Dropping the phrase “plant-based diet” is hip when talking nutrition these days. But why is it so hot right now? Lauren Manaker, RDN, who is based in Charleston, South Carolina, suspects it’s because of increased awareness of the health and environmental benefits that come along with eating this way. Some of that could be the result of documentaries that throw shade at eating meat and other animal products, such as What the Health (2017), Cowspiracy (2014), and Forks Over Knives (2011).
But what does “plant-based diet” mean, anyway? Is it the same thing as being vegetarian or vegan? Or does this diet just mean you make an effort to pack more veggies into your meals?
What Does Following a Plant-Based Diet Mean, Exactly?
Technically, all of the above interpretations are correct. “Some people use the term ‘plant-based diet’ as a synonym for the vegan diet,” says Summer Yule, RDN, a nutritionist based in Hartford, Connecticut.
“Others may use the term in a broader way that includes all vegetarian diets, and I’ve also seen people use ‘plant-based’ to mean diets that are composed mostly, but not entirely, of plant foods.”
The main idea is to make plant-based foods the central part of your meals. “A plant-based diet emphasizes foods like fruits, vegetables, and beans, and limits foods like meats, dairy, and eggs,”
Manaker says. From there, more restrictions could be put in place depending on how strict you want to be. “It may completely eliminate foods from animals or just limit intake, depending on the individual’s interpretation,” Manaker says.
That means meat and seafood don’t necessarily need to be off-limits — you might just decide to cut down on how frequently you eat those items.
Think of “plant-based” as a broad category of diets, with other more specific diets falling under its umbrella. For example, the Mediterranean diet is a version of a plant-based diet because even though it incorporates fish and poultry, the emphasis is on plant-based foods, Manaker says.
Vegetarian and vegan diets are also plant-based. Whole30, a popular diet and lifestyle plan, doesn’t usually qualify. “The Whole30 diet traditionally is heavier on animal proteins, though it is possible to follow this diet in a plant-based way,” Manaker says.
What Does the Current Research Say About Plant-Based Diets?
Most people who adopt this way of eating do it for the potential health benefits. “There have been many cardiac benefits linked to eating this way, like reduced cholesterol,” Manaker says. “Some studies suggest that eating a plant-based diet may improve fertility parameters, and it also may reduce your risk of developing [type 2] diabetes.” A review published in July 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Public Health supports her statement.
One study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in July 2017, linked diets rich in healthy plant foods (such as nuts, whole grains, fruits, veggies, and oils) with a significantly lower risk of heart disease.
Another study, this one published in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology in May 2017, found that following a plant-based diet can help prevent and treat type 2 diabetes, and it cites research that suggests this diet may help reduce the risk of other chronic illnesses, including cancer. And a review published in October 2018 in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care suggested that following a plant-based diet can have a positive impact on emotional and physical well-being, quality of life, and general health for people living with type 2 diabetes, while also improving physical markers of the condition in this population.
Food List of What to Eat, Limit, and Avoid
What to Eat and Drink
• Vegetables (including kale, spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, sweet potatoes, asparagus, bell peppers, and broccoli)
• Fruits (such as avocado, strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, apples, grapes, bananas, grapefruit, and oranges)
• Whole grains (such as quinoa, farro, brown rice, whole-wheat bread, and whole-wheat pasta)
• Nuts (walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, and cashews)
• Seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and hemp seeds)
• Tea (including green, lavender, chamomile, or ginger)
What to Limit
• Dairy (including milk and cheese)
• Meat and poultry (like chicken, beef, and pork)
• Processed animal meats (such as sausages and hot dogs)
• All animal products (including eggs, dairy, and meat if you’re following a vegan diet)
• Refined grains (such as “white” foods, like white pasta, rice, and bread)
• Sweets (like cookies, brownies, and cake)
• Sweetened beverages (such as soda, and fruit juice)
• Potatoes and french fries
• Honey (if not vegan)
What Are the Scientifically Proven Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet?
Diet is the biggest predictor of early death. A classic American diet that’s high in saturated and trans fats, sodium, and processed meat puts you at a disadvantage when it comes to health and longevity, while a diet that promotes whole foods and plant-based ingredients appears to have the opposite effect. As the following studies show, adopting a plant-based diet may help reduce the likelihood that you’ll need medication, lower your risk of obesity and high blood pressure, and maybe even help prevent or manage type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Researchers found that following a plant-based diet was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. The nine studies involved about 307,100 participants, and were adjusted for factors such as smoking status and exercise frequency that otherwise could have affected the results. Researchers therefore deduced that the lower risk was due to participants’ diet choices.
The reason for this lower risk of type 2 diabetes may be improved function of beta cells, which help produce insulin (the hormone that keeps blood sugar levels stable). Past research has noted that
as type 2 diabetes progresses, beta cell function declines — and this can cause dangerous fluctuations in blood sugar levels. But a randomized trial published in February 2018 in Nutrients found that after just 16 weeks following a plant-based diet, participants had better beta cell function and insulin sensitivity compared with the control group — not to mention improved body mass indexes (BMIs) and less belly fat. Manaker agrees that a plant-based diet can help you manage your weight, and may even lead to weight loss if you follow it in a healthy way. “Most people [who transition from a typical American diet] also start to feel like they have more energy,” she adds.
And if you’re not ready to give up on animal proteins just yet, don’t worry. Another study found that, while adding plant-based proteins to your diet can help lower your risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, there was no increased risk associated with animal proteins. So while it’s not necessary to completely eliminate meats and dairy from your diet, you can still lower your risk of certain diseases by making an effort to include more plant proteins. To set yourself up for success, Manaker suggests making a shopping list heavy on produce, beans, and plant-based proteins to make sure you have plenty of options to reach for when you get hungry.
Summary on What It Means to Eat a Plant-Based Diet
The plant-based diet is a category of diets that have this in common: “All plant-based diets limit animal-derived foods in favor of plants,” Yule says. Instead of a diet centered on meat and dairy, the starring roles are played by vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. It’s a fresh, flavorful approach to eating and has been shown to have significant health benefits, including weight loss and disease prevention.