What Is a Plant-Based Diet? Experts Demystify This Buzzy Term
Plus, find out whether or not a plant-based diet is good for you and what you might eat should you choose to follow one.
From milks to chickpea pastas to blended burgers, it seems as though everything is going to the plants these days. The term "plant-based" shows up on restaurant menus, in news articles and cookbooks, and on product labels in supermarket aisles, yet if you were to ask ten different people to define a plant-based diet you'd likely get ten different answers. "There's no real definition, it's sort of a loosey-goosey term which over time might get more defined," says the Institute of Culinary Education's (ICE) Director of Nutrition Celine Beitchman. At ICE, the term plant-based diet is defined as meaning the bulk of a diet comes from plants. That, according to Beitchman, means more than 60 percent of a diet is from plants.
Monica Ruiz-Noriega, a functional nutrition expert with a Ph.D. in biological sciences and founder of Vigeo Nutrition, takes a slightly stricter approach saying a plant-based diet consists of roughly 85 percent plant foods and 15 percent sustainably and humanely raised animal products such as eggs, dairy, fish, and meat. Percentages aside, a plant-based diet describes an approach to eating that consists of mostly or entirely foods derived from plants.
How Does Plant-Based Differ from Vegetarian, Vegan, or Meatless Diets?
Vegetarian, vegan, and even pescetarian diets can sometimes—but not always—be plant-based. According to Ruiz-Noriega, that's because being vegetarian, vegan, or pescetarian does not necessarily mean focusing on plant-based foods. "Vegans could focus their diet on processed foods, ditching the vegetables and replacing them with French fries, and munching non-stop on packaged cookies which are technically vegan, but certainly not plant-based," Ruiz-Noriega says.
Likewise, a plant-based diet isn't necessarily vegetarian, or vegan, says plant-based home chef and founder of Plant You Carleigh Bodrug, because those diets originated as not simply a diet but a philosophy rooted in animal rights. "Not only do vegans avoid all animal products in their diet, but they seek to avoid any products or actions related to the exploitation of animals in their daily lives," says Bodrug. "Similarly, vegetarian and pescetarian lifestyles originated from the desire to avoid animal exploitation by eliminating some animal products from the diet, but taking a more relaxed approach."
What Foods Can You Eat on a Plant-Based Diet?
There are so many things you can eat while following a plant-based diet. Think vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, and the occasional piece of salmon or even a steak. "All of the foods consumed should be natural, nutrient-dense whole foods—nothing artificial or processed or at least, minimally processed," says Ruiz-Noriega
What Can't You Eat on a Plant-Based Diet?
This depends on whom you ask, but generally if you're following a plant-based diet, you'd avoid or eat very little fast food, added sugars, refined foods, artificial sweeteners, and processed foods—even processed veggie burgers.
What Are the Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet?
Following a plant-based diet opens up your cooking to a wider variety of flavors. "I think one of the greatest benefits is the diversity of foods," says Beitchman. "As a chef you're treated to so many new flavors and textures from different fruits, vegetables, seeds, beans, and grains."
A plant-based diet with its focus on nutrient-dense, whole foods is also healthier for you and the planet. More and more research is finding that a plant-based diet can lower body mass index, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol; a 2018 study found that people who consume more than 30 different types of plant foods each week have a much more diverse microbiome than those who consume 10 or less. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported that if more people switched to a plant-based diet it could reduce greenhouse gases.
How Do I Get Started?
It’s easier and more accessible than you probably think. Begin your plant-based diet by incorporating more vegetables, beans, nuts, and legumes into your lifestyle and gradually introducing non-dairy and non-meat alternatives, suggests David Lee, the executive chef and co-founder of Planta, a plant-based restaurant with locations in Toronto and Miami. Remember to take it one step at a time and treat yourself with grace when you fail. "Strive for consistency not perfection," says Bodrug, adding not to attempt to overhaul your entire diet overnight. She suggests easing into it by treating the meat on your plate as a side dish rather than the main portion of your meal.
As you get more used to plant-based foods look at your favorite foods such as Bolognese sauce or shepherd's pie and think about how you can swap out the animal products such as ground beef for plant-based alternatives like lentils. "This maintains familiarity in your diet, while also moving toward having more plant-based meals," says Bodrug.