So, you may be asking “What is a Plant-based diet?“.
A healthy, plant-based diet aims to maximize consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods while minimizing processed foods, oils, and animal foods (including dairy products and eggs). It encourages lots of vegetables (cooked or raw), fruits, beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, seeds, and nuts (in smaller amounts), and is generally low in fats.
How does a plant-based diet differ from a vegetarian diet?
A vegetarian diet includes everything above, but also sometimes adds animal products such as dairy and eggs. Most vegetarians don’t eat animal flesh, but some will consume seafood and fish.
Then we have what is called a flexitarian diet, which is a somewhat flexible intermingling of the two. People who adhere to this type of diet primarily follow a plant-based diet; however, they still leave the option open for the occasional inclusion of meat or poultry.
I suppose where you tend to place yourself into these categories, if any, would be due mainly to whether your concern is for animals, the planet, and/or your own health and well-being.
What are the advantages of a plant-based diet?
“When you base your meals on plant foods, you’re packing your diet with the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats that most Americans don’t get enough of,” says Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., editor of Environmental Nutrition. So perhaps the advantage lies more in what you can eat as opposed to what you cannot eat. Even by making plant-based foods the bulk of their diets, folks are generally healthier in categories such as colon cancer, heart risk/disease, and even mortality.
Another advantage to a plant-based diet is they have been shown to be a particularly effective dietary approach for weight loss. One study showed a mean BMI (body mass index, which is a measure of weight related to height) reduction of 4.4 kg/m2 with a 6-month, whole-food, plant-based diet with no energy restrictions, compared with usual care, in overweight or obese subjects.
Research also shows that those who follow a plant-based diet that is 70% plants have a 20% lower risk of dying from heart disease or stroke than those whose diets centered on meat and dairy. According to the American Journal of Cardiology, making the change from a typical American diet (SAD) to a plant-based diet is associated with a 10 – 15% decrease in total and LDL “bad” cholesterol.
The Major Disadvantages of a Plant-Based Diet
Many would argue that a plant-based diet is not able to meet nutrient needs without supplements. And I know what some of you are thinking already. I must be referring to protein, right? Not so fast. There are plenty of protein sources provided to us through plants such as the ones mentioned in Coach Tim’s article “Top 11 High-Protein Vegetables You Need to Be Eating More Of” and “The Top 5 Plant Based Proteins You Need to Add to Your Diet.”
But back to the disadvantages…
There are numerous studies that have been conducted to address some of the deficiencies that become a possibility when you limit your diet to plant-based foods only. At the top are the essential fatty acids such as EPA and DHA, which are found in salmon and sardines.
Other nutrients to be mindful of in terms of supplementation with a plant-based diet are vitamin B-12, calcium, iodine, and vitamin D to prevent deficiencies.
There are also certain genetic differences that may factor into which nutrients our bodies convert, which may determine which and how much of these vitamins we need to supplement our diets with. It is for this reason routine bloodwork is recommended. Annual check-ups with your physician including bloodwork are critical to be able to determine if you carry certain diseases, whether the internal organs are functioning well or not. It can also find out the mineral content in the body and the effectiveness of medications and supplements, along with nutritional deficiencies (if ordered by the healthcare practitioner).
Plant-Based Diet: A Wrap Up
In my opinion, plant-based eaters and others who fall into the categories mentioned above may appear to be more healthful simply because folks (like me) who don’t limit any food group also tend to consume more processed foods and unhealthy fats when fruits or vegetables could or should be more prevalent in our diets.
So, while plant-based diets may lack certain elements to make them reign supreme, they do not lack any more or less than the other various diets and meal plans.
Bottom line, while I believe there are many factors to consider before choosing to become vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or plant-based, none of these are necessarily superior to another. And just because you label yourself as one of these does not make you a better eater. Making conscious decisions to practice good nutrition, providing your body with proper nutrients, and practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors will ultimately bring you optimal health and wellness.
Wilbur O. Atwater, a leading 19th century nutritionist, wrote: “In our practice of eating, we are apt to be influenced too much by taste [and] the dictates of the palate; we are prone to let natural instinct be overruled by acquired appetite. We need to observe our diet and regulate appetite by reason. In doing this, we may be greatly aided by the knowledge of what our food contains and how it serves its purpose in nutrition.”