What is a Plant-Based Diet?
Here at Nourished by Nutrition we’re all about designing a lifestyle that is sustainable. It’s about uncovering your forever wellness by tuning into your uniqueness and eating in a way that makes you feel your best.
This is why the eating philosophy here at Nourished by Nutrition is centered around a plant-based lifestyle. It’s not a diet. It’s a way of eating that is sustainable. It’s a way of eating the floods your body nutrients and allows you to be flexible. It is not about starvation, deprivation, or labels. It’s not about conforming to a rigid set of rules or a list of restrictions. It’s about enjoying delicious foods made of healthy, whole-food ingredients.
So consider this your guide to a plant-based way of eating, no matter where you lie on the kale-loving spectrum. This post will break down what a plant-based diet means here at Nourished by Nutrition, the numerous health benefits of this eating style, and the main health components of this eating style!
What is a plant-based diet?
Simply put, a plant-based diet is one that focuses on vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. These foods make up the majority of your plate and in turn the bulk of your diet.
It may be easier to refer to this way of eating as a plant-centric diet.
This allows for a more flexible mindset around eating, while still emphasizing plant-based foods. This does not mean you have to cut out all animal products or never eat meat again. Animal products can be apart of a plant-based lifestyle, but they are just a supporting role. When eating plant-based, the vegetables, legumes, and whole grains take the starring role as the entree. Any animal protein can be thought of as a side or condiment.
Eating a plant-based or plant-centric is flexible and allows you to make the meal work for you by adding animal products of your choice if that’s what your body thrives on. Instead of putting restrictions on yourself and labeling animal products “off-limits”, you focus on the abundance and variety of fresh, colorful whole foods and learn to tune in so you can make the choice to include or exclude certain foods based on how they make you feel.
Plant-based vs. Vegan
Plant-based is really just a board term that allows for a flexible way of eating that is heavy on the plants. It can be thought of as an umbrella term that groups together certain degrees of plant-based eating. If we must talk labels, these include vegetarian, vegan, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, pescatarian, etc.
Vegetarians exclude all meat and poultry from their diets, but some vegetarians eat eggs, seafood or dairy. A vegan diet is an eating pattern that excludes any animal products, including dairy, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and honey. For some individuals veganism, also extends into a cruelty-free lifestyle. This decision is often made regards health, environmental, and/or ethical reasons.
The basic guidelines of a plant-based diet:
Plants, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts are eaten in abundance and make up the majority of what you eat.
Animal products are used as a “condiment” or a much smaller component of the main ingredients, if at all. Quality of animal products is important.
Minimize refined foods, like added sugars, white flour, and processed oils.
The idea here is not to create a list of rigid rules, but rather provide guidelines for you to use when thinking about your meals on a daily basis. If you want to include animal products, great! They now become more of a condiment or small addition to your main, plant-based meal.
If you choose to incorporate animal products into your diet, quality is important. Choose organic, grass-fed, free-range chicken, beef, eggs, and dairy when you choose to eat them. When eating fish look for wild-caught and refer to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood chart.
Benefits of a plant-based diet:
Eating plant-based, whole foods flood your body with the nutrients you need into order to feel amazing. This style of eating comes with so many short and long-term health benefits. A plant-based diet can improve your energy, give you clear, glowing skin, increase clarity and focus, strengthen your immune system, and improve digestion. And that’s just that beginning! This lifestyle also comes with long-term benefits like remediating and preventing a number of diseases. Let’s look at the science.
Heart Disease - heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States. This is due to the Western diet containing a large amount of sugar, salt, cholesterol, and fat. Research shows that heart disease and the contributing risk factors such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity, are preventable and can be reversed by a plant-based, whole food diet. (1) (2)
Cancer - The American Cancer Institute recommends a varied plant-based diet for both prevention and for cancer survivors. The nutrients found in plant-based foods, such as vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber, have been shown to reduce risk of several types of cancer. It’s recommended to reduce the about of cooked meat to 18 ounces or less a week and to avoid processed meat like sausage and bacon. High amounts of red meat increase the risk for colorectal cancer and small amounts of processed meat, eaten regularly, increase the risk for both colorectal and stomach cancer. (3)
Diabetes - A predominantly plant-based diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and seeds with no or few animal products, has been linked to a significantly lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Research shows this way of eating is also beneficial in the management of diabetes. This is likely due to the components of the diet improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing insulin resistance. (4) (5)
Cognitive Decline - Research shows that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables may help slow or prevent cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease due to the phytochemicals and antioxidants. A review of nine studies showed that eating more fruits and vegetables led to a 20% reduction in the risk of developing cognitive impairment or dementia. (6) (7)
Weight Loss - A plant-based diet is most notably associated with weight loss, weight management and prevention. Many studies show that vegans tend to be thinner and have lower BMIs than non-vegans. One observation study of 38,000 adults found that vegans have BMI’s that are about 2 points lower than meat-eaters, even when controlling for other healthy lifestyle factors. This study also showed that the increase in fiber due to plant-based foods have lower body weight and gain less weight over time. (8) (9)
Health Components of a Plant-Based Diet
Fiber - Plant-based foods are excellent sources of fiber. Fiber helps keep you satisfied, meaning you’ll feel full longer. Fiber is also important for optimal gut health and digestion. Certain fiber-rich foods act as probiotics of the good bacteria in our intestinal tract. Not only is fiber good for digestive health, it also reduces the risk of developing several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, and has been associated with lower body weights. (9)
Vitamins, Minerals and Antioxidants - Plants are extremely nutrient-dense, meaning they are excellent sources of the micronutrients (aka vitamins and minerals) that our body needs in order to function optimally. In addition, plants are full of antioxidants which fight free radicals and reverse damage from oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been liked to the development of chronic disease and aging process. (10).
Phytonutrients - Phytonutrients are a type of antioxidant that are responsible for plant’s vibrant colors, flavor and taste. They also may act as antioxidants and help improve immune response, reduce inflammation, and increase detoxification of carcinogens. Some of the most well-known are carotenoids (found in red, orange and green fruits and vegetables including broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes), flavonoids (found in soybeans and soy products like tofu and tempeh, coffee and tea) and isothiocyanates (found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts). (11)
Plant-based or plant-centric eating shifts your focus to embrace minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grain, nuts, and seeds. It is not about starvation, deprivation, or labels. It’s not about conforming to a certain diet or a list of restrictions. It’s about enjoying delicious foods made of healthy, whole-food ingredients. Food should be something to celebrate and enjoy. Ditching the labels and nourishing your body with real food is the most liberating way of eating and living.
We ebb and flow as we age, travel and reach a different season of life, so it’s important to be open to eating what feels best for you at that time, rather than getting caught up in labels we gave ourselves. The foundation of a plant-based diet is built on plants, but ultimate embrace flexibility and make it work for you.
Make sure to check out the Nourished by Nutrition recipe index for healthy plant-based recipes. Stay tuned for the next post on how to start eating more plant-based. This will give you simple steps to take to start incorporating more plants. Plus, an example of what a plant-based day of eating may look like.
I’d love to know, do you vibe with this definition of plant-based? Or does it mean something different to you? Let me know in the comments below. Let’s get the conversation started!