality of the food consumed is benefits for both personal health and environmental health. For more information on PB diets, check out my podcast with Kayla Slater, MS, RDN, CDN on plant-based nutrition and athletic performance!
Questions about PB diets or their environmental impact? Feel free to reach out!
Starting a PB diet? Tag me in your IG photos! I would love to see how you’re incorporating PB nutrition into your day to day!