What Is a Plant-Based Diet and How To Get Started With It

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What Is a Plant-Based Diet - a bowl of salad
Author Name: Mia Barnes
Date: Tuesday January 2, 2024

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Plant-based diets have become popular as a solution to the alarming rise of obesity and overweight cases among Americans. With people trying everything from weight loss pills to strenuous exercise routines and medical procedures, many see the plant-based eating pattern as a healthier solution to maintaining weight. Learn what a plant-based diet is, its benefits and downsides and how to transition to this lifestyle safely.

What Foods Do You Eat on a Plant-Based Diet?

A plant-forward eating pattern focuses on foods primarily sourced from plants, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and oils. It’s worth noting people have different definitions of a plant-based diet. For others, it means exclusively eating foods made from plants, while some people prioritize plant sources but may also consider meat or dairy products whenever their alternatives are limited. This eating habit has several health benefits and is preferred by those who want to manage their weight or health conditions and reduce their risk of diseases.

What Are the Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet?

There are abundant upsides to a plant-based eating structure. 

1. Supports Healthy Weight

Eating fruits and vegetables can help you lose excess weight. They’re rich in fiber — good for digestion and metabolism — and have high water content, promoting a feeling of fullness. 

Fruits and vegetables also have low calories and fat so even if you eat more than one serving, it has little to no effect on weight gain. 

2. Reduces the Risk of Diseases

A plant-based diet can lower your risk for various illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes. Fruits, vegetables and nuts are packed with essential vitamins and minerals — like vitamin C and antioxidants — to power up your immune system. With a stronger immunity, your body is well-armed to fight inflammation before it becomes a disease.

3. Environmentally Sustainable

Fruit-bearing trees and vegetables are more sustainable as they use fewer natural resources and don’t leave a massive toll on the environment, unlike animals. Changing to a plant-based diet can reduce diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by 49% and land use by 76%, making it appealing to people with sustainable lifestyles.

What Can You Not Eat on a Plant-Based Diet?

When on a strict plant-based diet, you can’t eat all types of meats. Some people are confused as many think they can eat eggs. The standard of the full plant-based eating pattern is all sourced from plants so this excludes eggs. However, others may also choose to eat primarily plants and small amounts of meat and still label this eating style plant-based. 

What Are the Variations of Plant-Based Diets?

A plant-forward eating style has multiple variations to suit the eating habits of many people.

  • Vegan: Excluding all meat, dairy, eggs, poultry, fish and seafood. All foods are sourced from plants.
  • Vegetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian: Including dairy and eggs but excluding meat, fish, seafood and poultry
  • Semi-vegetarian or flexitarian: Including dairy and eggs and small amounts of fish, seafood, poultry and meat
  • Pescatarian: Including eggs, fish, seafood and dairy and excluding poultry and meat
  • Lacto-vegetarian: Including dairy but excluding fish, eggs, seafood, poultry and meat
  • Ovo-vegetarian: Including eggs and excluding fish, seafood, dairy, meat and poultry

Based on this, not all plant-based diet systems are restricted to plant sources. While others may prioritize consuming fruits and vegetables, they may also occasionally eat meat, poultry, dairy and seafood.  

What Are the Downsides of a Plant-Based Diet?

Plants offer abundant sources of fundamental nutrients, but is it enough to fully nourish the body? Some people may hail a fully plant-based diet, but others may argue fruit and vegetable food groups are inadequate to support the body’s optimal health. Here are some known setbacks of a plant-based eating lifestyle.

1. May Increase the Risk of Stroke

A long-term study spanning two decades looked at the risk of stroke and health problems in almost 50,000 individuals based on the diets they incorporate into their lifestyles. It revealed that while the rates of heart conditions were down to 22% among vegetarians, their chances of experiencing stroke were 20% higher. About three cases in every 1,000 vegetarians had a high likelihood of stroke in 10 years due to hemorrhagic stroke or bleeding in the brain caused by a ruptured blood vessel. No high stroke risk was observed among pescatarians. The study has limitations, but it’s worth reconsidering whether integrating a plant-based diet is safe. Consult your health care provider to check if it suits your health situation.

2. May Lower Bone Mineral Density

Meat is an excellent nutritional source for bone health. Another study found that pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans have a higher risk of hip fractures than meat eaters. Fish eaters and vegetarians were more prone to experience hip fractures by 26% and 25%, respectively. Vegans were 2.3 times more at risk of hip fracture and 2.05 times more likely to suffer a broken leg than meat eaters. 

If you have conditions affecting your bones, the other three types of diet may not be ideal for you.

3. Nutritional Deficiency

Several health conditions of the mind and body can arise from insufficient nutrition. Those eating foods exclusive from plants are more prone to nutritional deficiency with the following substances:

  • Vitamin B12 
  • Vitamin D3
  • DHA
  • Heme iron 
  • Carnosine
  • Creatine
  • Taurine

B12 — a common deficiency among plant eaters — is essential for producing red blood cells and maintaining brain health. It’s abundant in fish, dairy products, eggs and meat. A few plant options containing traces of this vitamin are tempeh, shiitake mushrooms and nori seaweed. Supplementation may be an alternative if you want to improve the amount of vitamin B12 in your body without giving up a plant-based diet. 

How To Get Started With a Plant-Based Diet

 While a plant-based diet pattern is generally safe, consult your physician on the risks of transitioning. When you’re cleared of any adverse effects, introduce small changes first to allow your body to adapt to the new eating habit. Here are a few tips to begin with a plant-based diet.

1. Create a Weekly Meal Plan

You can ask for help from a dietician or nutritionist for ideas. It’s ideal for habit-building if you have a plan and know what you should have for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the entire week.

2. Stock up on Plant-Based Foods

Load up your fridge with fresh fruits and vegetables and get everything you need to pursue a healthy diet in handy.

3. Make Your Healthy Plate Colorful

Switch up your plate by including as many colored veggies and fruits as possible to get the nutrients you need for good health.

4. Visit Your Doctor Regularly

Meet with your doctor for an assessment to know immediately if you have a nutritional deficiency and begin supplementation. 

Reconsider a Plant-Based Diet

An eating routine consisting of plants has undeniably many health benefits — but it has limitations and it’s clearly not for everyone. This type of eating style requires comprehensive and mindful meal planning and preparation. You’ll have to include as many varieties of vegetables and fruits — which sometimes are not very accessible — to provide adequate nourishment to the body. 

Nutritional deficiency can likely happen if you regularly eat the same thing. To prevent this from happening, work with a food expert who can closely oversee your diet.

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