Plant-based diets are growing in popularity; however, they can also be a topic of confusion. While there’s no one single definition of what a plant-based diet is, many eating patterns can fit into this “diet”.
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What are Plant-based Diets?
While there’s no standard definition for what plant-based diets are, they’re typically any eating pattern where meals focus on using plant-based ingredients.
The term plant-based diet also typically implies exclusion of animal products. This could mean reducing consumption of one type of animal food to excluding all animal foods.
Animal foods include all types of meat, poultry, seafood, fish, eggs, dairy (all animal milks) and products made from or with these foods.
Plant-based diets exist on a spectrum, making them flexible with no strict rules to follow.
Sometimes people use the term “plant-forward” in place of “plant-based”. This also has no strict definition but generally refers to an eating pattern that includes more plant-based foods as opposed to meals focused on animal foods.
Plant-based diets are in opposition to diets heavily focused on animal foods, often with limited consumption of plant-based foods. Think of a diet with bacon and eggs for breakfast, a meat and cheese sandwich for lunch, then meat with potatoes for dinner.
Why Do People Follow Plant-based Diets?
There are many reasons why someone would follow a plant-based diet.
A common reason is the treatment of animals and a desire to reduce harm to animals. This ethics-based approach is central to becoming vegetarian or vegan as these diet types eliminate certain animal-based foods.
When it comes to plant-based diets, the second common reason is for health reasons. There’s plenty of research supporting the inclusion of more plant-based foods for numerous health conditions.
Lastly, environmental impacts of animal products are another, increasingly common, reason why someone might follow a plant-based diet.
Types of Plant-based Diets
There are many types of plant-based eating patterns. While some are more clearly defined, others are left open to personal interpretation. Over time, many people will shift from one to another.
Flexitarians generally continue to eat animal products but reduce their consumption and/or also consume vegetarian meals.
As the name implies, this is a very flexible diet type, and it encompasses plant-based diets that don’t quite fit into other categories. It’s a very approachable way of eating, especially for those who are new the idea of a plant-based diet.
This diet could include as much or as little animal products as a person likes.
Flexitarians may follow “meatless Monday” and only limit meat consumption one day per week. They may eat vegetarian all week long, then consume meat on the weekends. Perhaps it’s a person who only cooks vegetarian meals at home but will eat animal foods when at a restaurant.
Essentially, a person who is a flexitarian decides how much focus on plant-based vs animal foods they want to include in their meals.
A pescetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat or poultry but does consume fish and seafood.
Pescetarian diets also typically contain dairy and eggs, but this may vary depending on the individual.
Essentially, it’s a type of vegetarian diet that eliminates meat and poultry but no other animal foods.
A vegetarian diet eliminates all animal flesh including meat, poultry, fish and seafood. However, vegetarians often still consume eggs and/or dairy.
Vegetarian diets are typically sub-classified as:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: These vegetarians consume dairy and eggs while following a vegetarian diet (no animal flesh).
- Lacto-vegetarian: This is a fully vegetarian diet that includes dairy but eliminates eggs.
- Ovo-vegetarian: A fully vegetarian diet that includes eggs but eliminates dairy.
I’ve never heard someone use the terms lacto/ovo to define a vegetarian diet, but it’s commonly seen in scientific research studies. These distinctions may be helpful for some.
A vegan diet, sometimes called a strict vegetarian diet, is one that eliminates all animal products. This means vegans do not eat meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy or eggs. Many vegans avoid honey too.
Vegan diets are an essential part of veganism, a lifestyle that reduces exploitation of (and cruelty to) animals. This includes using animals for food but also includes using animals for any other purpose (entertainment, clothing, etc.).
Vegan diets are sometimes chosen for health or weight loss goals, but the focus of veganism is animal ethics. Those who consider themselves to be vegan often eat a vegan diet for life, whereas those who follow a vegan diet for other reasons may not stick to it long-term.
The Mediterranean diet is sometimes considered a “plant-based diet” but is not typically included in discussions about plant-based eating patterns.
Mediterranean diets focus on vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seafood and olive oil. Other animal products like dairy, eggs and poultry are still consumed while red and processed meats are limited.
Beyond these food-specific recommendations, the Mediterranean diet also focuses on how people consume food. Important lifestyle factors related to Mediterranean eating include:
- Eating with others
- Socializing with meals
- Eating more slowly
- Having a positive eating atmosphere
I think a Mediterranean diet is more of a “plant-forward” approach where plant-based foods are eaten, but often, meals contain some type of animal product. It’s perhaps some combination of a semi-vegetarian or pescetarian way of eating since there’s a focus on limiting red meat consumption.
Regardless, it’s often found in research studies to be a healthful eating pattern.
Whole Food Plant-based
Within the plant-based community, there’s a sub-section of people who follow what is called a “whole food plant-based” or WFPB diet. This way of eating focuses on a strict elimination of all processed foods.
People who follow this diet only eat plant-based foods in “whole” form, meaning no refined foods like white flour, sugar or oils are consumed.
Within this category, there are other, more specific ways of eating. For example, “starch solution” which focuses on getting most of your calories from starchy foods. Another is “80-10-10” which is a very high carbohydrate diet where 80% of your calories are from carbs, 10% from protein and 10% from fat.
I’m a firm believer that all foods can fit into a balanced diet. While focusing on whole foods is great, strict elimination diets can raise concerns, especially for anyone at risk of developing an eating disorder.
There are many ways to eat a balanced plant-based or vegan diet. Finding what works for you in the long run is, in my opinion, the best option. Some people thrive on higher or lower carb/fat/protein intakes, and I don’t believe a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition is helpful.
Raw vegan eating is just as it sounds. On this diet, only raw (uncooked) vegan foods are consumed.
There was a time when this way of eating was very popular, especially on social media. While there are still some who promote raw vegan diets, it’s drastically declined in popularity.
Eating a fully raw food diet is impractical, if not impossible, for most people. Beyond that, there’s no strong research to support eating exclusively raw foods has an inherent advantage to eating cooked food.
There are sub-types of raw food diets like “raw till 4” where people eat raw foods until 4:00 pm then eat a cooked food dinner. This was common when raw food diets were losing popularity and likely started because people were tired of eating raw foods for months on end.
Most people who followed this diet (or still follow it) live in tropical climates where plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables are available year-round.
For most people who live in temperate (or 4-season) climates without access to fresh tropical fruit all year, this way of eating is completely inaccessible.
Summary: Plant-based Diet Types
There are endless ways to follow a plant-based diet and your diet can be as flexible as you need it to be. Depending on why you want to follow a plant-based diet, you may feel a need for more or less restriction of animal foods.
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About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.