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Plant-Based Diet: Definition and Benefits Examined

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Key Takeaways

  • Plant-based diets are becoming more popular among consumers because of the health benefit associated with consuming this type of diet.
  • Types of plant-based diets include vegan, ovo vegetarian, and pescatarian.
  • Some difficulties associated with consuming a plant-based diet include strategic food planning and preparation time in addition to limited options when dining out.

Plant-based diets have become increasingly popular and for good reason.1 With mounting evidence of health benefits associated with a diet that does not include animal products, plus the positive effects of this diet on the planet, it’s no wonder that more and more conscious consumers are switching to a plant-based diet.1

Plant-Based Diet: What Is It?

A plant-based diet is free from or minimizes the consumption of animal products.2 Food groups included in this diet are fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, seeds, and grains.2

There are various types of plant-based diets:

  • Vegan: No animal products are eaten at all, including dairy and eggs.3 
  • Raw Vegan: Incorporates aspect of a vegan diet with the added restriction of no cooked or processed foods.4 
  • Vegetarian: No meat is consumed, but the diet allows for dairy and/or eggs if desired.3 
  • Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian: Does not consume meat but does eat dairy and eggs.3 
  • Lacto Vegetarian: Does not consume meat or eggs but does eat dairy.3 
  • Ovo Vegetarian: Does not eat meat or dairy but does eat eggs.3 
  • Flexitarian: A primarily plant-based diet with occasional consumption of meat.3 
  • Pescatarian: A plant-based diet plus the addition of fish as the only animal product consumed.3 
  • Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet: Avoids all animal products as well as refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, refined grains, and artificial sweeteners.4 
  • Mediterranean Diet: A diet consisting of whole grains, legumes, olives, olive oil, fish, vegetables, fruit, and leafy greens, which are foods commonly found in the Mediterranean region.5 

The Health Benefits of Eating a Plant-Based Diet

Studies show that adopting a plant-based diet has multiple health benefits, as it is  a cost-effective and low-risk intervention for some chronic health conditions.

A study published in The Permanente Journal identified several health measurements that may be lowered following the incorporation of more plant-based proteins:6 

  • Body Mass Index (BMI) 
  • Blood Pressure 
  • Cholesterol Levels [1]
  • Hemoglobin A1C (HbA1c)

A plant-based diet may also reduce the risk of ischemic heart disease mortality and cancer and lower the number of medications needed to manage chronic disease states.6,7 Specific patient populations that can benefit  from a plant-based diet include those with diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension.6 

What About the Cons? 

There are not many disadvantages to a plant-based diet. The most pressing concern about removing animal products from your diet is the potential for a B12 deficiency or lack of sufficient protein.8,9  Currently, animal protein is the only complete protein source that encompassess all available amino acids.8,9 

Potential mineral deficiencies with a plant-based diet include iron and calcium.8,9 However, it’s important to note that food alternatives exist to supplement these deficiencies. A cup of dried figs has the same amount of calcium as a cup of milk, and 1 cup of cooked lentils provides 37% of the daily iron requirements.8,9 

It can be helpful to remember some of the largest mammals are vegetarian, such as elephants, bison, rhinos, cows, and gorillas. These animals are able to receive sufficient protein to develop substantial muscle mass while eating a plant-based diet.

Plant-based protein comes primarily from nuts, legumes, grains, and seeds, but these foods consumed individually does not complete a protein chain.10 A wide variety of these foods need to be consumed to ensure that a plant-based diet provides sufficient protein.10  Green peas and edamame are also high in protein as well as spirulina, a blue-green algae.11

Other difficulties that accompany a plant-based diet include strategic food planning and preparation time in addition to limited options when dining out. 

The Bottom Line

When comparing the pros and cons of a plant-based diet, it’s easy to see that the benefits of a plant-based diet far outweigh the disadvantages. Improved health and longevity are proven outcomes for the plant-based diet. A daily multivitamin and annual exam including laboratory testing for vitamin and mineral levels are ideal to decrease the risk of deficiencies in those who follow a plant-based diet.

References

  1. Drayer L. Change your diet to combat climate change in 2019. CNN Health. Published January 2, 2019. Accessed January 14, 2021. 
  2. Ostfeld R. Definition of a plant-based diet and overview of this special issue. J Geriatr Cardiol. 2017;14(5):315.
  3. The different types of plant-based diets. A Healthier Michigan website. Published April 6, 2020. Accessed January 14, 2021.  
  4. Petre A. How to follow a raw vegan diet: benefits and risks. Healthline. Published December 3, 2018. Accessed January 14, 2021. 
  5. Mediterranean diet. Oldways website. Accessed January 14, 2021.  
  6. Tuso PJ, Ismail MH, Ha BP, Bartolotto C. Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. Perm J. 2013;17(2):61-66. 
  7. Lanou A, Svenson B. Reduced cancer risk in vegetarians: an analysis of recent reports. Cancer Manag Res. 2011;3:1–8. 
  8. Calcium content of foods. UCSF Health. Published October 6, 2020. Accessed January 14, 2021. 
  9. FoodData central. U.S. Department of Agriculture website. Published April 1, 2019. Accessed January 14, 2021.   
  10. Getting your protein from plants. Harvard Health Publishing. Published October 2013.  Accessed January 14, 2021.
  11. Tarver T. Palatable proteins for complex palates. Institute of Food Technologists website. Published March 1, 2016. Accessed January 14, 2021.  

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