Clinical Editor: Megan Dodson, PA-C
Between vegan, vegetarian, and “whole foods” diets, the phrase “plant-based” gets thrown around with impressive frequency. But while marketers and restaurants have capitalized on the trendy terminology, many aspiring healthy eaters aren’t quite sure what to make of the promise that a food or meal is “plant-based” — so what does it really mean?
What does plant-based mean?
While a plant-based diet may take many forms and the definition may vary depending on who you talk to, experts have defined it as a way of eating that “consists of all minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs, and spices and excludes all animal products, including red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products.” While there are no hard and fast rules and each person is unique in their dietary and lifestyle choices, experts usually use that criteria to distinguish plant-based diets from other forms of eating.
“Essentially, ‘plant-based’ protein is defined as any non-meat-based protein source — eg. soy, seeds, corn, nuts, and certain grains,” says One Medical provider Robert Duhaney, MD. “Dairy-based foods are often not included in many plant-based diets.”
If that definition sounds right in line with “veganism,” you’re not wrong — but people who identify as vegan may also extend those ethics into other aspects of their lifestyles. For example, many vegans may also choose to avoid animal products like leather clothing.
Duhaney also points out that there are various other classifications of plant-based diets as well. Some other diets are considered “plant-based” because the vast majority of the foods a person eats come from plants instead of animals, but may also include some meat products. Examples include the Mediterranean diet, which allows for consumption of small portions of meat, and the macrobiotic diet, which may include white meat or fish.
What are the health benefits of eating plant-based?
While there is no single way to define a “plant-based” diet and many modifications are possible, swapping any amount of meat consumption for plant-based foods has been associated with worthwhile health benefits.
“Several observational studies suggest that plant-based and vegetarian diets are associated with a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers,” Duhaney says. “For instance, a 2017 review of a number of nutrition studies found that vegetarian diets were associated with a 25% reduction in certain heart diseases and an 8% reduction in overall cancer.”
So can meat eaters still adhere to some form of plant-based dieting and reap some health benefits, or does eating plant-based really mean cutting out all meat? “We can extrapolate from many of these plant-based studies to show that as we add more plant based options to a red-meat diet, we can improve health outcomes,” Duhaney says. “Being healthy does not always have to mean ‘plant-based diet only’ — there are many factors affecting our health over the long term.”
How to add more plant-based foods into your diet
If you’re curious about moving toward a more plant-based lifestyle but aren’t sure vegetarianism or veganism are right for you, there are plenty of ways to modify your current meals and try more plant-based versions of the foods you already love. “The best thing to do is start small,” Duhaney says. “For example, maybe substitute grilled chicken with tofu.” Try swapping some of your favorite foods out with healthier plant-based alternatives. If you like milk in your coffee, try oat or almond milk. Even limiting your meat intake to one or two servings a day and substituting animal products with legumes or another plant-based protein source can make a difference. Research shows that following a ‘flexitarian diet’ (increasing plant-based food intake, but not eliminating animal foods) can produce similar health benefits to full plant-based diets including lower blood pressure and reduced diabetes risk. And if you do decide to go fully plant-based, try cutting back on different animal products one at a time, rather than all at once. Start with meat one week and then try removing dairy from your diet the next, or vice versa.
While plant-based diets are generally considered safe, it’s important to talk to your healthcare provider before making any significant changes to your meal plan. For instance, some individuals may find that they are unable to meet their nutritional needs with plant-based diets. “Certain nutrients can be limited with plant-based diets,” Duhaney says. Thankfully, we have ready access to great supplements that can make sure you are getting enough of these nutrients, so often a multivitamin can be helpful for this purpose.” Likewise, not all foods are healthy just because they are plant-based. If you decide to transition to a plant-based diet, your provider can help you do so while maintaining your health.
Have more questions about plant-based diets? Our primary care team is here to help. At One Medical, we aim to provide exceptional care designed around you and your unique health needs. Sign up today to book a same or next day appointment — in person or over video — through our app.
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