A plant-based diet tends to consist of nutritious foods, naturally low in fat and high in fiber, that are filling and good for the heart, brain and waistline.
While a vegan diet eliminate all animal products, plant-based diets do not. Instead, they focus on eating mostly plants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Plant-based diets are becoming increasingly popular, and it’s no wonder when you consider some of the health benefits. A review of studies published in Journal of Geriatric Cardiology (opens in a new tab) discovered that going meatless could prevent, control and even reverse many chronic diseases stemming from heart disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
However, people who avoid meat, seafood and dairy can sometimes become deficient in vitamin B12, which in extreme cases can lead to neurological damage, according to a study published in Neurosciences (opens in a new tab).
In this article we talk to registered dietitians Nigel Denby (opens in a new tab) i Sophie Medlin (opens in a new tab) to learn more about the plant-based diet, including what to eat, potential health benefits, and more.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is based on foods that come from plants without ingredients derived from animals. It usually includes vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruits.
This is different from being vegan, which is when you avoid all foods and animal by-products. Strict vegans may also choose to boycott wool, silk, beeswax, leather and fur.
What are the potential benefits of a plant-based diet?
Lower risk of type 2 diabetes and improved kidney function
Consumption of red meat and poultry has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, in part because of the high volume of heme iron in these meats, according to findings in the Singapore Chinese Health Study (opens in a new tab).
Decreased arthritic pain
Medlin says, “The evidence here is mixed, as some studies (opens in a new tab) have been able to show reduced levels of inflammation with a plant-based diet. However, the risk of deficiencies in B12 and other micronutrients may be higher on vegan and vegetarian diets, which can negatively affect arthritis.
“Eating more plants is definitely a good idea with arthritis, as they have anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Eating more plants doesn’t have to mean eliminating animal products.”
Sophie Medlin is a consultant dietitian and president of the British Dietetic Association in London, UK. Sophie has expertise in gastrointestinal and colorectal health. She worked in acute hospitals specializing in gastrointestinal diseases before moving into academia, where she worked as a lecturer at King’s College London.
It keeps your brain sharp
The physiological benefits of following a plant-based diet are many, but there are also potential mental ones. Boston University School of Medicine (opens in a new tab) Researchers found that by eating more plant-based foods such as berries and green leafy vegetables, while limiting your intake of foods high in saturated fat and animal products, you could slow heart failure and ultimately reduce your risk of heart failure cognitive and dementia.
Better heart health
“Plant-based diets tend to have lower saturated fat and higher intakes of unsaturated fat and fiber, a winning combination for heart health, which in turn is linked to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes,” says Denby.
Lower levels of “bad” cholesterol.
Numerous studies have shown the positive effects of plant-based diets, especially a vegetarian or vegan diet combined with nuts, soy and fiber, on cholesterol levels.
“Plant-based diets have been associated with reduced levels of LDL cholesterol, also known as our “bad cholesterol,” says Denby. “LDL cholesterol promotes atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fatty plaques in our blood vessels. As a result, LDL cholesterol increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. Therefore, lowering LDL cholesterol helps reduce the risk of suffering from cardiovascular diseases”.
But Medlin cautions that not all plant-based diets are created equal. She says: “Plant-based diets tend to be lower in saturated fat, although this is not always the case, particularly as people increasingly rely on plant-based foods.”
Improvement of intestinal health
Vegetarian and vegan diets have been shown to promote a healthy mix of beneficial bacteria promote intestinal and general health.
A plant-based diet can make it much easier to get the recommended 30g of dietary fiber per day, which will support your gut health.
Denby says, “Your gut is home to numerous bacteria that use fiber specifically prebioticsto feed itself and produce beneficial short-chain fatty acids that support our health, including appetite control.”
Medlin says, “A study published in Frontiers in nutrition (opens in a new tab) found that a plant-based diet may result in a more diverse and stable microbiome, but more research is needed in this area. Ideally, a plant-based diet contains lots of different plants every day and that’s what can improve our microbial health and therefore our gut health.”
Denby says: “If a plant-based diet is high in fibre, it will also increase satiety, as fiber takes time to digest, helping you feel fuller for longer. This can help some to try to control their weight, as it can decrease how often someone eats, thereby reducing energy intake.Some research (opens in a new tab) has shown an association between plant-based diets and reduced BMI.”
A study a List of magazines (opens in a new tab) found that of more than 10,000 people who ate different diets, those who followed a plant-based plan had significantly lower intakes of energy, total fat, and saturated fat, compared to those who did not.
“In general, those who follow a vegan diet tend to have a lower BMI than omnivores,” adds Medlin. “But now that we have so much processed vegan food, this difference in BMI is likely to become less apparent. Some people gain weight on a vegan diet because they eat a lot more carbohydrates than they do on an omnivorous diet. Others will lose weight with a vegan diet, as they will cut out processed meat, baked goods and a lot of fast food. We are all different.”
If you’re looking to transition to a more plant-based diet, check out ours plant based diet for beginnersas well as ours plant based meal plan.
Also, while research suggests that plant-based diets can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, this depends on the quality of your diet.
“A plant-based diet high in saturated fat will still increase the risk of these health conditions,” explains Denby. “At the end of the day, the nutrients you’re taking in still matter, whether they’re plant-based or animal-based.”
A systematic review published in nutrients (opens in a new tab) The journal concluded that vegetarian and vegan diets reduced blood pressure compared to omnivorous diets. These researchers suggested that this effect may be related to a higher intake of fiber and antioxidants and a lower intake of saturated fat in these diets.
What can you eat on a plant-based diet?
According to Medlin, the term “plant-based” tends to encapsulate many fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains. It doesn’t mean you are strictly vegetarian or vegan, so dairy and meat can be consumed.
“In general, we think of a plant-based diet as mostly plants with animal products contributing more, for example, a salad with a small amount of chicken or an egg,” says Medlin. “Strict vegetarians do not consume any meat products and vegans do not consume any products derived from an animal.”
“There are no hard and fast rules because the term ‘plant-based’ has not been defined,” says Medlin. “It’s important to remember that sugar is plant-based, and so are chips and other less healthy foods, so which does not define “healthy”. A plant-based diet would generally be recognized as containing less animal products than a standard diet, although when government guidelines are set, a ‘normal’ healthy diet is a plant-based diet.”
Are there risks to a plant-based diet?
It’s absolutely possible to get all the right nutrients with a carefully planned plant-based diet, says Denby.
“However, the risk of micronutrient deficiencies in a plant-based diet occurs when it is poorly planned,” he says. “When you first start a plant-based diet, you may need to spend more time planning your meals to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need.
“If someone doesn’t consume dairy regularly, they should try to find one alternative to milk which is fortified with calcium, iodine, vitamin D and vitamin B12.
“If someone doesn’t like oily fish, they can find essential omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts, flaxseed or rapeseed oil. Alternatively, a microalgae supplement will help ensure good omega-3 intake.”
According to Denby, to make sure you’re getting enough iron, you should include iron-fortified beans, lentils, nuts, dried fruit and breakfast cereals in your diet. Selenium is also often overlooked, but just two or three Brazil nuts each day will ensure you get all your selenium requirements for the day.
Vitamin B12 is normally found in foods of animal origin, such as meat, fish, dairy and eggs. However, plant-based sources include nutritional yeast, yeast spreads, and B12-fortified breakfast cereals.
“Someone is more prone to nutrient deficiencies on a plant-based diet if they are restrictive about the foods they eat and don’t include variety,” says Denby. “Variety ensures you get a variety of nutrients. It’s also important that if you eliminate a certain food from your diet, such as milk, you replace it with a food that contains similar nutrients, such as fortified dairy alternatives.”
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide medical advice.