As more and more people become concerned with the impact of their dietary choices on both their personal health and the health of the planet, plant-based diets have gained a lot of attention. A plant-based diet is one that emphasizes foods derived from plants, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes and minimizes or excludes animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs.
There are a variety of reasons why someone might choose to follow a plant-based diet. For some, it’s a matter of personal health; studies have shown that plant-based diets can help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. For others, it’s a matter of environmental impact; the meat industry is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation, and a shift toward plant-based diets could have a positive impact on the planet.
However, there are also some potential drawbacks to consider when it comes to plant-based diets. For one, it can be more challenging to get certain nutrients, such as protein and vitamin B12, solely from plant-based sources. Additionally, some people may struggle with the social and cultural aspects of following a plant-based diet, particularly if they live in areas where meat and animal products are a significant part of the local cuisine.
Overall, the decision to follow a plant-based diet is a personal one that requires careful consideration of individual health and lifestyle factors. In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of plant-based diets in more detail, helping you to make an informed decision about whether or not this dietary approach is right for you.
Generally speaking, plant-based foods are vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. Does that mean we eat those foods and eliminate all others? What about white and other refined grains, dairy, sugars, and packages of vegan foods – or vegan fast foods? They’re plant-based but not necessarily healthy.
We’re going to talk about a plant-based diet in loose terms and say it encompasses a diet with a plant-based foundation with a focus on health and balance; eating more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff.
Taking a broad view, plant-based eating focuses on eating foods that come from plants and other foods that are healthier and nutritionally dense.
A good way to think about a plant-based diet is to put a higher priority of plant-derived foods on animal-based foods and eating foods as close to their natural state as possible – meaning preparing them from scratch.
In this way, a “plant-based” diet encompasses veganism (no animal products or by-products like butter, eggs, dairy, or honey), vegetarianism (includes animal by-products that do not threaten the life of the animal), raw foods (nothing cooked over a certain temperature), Pescatarianism (allows for the consumption of fish), and even Paleo (which incorporates some meat, poultry, fish, and eggs). Ultimately, a plant-based diet precludes eating processed foods.
There are numerous positive benefits derived from eating a plant-based diet. A plant-based diet is:
- Rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
- Heart-healthy, with lower cholesterol and saturated fats and higher in dietary fiber
- Disease prevention. Overall, plant-based diets are higher in antioxidants, helping to reduce chronic inflammatory diseases such as diabetes. Also, staying away from over-processed foods minimizes our exposure to chemical additives.
- Weight loss. Eating less animal fat and more vegetables, fruits, and dietary fiber keeps calories and fat consumption down and promotes better digestion and your metabolism.
- Contributes positively to the environment. The environmental impact of the livestock industry is affected through the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and antibiotics; and depletion of fossil fuels, methane in the atmosphere.
- Animal preservation and ethics. Eating plant-based foods minimizes the exploitation and cruelty of animals. Those with ethical concerns can “vote” with their dollars and feel they are supporting what’s important to them morally.
- Wide variety of food choices. There are lots of options for what to eat, unlike many other diets where you have to deny yourself certain foods you like or that require you to carry a checklist to the grocery store to make sure you’re purchasing the “right” items.
- Plant-based meals can be prepared more quickly – or just as quickly – as other foods. You can even find them already prepared, for instance, in the grab-and-go sections of grocery stores. Examples include bagged produce like washed leafy greens, and semi-prepared entrees and sides in the produce section.
- Less expensive. While eating fresh foods might seem more expensive – especially if they’re organic – some costs can be offset by eliminating meat, poultry, and/or fish and buying bulk dried foods. Plus, beans, nuts, seeds, and grains are relatively inexpensive and filling. Also, fresh foods go a long way in feeding yourself and your family compared to packaged foods in terms of quantity and price.
What could possibly be negative about eating a plant-based diet?
- Fresh produce can be very perishable, so buy just as much as you need to minimize waste.
- Possibly a protein-deficient diet. Animals, milk, and eggs contain necessary amino acids for protein. Plant-based proteins are an incomplete protein source unless properly combined. Make sure you’re eating plants that can supply the appropriate quantity and combination of amino acids.
- Possibly deficient in certain nutrients such as iron calcium, and B12. Plant-based iron is not as bioavailable to the body as animal-based iron, but you can improve your body’s absorption by eating foods containing vitamin C, vitamin A, meat, fish, and poultry during your meals. Getting enough calcium from plants is also more difficult, so pair it with high vitamin D foods like mushrooms which help absorption, and dark leafy vegetables, which contain more calcium. And plants don’t contain Vitamin B12, so you need to add foods fortified in B12, soy, and nutritional yeast to prevent anemia and/or take a B12 supplement. More time for meal planning and preparation – but hey, anyone preparing meals from scratch knows it’s worth the wait. But as plant-based foods become more mainstream, the convenience factor will likely improve.
- If you decide to go vegetarian or vegan, it could be challenging to give up eating animals. But a plant-based diet doesn’t have to exclude animals. Each person can find their happy medium.
Stepping into a plant-based diet doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition and it doesn’t have to happen overnight. Take it a step at a time. Slowly substitute non-plant-based foods and highly processed foods for plant-based and healthier ones. See our examples below for plant-based foods to add to your diet and foods to avoid to maintain a plant-based diet.
As your refrigerator and pantry get emptied, refill with items from the produce section of the supermarket, your local farmer’s market, or health food store. Try to include all the food groups in each meal: plant proteins, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. And don’t forget that zero calorie, zero sugar beverages like Crystal Geyser sparkling water are perfect accompaniments for a healthy plant-based diet.
Add these foods to your plant-based diet:
- Vegetables: kale, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber … stuff you put in your raw salads, and cooked vegetables such as potatoes, squash
- Fruits: all fresh fruits and not dried (dried fruits often contain added sugar and preservatives)
- Whole grains: brown rice, oats, quinoa, barley
- Legumes: peas, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, beans
- Plant-based protein: tofu, tempeh (fermented soybeans), soy milk
- Nuts: any whole and unprocessed nuts and nut butters such as almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, etc.
- Seeds: pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds chia seeds …
- Plant-based oils: unrefined coconut, avocado, grapeseed oils
- Spices and herbs (all, except those with preservatives)
- Unsweetened beverages: coffee, tea, sparkling water
Avoid these foods to maintain a plant-based diet:
- Fast food
- Refined grains: white rice, white bread, refined pasta, white flour, refined cereals
- Packaged baked goods, snacks, and desserts: cookies, chips
- Pre-packaged and canned sauces, soups, and gravies
- Processed meats: bacon, sausage, other smoked meats, lunch meats, and meats, chicken or fish fried in unhealthy oils
- Beverages with added or artificial sugar
- Highly refined cooking oils such as hydrogenated oil