What does eating a “plant-based diet” mean?

Plants are finally on-trend. It seems as though everywhere you turn, more and more people are opting for plant-based foods. Research shows that plant-based diets have several benefits, but there’s still some confusion around them. For starters, what is a plant-based diet? Is it any different than a vegetarian or vegan diet? Are you allowed to eat any animal foods? The list of questions goes on. We’ll do our best to give you some peace on the subject.

Defining “Plant-based”

In this article, we define plant-based foods as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains and the numerous foods that are made using them as ingredients. When it comes to plant-based diets, the one that comes first to mind for many of us is vegetarian. But plant-based doesn’t have to mean plant-only.

Benefits of a Plant-based Diet

Fiber

Plant-based foods provide many health benefits, including helping you get your daily dose of dietary fiber. Fiber is a carbohydrate that can’t be broken down by our digestive enzymes, so it passes through the gastrointestinal tract without being absorbed. There are two main types of dietary fiber, insoluble and soluble. Soluble fiber (named as such because it can dissolve in water) is known for slowing digestion and helping the body absorb nutrients from foods. It’s also the type of fiber that our gut microbes love to munch on, a.k.a. a prebiotic. It  is found in foods like oats, beans, peas, some fruits and vegetables, and in psyllium seed-based fiber supplements. Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water and instead sticks around to keep things moving through the gastrointestinal tract. It’s found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Fibers are a key part of good gut and bowel health, which can promote adequate digestion and absorption of several nutrients. Fibers also lower total and low-density lipoprotein (or LDL) cholesterol as part of a healthy diet, may reduce the risk for certain types of cancer and can improve blood sugar control.

Vitamins/Minerals

Plant-based foods contain several vitamins and minerals that are good for your health, including vitamins A, C, E, K and folate and the minerals potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and manganese. These nutrients are vital to the health of our eyes, immune system, muscles, heart, nerves, skin, gut, brain and more! Fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamins and minerals. Varying the color of your veggies can help you get more of those you may be lacking in your diet. Fruits and vegetables aren’t the only plant-based source of vitamins and minerals.  Fortified foods like cereals and pastas can be great options as well.

Tips to Incorporate More Plant-based Foods in Your Diet

A balancing act

Shifting to a more plant-based diet can be great for health, but you don’t need to suddenly become a vegetarian. Including more plant-based foods in an omnivorous diet is a balancing act, but it can be done. Use my favorite “Rule of Three” to make meals and snacks more palatable. Look to include three food groups (think protein with your pasta and pesto) or three macronutrients (protein, fiber and unsaturated fat) to give yourself variety and improve satiety.

Spice it up

Maybe some fruits or vegetables aren’t your favorites, and that’s ok. Try adding some spicy seasoning and see if you change your mind. For extra flair, get creative in the kitchen by sautéing, baking, roasting, or boiling your produce and adding spices like cinnamon, cumin, paprika, or red pepper flakes.

Addition, not subtraction

If the idea of removing certain animal foods from your diet isn’t appealing, consider an alternative approach: add plant-based foods first, without subtracting. If your breakfast right now is bacon and eggs, try adding oatmeal or a piece of fruit. If your typical lunch is a chicken sandwich, add a leafy green salad. Incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet takes time - it might not happen overnight. In time, you may even find yourself enjoying a Meatless Monday meal!

Despite the benefits of following a plant-based diet, it’s not always the most practical choice for everyone. Barriers such as cost, access, convenience and taste exist. When it comes to making healthy changes, we all start at a different place and even the smallest step can lead to a positive change.

This blog post includes contributions from Kris Sollid, RD and Allison Webster, PhD, RD.

Sign Up to Get Regular Servings of FACTS

Imagine you actually had a resource that broke down the sensationalism about food, agriculture, and nutrition into real, science-based information.

  • Join the tens of thousands of mythbusters out there fighting against bad information on food
  • Get no-nonsense, easy-to-understand nutrition and safety insights
  • Read Q&As with experts explaining the latest studies, debates, and news stories
  • Be empowered to make your own decisions about your diet
3 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.