What is a plant-based diet? We’ve all heard that a plant-based diet is the key to good health and a long life. But there is a lot of confusion about how to define the term.
This article clears up the misinformation and defines the terms and the variations. Choose the one that you can stick to and that works for you.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is a way of eating where the focus is on filling up your plate with plant foods.
Some examples of plant foods include:
• Legumes (like lentils and chickpeas)
• Whole grains
The closer these foods resemble how they’re found in nature (i.e., the less processing) and the more of them on your plate – the better for your body.
This way of eating isn’t about being restrictive. People who eat a mainly plant-based diet may still choose to eat small amounts of meat, poultry, fish, seafood and dairy (also known as semi-vegetarian, flexitarian or pescatarian). The beauty is that there is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach.
What’s the difference between a vegan and vegetarian diet?
Some people eating a plant-based diet may choose not to eat meat and animal products for various reasons. A vegan diet excludes all meat and animal products (meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy and eggs), whereas a vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry, ﬁsh and seafood.
However, there are a few variations of a vegetarian diet that depend on whether you eat or exclude eggs, dairy and fish (see table below).
Different styles of plant-based eating
Semi-vegetarian or flexitarian includes eggs and dairy; may include small amounts of meat, poultry, fish and seafood
Pescatarian includes eggs, dairy, fish and seafood; excludes meat and poultry
Ovo-vegetarian includes eggs; excludes meat, poultry, fish, seafood and dairy
Lacto-vegetarian includes dairy; excludes meat, poultry, fish, seafood and eggs
Vegetarian (lacto-ovo) includes eggs and dairy; excludes meat, poultry, fish and seafood
Vegan excludes all meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?
A diet centered on plenty of whole, minimally processed plant foods lowers your risk of heart disease and benefits your overall health1.
Vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds are low in saturated fat, contain heart-healthy fats and are an excellent source of fiber. They give our bodies vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals, which offer protection against disease2.
Our research on dietary patterns clearly shows that vegan and vegetarian diets are associated with a lower risk of heart disease3. People that follow a vegan or vegetarian diet generally have lower blood pressure and Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol than non-vegetarians3. Some studies have shown that well-planned vegan and vegetarian diets help people to control their blood sugar levels and may reduce inflammation in the body too2,4.
The key thing to note when looking at the evidence is that vegans and vegetarians tend to lead a healthier life overall, which explains some, but not all, of the lower risk seen in these groups. For example, people who follow a vegetarian diet may be more physically active and drink less alcohol.
Should I switch to a vegan diet?
To eat more plant foods, you don’t necessarily need to adopt a vegan or vegetarian diet. For many of us, just making an effort to eat less processed foods and more plant foods every day will do wonders for your health and risk of heart disease.
A high intake of vegetables and fruit (regardless of whether meat or dairy are eaten) is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and early death5-6.
Around the world, we see various ways of eating which include varying amounts of meat and dairy that support a long and healthy life. Well-known examples from the ‘Blue Zones’ include the traditional Mediterranean diet, the vegetarian diet of the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the largely plant-based diet of the Okinawans in Japan. One thing that all of these populations have in common is that their diet is primarily plant-based.
Is a plant-based diet healthy?
A plant-based diet isn’t automatically healthy. Hot chips, biscuits and soft drinks can all be vegan/vegetarian foods. Too much saturated fat, sugar and salt from any source isn’t good for your health.
An increasing number of processed plant foods are making their way onto supermarket shelves from vegetarian hotdogs to vegan sweet treats. Some of these foods may actually contain more salt and sugar than regular products.
Remember any foods that have been highly processed should be eaten mindfully – whether they are plant-based or not. Learn how to read food labels to help you to choose products that are right for you.
Nutrients for vegan and vegetarian diets
If you do choose to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, be mindful that it can take careful planning to get all of the essential nutrients you need especially for pregnant/breastfeeding women, infants and young children.
Alternative sources of protein (like tofu, tempeh, legumes, nuts and seeds), omega-3 fats, iron, zinc and calcium may be needed. You also need to consider vitamin B12 if you are excluding all animal products. Fortified foods or supplements may be needed (particularly for B12).
If you’re thinking about switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet then talk to your GP or practice nurse and get help from a dietitian or registered nutritionist.
Click here to learn more about what is a plant-based diet.