Plant-based diets continue to gain popularity. Along with this popularity comes confusion. Depending on where you look you might find vastly different information regarding what this term means, whether this eating pattern is healthy or harmful and whether it’s the right diet choice for you.
This page covers:
- What are Plant-based Diets?
- The Different Types of Plant-based Diets
- Why Do People Follow Plant-based Diets?
- Research on Plant-based Diets
- Health Benefits of Plant-based Diets
- Nutrition Concerns with Plant-based Diets
- Should you Follow a Plant-based Diet?
- Recipes for Plant-based Diets from Lettuce Veg Out
What are Plant-based Diets?
There is no standard definition for what plant-based diets are. However, plant-based diets are most commonly defined as an eating pattern where meals are focused around plant-based ingredients (as opposed to animal products/ ingredients). Plant foods include legumes, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices; as well as processed foods made from these ingredients.
The term plant-based diet also typically implies some level of exclusion of animal products. This could mean anything from simply reducing the consumption of animal-based foods to fully excluding all animal-based foods. A plant-based diet falls anywhere on this spectrum. This makes a plant-based approach to eating flexible, as there aren’t any strict rules to follow.
Beyond that, it’s really up to the individual to define what a plant-based diet might look like. For this reason, there are many different types of plant-based diets that exist.
The Different Types of Plant-based Diets
The different types of plant-based diets include:
And everything in between! Lots of people eat a type of plant-based diet that may not fall into one of these categories and that’s perfectly ok!
The Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean diet is a well-researched eating pattern that is shown to be beneficial for health. Specifically, the Mediterranean diet is touted as being beneficial for heart health 1.
The basis of the Mediterranean diet is plant foods: vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. It also includes fish, seafood, olive oil, and moderate amounts of red wine. Processed meats, red meats, and sweets, are limited; maybe once per month. Poultry, eggs, and dairy products are included but in smaller portions, and less often than in most Western diets; maybe 1 serving per day.
Beyond these food-specific recommendations, the Mediterranean diet also emphasizes enjoying meals with others, and having a positive eating atmosphere. There is also the recommendation to be physically active, in some way, everyday.
The Flexitarian Diet
The term Flexitarian is becoming quite popular, and for good reason. People are looking for ways to improve their health and reduce environmental impact of their food choices, but may not want to go so far as to completely cut out animal-products.
Flexitarian is a plant-based diet that resembles a vegetarian diet, but is more flexible. This means that a person can still include some meat or other animal products into their diet, just less often, and in smaller amounts. The flexitarian diet is also known as a semi-vegetarian diet.
Research does support lowering consumption of animal-based foods to improve health outcomes 2. Flexitarian eating can be an approachable way for people to realize some of these health outcomes.
The Vegetarian and Vegan Diet
One primary point of confusion with the term plant-based diet is that it is often thought to mean the same thing as a vegan diet. Veganism itself is not a diet at all. Someone who is vegan doesn’t use any animal products (including for food) therefore a vegan is consuming a diet that is 100% from plants aka plant-based.
As noted above, one could still include some animal products in a plant-based diet therefore a plant-based diet is not the same as a vegan diet or veganism.
Just as there are different types of plant-based diets, there are many different types of vegetarian diets:
- Pescitarian: Someone who eats fish and seafood, dairy, eggs and honey, but eliminates all meat and poultry from their diet.
- Lacto-ovo vegetrain: Someone who eats dairy, eggs and honey but eliminates all animal flesh (meat, poultry, fish, seafood).
- Lacto-vegetarian: Eats dairy and honey but eliminates all other animal products.
- Ovo-vegetarian: Eat eggs and honey but eliminates all other animal products.
- Vegan: Eliminates all animal products including honey (the word vegan implies these dietary changes are for ethical reasons despite the term vegan being used in other ways).
The Whole Food Plant-based Diet
A whole food plant-based diet takes plant-based eating to a more restrictive place in that no processed foods are allowed. This diet approach focuses on only consuming plants in their whole food forms and foods that are processed in any way are avoided.
While not everyone following a whole food plant-based diet completely eliminates all processed foods from their diet, there are certainly people promoting complete elimination of anything processed as being optimal for health.
A focus on whole plant foods is found to be a health promoting dietary approach, and many people could benefit from including more of these foods into their eating pattern 3. However, a diet with such strict rules poses may red flag in terms of sustainability and could potentially pose problems such as leading to disordered eating behaviours/ unhealthy relationships with food.
Why Do People Follow Plant-based Diets?
People who choose to follow plant-based diets often do so for three main reasons:
- Health: There are health benefits associated with consuming an eating pattern focused around plants.
- Environment: The impact of our food choices on the environment is concerning. Consuming fewer animal products and more plants one way to lessen environmental impact.
- Ethics: Compassion for animals can make someone decide to limit or eliminate their consumption.
These are all very valid reasons for wanting to follow plant-based diets (of any type).
Research on Plant-based Diets
There is a lot of research looking at overall patterns of eating that include more plants (vs animal products). Additionally, research also looks at specific plant-based food groups and/ or components of plant-based diets.
Health Benefits of Plant-based Diets
Dietary patterns that focus on eating plant-based foods, as well as specific plant-based food groups, have been associated with health benefits including:
- Weight management 4, 5
- Heart disease (including angina, heart attacks, stroke, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol) 6, 7, 8, 9
- Type 2 diabetes/ prediabetes 10, 11
- Some types of cancer (digestive 12, 13, 14, blood 15, 16, breast 17, 18, prostate 19)
- Alzheimer’s disease 20, 21, 22
- Kidney disease 23, 24
There are a lot of controversies in the nutrition world. However, most medical professionals seem to be able to agree that eating more vegetables is good for our health. Research also clearly points to fibre (which is found exclusively in plant foods) as lacking in the standard North American diet. Fibre has many important health benefits 9, 18.
As you can see, there is a lot to consider when moving towards a plant-based diet, especially if there is also restriction/ elimination of foods that provide high amounts of essential nutrients. That said, it is certainly possible to meet nutrient needs on any type of plant-based diet, but always make sure to check in with your doctor or dietitian before changing your diet and/ or starting supplements.
An additional concern with plant-based diets, especially those that are more restrictive, is a concern with development of disordered eating and/ or eating disorders. Some people may use this way of eating as an attempt to disguise disordered eating. Please seek out help if you or someone you know struggles with this.
Should you Follow a Plant-based Diet?
No one can tell you how to eat in a way that works best for you. While there is research to support plant-based diets as being healthy, there are also nutrition concerns to be aware of. Always speak to a doctor before starting any new diet (and working with a dietitian is helpful as well).
That said, most people could benefit from adding more vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and whole grains into their diets. These foods are regularly found to pose health benefits. If you are interested in moving towards a more plant-based diet, adding a few extra servings of these foods into your day could be a great place to start.
If you decide to transition towards a plant-based diet, know that you are on your own path. There are many ways to improve health and well-being and that journey will look different for every individual. Some people may promote extremes, but you get to decide how to live your life!
I have genuinely made these recipes numerous times, some more times than I could count. They are all staples in my house!
Summary: Plant-based Diets
There are numerous types of plant-based diets, some more restrictive than others. While there are many health benefits associated with eating more plants, there are also nutrition concerns with plant-based eating. Everyone is on their own journey and needs to decide for themselves the type of eating pattern that will lead to their best health (both mentally and physically).
- Mediterranean diet and health status: an updated meta-analysis and a proposal for a literature-based adherence score
- Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence-Based Literature
- Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults
- The BROAD study: A randomised controlled trial using a whole food plant-based diet in the community for obesity, ischaemic heart disease or diabetes
- Comparative effectiveness of plant-based diets for weight loss: A randomized controlled trial of five different diets
- Effects of Vegetarian Diets on Blood Lipids: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials
- Vegetarian Diets and Blood Pressure A Meta-analysis
- Intensive Lifestyle Changes for Reversal of Coronary Heart Disease
- Dietary Fiber Intake and Risk of First Stroke A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
- Type of Vegetarian Diet, Body Weight, and Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes
- Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies
- Red and processed meat and colorectal cancer incidence: meta-analysis of prospective studies
- Food group intake and risk of subtypes of esophageal and gastric cancer
- Antioxidants and cancers of the esophagus and gastric cardia
- Vegetable and fruit intake and non-Hodgkin lymphoma survival in Connecticut women
- Dietary intake of fruit and vegetables and risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma
- Greater Survival After Breast Cancer in Physically Active Women With High Vegetable-Fruit Intake Regardless of Obesity
- Dietary fibre intake and risk of breast cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis of epidemiological studies
- Dairy products, calcium, and prostate cancer risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies
- Increased Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables Is Related to a Reduced Risk of Cognitive Impairment and Dementia: Meta-Analysis
- Dietary and lifestyle guidelines for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease
- Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Function, and Dementia: A Systematic Review
- Associations of Diet with Albuminuria and Kidney Function Decline
- Protein intake and kidney function in the middle-age population: contrast between cross-sectional and longitudinal data
Please note that this is a curated list of references for the topics above and is not intended to be comprehensive.
Disclaimer: it is always advised for you to speak with your doctor before making any changes to your diet; please read our full website disclaimer.