With obesity rates steadily on the rise in the US as well as other countries(1), it’s no surprise that search queries like, diets, what is the best diet, how to lose belly fat and more are always included in Google’s most-searched lists. Today’s sedentary lifestyle coupled with a reliance on convenience foods- you know, the processed, prepackaged kind, has led to this rise in not only obesity but diabetes and food allergies/sensitivities as well.
Diets have been around forever, and they're seemingly constantly evolving- with the newest fad-diets invariably demonizing the food or food group that the last diet hailed as magical. The list of “good” foods versus “bad” foods is in a near-constant state of change, and at this point, it is hard to decipher what’s the real deal when it comes to nutrition. It should be easy enough: what to eat? But that, my friends, is a loaded question if there ever was one.
What we do know for sure is this: making dietary and lifestyle changes can help you lose weight in a sustainable, healthy way and can have lasting health benefits. Today I want to talk about a diet - actually a group of diets - that fall under the plant-based category. If you have been wondering about what a Plant-Based diet is all about, and if it might be for you, you’ve navigated to the right place. Let’s dive in.
WHAT ARE PLANT-BASED DIETS?
A plant-based diet is a nutritional strategy that entails eating foods derived from plants all or most of the time. This includes fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, and whole grains. Little to no animal products are consumed. An emphasis is placed on whole, nutritionally dense foods, with minimal consumption of those as mentioned above prepackaged, processed foods. Plant-based diets focus on consuming foods in their most natural form.
Beyond these fundamental ideas, the definition of plant-based gets a bit murkier.
Since the term plant-based diet is more of an umbrella term for a few diets that follow these basic tenets, it is actually considered more of a lifestyle than a diet in the traditional sense. People who choose to go plant-based also generally (but not always) pay attention to the quality of their food - meaning they try to shop organic, buy foods from local farmers that haven't had to travel great distances to their plate, and if they do choose to supplement with animal products, they want organic, free-range, pasture-raised and grass-fed options, etc.
So a plant-based diet means to eat mostly though not necessarily exclusively plants. You might be familiar with the motto popularized by Michael Pollan, investigative journalist and author of the book, In Defense of Food: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
It’s a good mantra to keep in mind as we delve into the various plant-based diets later on in this article. As you can see, a plant-based diet is not necessarily vegan (zero animal products consumed, including those found in dairy) or vegetarian (no meat consumed but may eat dairy), though they do fall under the term. We’ll discuss this in more detail when we compare and contrast the top plant-based diets.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE PLANT-BASED?
Based on the loose definition above, to be on a plant-based diet could mean any number of things. For example, you could eat plants and plants only; you could eat plants and some animal products but no processed foods or refined sugars. You could eat mostly plants, no animal products, but still, eat some processed foods. See how nuanced it can get? What you need to know for the purposes of this article: there isn’t enough scientific research available yet to say that a vegan diet (for example) is any healthier than one that is mostly plant-based, which also includes some meat. This is excellent news for those on the fence about making the switch to a plant-based diet because it leaves a lot of room for personal interpretation.
WHY DO PEOPLE CHOOSE TO GO ON PLANT-BASED DIETS?
There are a few top reasons that people choose to go on a plant-based diet. They may be staunch supporters and lovers of animals and vow not to eat or buy things in which an animal has suffered for its production, but there are also less extreme reasons - like the health benefits received when eating mostly plants and the potential for weight-loss.
COMPASSION FOR ANIMALS
Many people have chosen to make the switch to a plant-based diet for animal rights reasons. These people will have most likely gone the full Vegan route, which dictates that you must exclude any and all animal products from your life. This means no eggs, no honey, no leather, etc.
People choose to go plant-based for the supposed health benefits. Going plant-based is claimed to be good for everything from increasing your energy levels, your strength and your mood., ridding the body of inflammation, boosting the immune system, warding off cancer, diabetes, and heart diseases. With their low-fat, healthy carbohydrate, high-fiber content, plant-based diets definitely boost the body's metabolism. Below we will go into detail about each of these health claims- which have been backed by significant research and which are still up for debate.
Obviously, the potential for weight loss is going to depend on an individual's caloric intake. You must expend more calories than you take in if weight loss is going to occur. And, with that in mind, you can lose weight on any diet, so long as you maintain that caloric deficit. Seriously, you could eat nothing but pizza, donuts, and beer all day and still lose weight (but you would probably feel terrible, and you’d be missing out on many essential nutrients. Don’t try it.) That being said, people who choose to consume a plant-based diet, on the whole, tend to consume fewer calories. This is because fruits and vegetables are nutrient-dense but not calorically dense. A plate full of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can leave you feeling full with much fewer calories in the tank. You get a lot of bang for your buck, so to speak, and this facilitates weight loss.
PLANT-BASED DIET BENEFITS
There is no doubt that a plant-based diet is good for you. But let’s find out why shall we?
Plants are literally bursting with vitamins, minerals, nutrients, fiber, and protein that are important for your health and keep your body functioning optimally. They contain antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, antibacterial properties, antifungal properties, and more. Obviously, the nutrient profile of each plant is different, so it is crucial to incorporate a wide range of both fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed whole grains to achieve all of the benefits listed below. A great tip is to try and eat as much of the rainbow as possible. Here’s what research has revealed:
A PLANT-BASED DIET LOWERS THE RISK OF CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE
Researchers from Havard conducted a study that tracked the health and lifestyle habits of over 100,000 people for 14 years. Their findings revealed that there was a direct correlation between a higher fruit and vegetable intake, and a lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease. Evidence from another, similar study, indicated that the more plant-based foods an individual consumed, the lower their risk of coronary artery disease and stroke. Specifically, eight or more servings of fruits and veggies per day led to a 30% decrease in the likelihood of suffering a heart attack or stroke, compared to those who ate less than 1 ½ daily servings. (2).
A PLANT-BASED DIET LOWERS THE RISK OF DIABETES
According to the International Diabetes Federation, nearly 387 million people are suffering from diabetes today, and that number is expected to increase to around 600 million by the year 2035. Type 2 diabetes is a preventable disease, and there is a mounting body of evidence to suggest that a plant-based diet can help lower the risk of developing it. A study following over 200,000 people in the US for over 20 years found that consuming a diet that was high in plant-based foods and low in animal products revealed a 20% lower risk of developing diabetes when compared to individuals who consumed little to no plant-based foods (3).
A PLANT-BASED DIET MAY LOWER THE RISK OF CERTAIN CANCERS
Choosing to follow a plant-based diet may reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, according to research. Vegetarian diets have been associated with a significantly lower risk of gastrointestinal cancer, especially those who still consume eggs and dairy (4). Studies have also shown that people who follow a vegetarian diet had a 22% lower risk of colorectal cancer than non-vegetarians. Pescatarians (vegetarians who also include fish in their diets) showed the most significant potential protection from colorectal cancer, with a whopping 43% reduced risk (5).
A PLANT-BASED DIET MAY SLOW OR PREVENT ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE
Numerous studies have shown strong correlations between higher fruit and vegetable intake and a reduction in cognitive decline. A review of nine different studies that included more than 31,000 people discovered that consuming more fruits and vegetables led to a 20% less risk of developing dementia or other cognitive impairments (6). Further research has suggested that a diet rich in fruits and veggies can slow the progression of, prevent, or even reverse the effects of Alzheimer's disease in older adults. It is thought that these brain health benefits stem from a higher antioxidant intake associated with a plant-based diet.
A PLANT-BASED DIET KEEPS YOU “REGULAR”
Sorry to get down and dirty with you here, but it’s important to note that a plant-based diet that is loaded up with fruits and vegetables is also chock full of fiber. And fiber is the compound that keeps you “regular” because it aids in both digestion as well as preventing constipation. Bonus: It also has the potential to lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
A PLANT-BASED DIET CAN BOOST YOUR ENERGY LEVELS
Since fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are easy on your digestive system, you may see a direct increase in your energy levels throughout the day. If your digestive system isn’t functioning correctly, you pay the price with low energy and lethargy. Making the switch to a plant-based diet can help you get through your day not only with more energy but more productively, able to accomplish more.
A PLANT-BASED DIET IS GREAT FOR THE HEALTH OF YOUR SKIN
Listen up, ladies (and gents too)! A plant-based diet can work wonders for the look and feel of your skin. Consuming mostly plants means you’re taking in more vitamins, more nutrients, more antioxidants, and more water than the average Joe (or Jane).
If you are looking to prevent or reverse the signs of aging on your skin, loading up on fruits and vegetables is the way to do it. The antioxidants found in a variety of fruits and vegetables work to protect and defend against free radicals. Those damaging little guys are found in our environment, pollution, and UV rays that lead to the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and the breakdown of collagen in our skin. Fruits and vegetables high in Vitamin C, for instance, which is essential for the production of collagen, help to fight against these free radicals and actually reverse the signs of aging.
Switching to a plant-based diet can also clear up acne and hormonal breakouts. Consuming fewer animal products, dairy, in particular, will decrease your daily intake of saturated fats, long known to be one of the causes of clogged pores, which lead to breakouts.
Oh - and these outward appearance benefits of a plant-based diet don’t end with your skin: your hair and nails stand to reap the benefits as well! Vitamins A and B plus a healthy intake of Omega-3s will help you grow stronger, healthier nails and thicker, shinier hair. Win. Win. Win.
A PLANT-BASED DIET CAN HELP YOU LOSE WEIGHT
I quickly mentioned how a plant-based diet can help you with your weight loss journey, but let’s hear what the research says. A review of 12 published studies found that participants who had been assigned to plant-based diets lost significantly more weight than those who did not alter their diet in any way. Specifically, over an average of 18 weeks, they lost about 4 ½ more lbs than their non-plant-based diet counterparts (7). A plant-based diet can also help you keep the weight off for the long-term, as the study also revealed that those who were able to lose weight through a plant-based diet were also able to sustain that weight loss over a full year follow-up period. This, without even taking into account that just making the simple switch from processed convenience foods as well as carbonated, sugary soft drinks, candies, fast food and refined sugar and grains to a whole foods meal plan that is based on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, is a pretty powerful tool for losing weight all on its own.
A PLANT-BASED DIET CAN HELP YOU SLEEP BETTER
If you have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or with the overall quality of your sleep, you might see improvements in these areas when you switch to a plant-based diet. Some plant-based foods like oranges, pineapples, cherries, and some nuts can actually help your body in the production of melatonin, also known as the Sleep Hormone. Increasing your body’s natural production of melatonin can help you improve sleep quality, regulate your circadian rhythm, and even ease anxiety.
A PLANT-BASED DIET CAN IMPROVE YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
The physical benefits of a plant-based diet are almost endless. Eating mostly plants is literally one of the best things you can do for your body and to improve health outcomes. But it doesn’t stop with your physical body. By increasing antioxidants, regulating blood sugar, and research is emerging that a plant-based diet can be a mood enhancer and even improve your productivity. Many plant-based foods are rich in vitamin B6, potassium, and magnesium, which help your body to produce serotonin. Serotonin is an important chemical produced by that body that works to regulate mood, appetite, sleep, memory, and more. Often referred to as the happy chemical, boosting serotonin production can make you happier and less anxious.
So, here’s what all this science really means: The benefits to be obtained from making the switch to a plant-based diet all come directly from the myriad of vitamins, nutrients, and minerals found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. They’ve got antioxidants, essential fatty acids, phytochemicals, fiber, plant protein, and much, much more. Consuming a variety of these foods is what will give you protective health effects.
A PLANT-BASED DIET IS ALSO GOOD FOR THE PLANET
The benefits of going plant-based don’t just end with you; they extend to our planet as well. People who follow plant-based diets tend to have smaller environmental footprints. Think of your environmental footprint as the effect that you, as a single human being, have on the environment. It is the amount of natural resources that you use, the land and water that is required to produce the goods you consume, and also to get rid of the waste that is generated. By eating mostly plants, you can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption, both of which are significant contributors to global warming. One study found that a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved, as well as 50% less water use by simply shifting the foods we consume to mostly plant-based, which is more sustainable (8). A review which poured through the data of over 63 separate studies, showed that the most significant benefits to the environment were seen with diets that contained the least amount of animal products - vegan, vegetarian and pescatarian specifically.
Speaking of those greenhouse gas emissions, according to the film Cowspiracy (9), livestock and their byproducts alone are responsible for a whopping 51% of greenhouse gas emissions globally. Meanwhile, one to two acres of rainforest are cleared every single second for more animal agriculture, which by the way, is responsible for 91% of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
Not to mention when you make the switch to a mostly plant-based diet and start focusing on food quality as well, buying your produce from local farmers and farmers markets, you also support your local economy.
SO, IS MEAT “BAD” FOR US?
Not exactly. Meat is an incredible source of nutrients that are highly beneficial to our bodies. Meat is rich in protein, B vitamins, iron as well as zinc. Protein is usually the biggest argument in favor of continuing with a meat and animal products diet as protein is essential in the body to build and repair tissues, make enzymes, hormones, and other chemicals, and because protein is an integral part of the structure of our bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.
However, red meat also tends to contain high levels of saturated fat. And processed meats? Well, not only are they typically super high in sodium, research is emerging that links red meats and processed meats like hotdogs to a higher risk of certain types of cancer and heart disease. The same study also found that white meat, like chicken and fish, resulted in lower risk. (10, 11).
At the end of the day, food, like everything in life, is nuanced. Try not to think of food in terms of “good” and “bad” and instead think of them on a spectrum of more nutritious versus less nutritious. When we label a particular food as good or bad, the way we start to feel about ourselves is also directly affected. When you choose to eat it, for example, you are bad too; and this is just not a healthy way of thinking. This thought process - more nutritious versus less nutritious will help you if and when you decide to commit to a plant-based lifestyle.
I WANT TO TRY A PLANT-BASED DIET, DO I HAVE TO GIVE UP ANIMAL PRODUCTS ENTIRELY?
Based on what we’ve already learned, going plant-based doesn't necessarily mean you have to give up animal products entirely, or even right away. Since a plant-based diet leaves a lot of room for interpretation, you may choose to define it as you will. You can, for example, decide to incorporate small amounts of fish and poultry and even dairy products. The point is when making the switch to a plant-based diet, your meals should now center around plant-based foods, and, if animal foods are also consumed, they should be in smaller quantities, with particular focus on their quality. Think of items like dairy products, eggs, lean meats, and seafood as a complement to your meal, not the main part of the dish.
HOW TO GET STARTED ON A PLANT-BASED DIET
If you think you want to make the switch to a plant-based diet and are ready just to get going already, here are some tips to help you get started.
Eat a ton of vegetables.
Ok, I know you know this, but it bears repeating. Try to get veggies on every plate you eat during the day, including breakfast. Lunch at dinner plates should be half vegetables. And don’t forget the rainbow! Eating a variety of colors will ensure you’re getting all of the vital minerals and nutrients associated with a plant-based diet. Don’t forget - hummus, salsa, and guacamole all count, too - make them yourself for a healthy, less processed version!
Shift your relationship with meat.
Before you stop eating meat entirely, start by eating smaller amounts. Use it as a side dish instead of the central part of your plate.
Healthy fats, please!
Fats were demonized in the ’90s, but we now know that fats play a vital part in a healthy, optimally functioning body. Choose healthy fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and nut butters.
Eat What’s in Season
This is a continuation of eating your colorful vegetables! Hit up your local produce store or farmers market and buy some fresh, in-season produce. By eating what is available for that season, you’ll automatically get a solid variety of vitamins and nutrients. Experiment with things you’ve never tried before and seen what works for you and your family.
1 Fully Vegetarian Meal 1x per Week
While you’re making the transition, commit to at least one night per week where your dinner is fully vegetarian. Think different types of beans, rice or quinoa, and some roasted veggies. Yum!
Power up your Breakfast.
Start your day off strong with a bowl of oatmeal, tossing in some nuts and seeds, flavor it with a little heart-healthy cinnamon and a side of fruit. You won’t be missing eggs at all!
There’s a reason your mother always told you to eat your greens. They’re nutritional powerhouses! Have a daily salad or hide them in your morning smoothie. The trick is to switch up your greens, and honestly, the choices are endless! Spinach, kale, collards, swiss chard, etc. Cruise into your produce section and try them all.
Speaking of Salads...
Since we’re on the subject, let’s talk about those daily salads. Bulk them up and make them interesting! Start with your greens but also experiment with veggies- bell peppers, onions, carrots, cucumbers, you can do them all or switch them up. And don’t forget the toppings: black beans or chickpeas, seeds, and nuts, fruits like pomegranate seeds or strawberries all go great on salads and help to make them more of a meal.
Make Fruit your Dessert.
It can be tough to give up that after dinner sweet when you’re trying to cut out processed foods or dairy. Instead, reach for some sweet fruit as it will help you curb that sweet tooth in a healthy, productive way.
Enjoy those Plant-Based Meals you already eat regularly
Is spaghetti with tomato sauce already a staple in your house? How about a delicious veggie stir-fry? My bet is you’ve already got even more plant-based meals that you enjoy every week, and you don’t even realize it! Remember to try to choose whole-grain pasta and breads when possible.
Skip the Processed Stuff
When shopping for groceries, focus on fresh, whole foods as much as possible. When you do purchase foods that come with a nutritional label, try to choose items with the fewest amount of ingredients.
Canned and Frozen are good choices, too!
It doesn’t have to be all about fresh produce either. Frozen fruits and vegetables, in particular, are picked at their absolute optimum ripeness and freshness - meaning they’re packed with the highest nutrient content - and flash-frozen to preserve them in this state.
It’s not about what you’re giving up.
This is a big one, boys and girls. If you only look at this from the perspective of all the things you can’t have anymore, this change is never going to stick. You’ve got to change your viewpoint and switch your perspective to all of the new things you get to try! Which leads me to my next point...
Be up for the Challenge!
I’ll admit, this is a change that isn’t always going to be easy. Eating out, going out with friends, travelling, there are going to be moments when this plant-based eating thing is not only inconvenient, it’s actually downright annoying.
Giving up meat (or eating less of it, for now) will mean you’ll be forced to become a little more adventurous in both your cooking and eating.
You’ll discover Thai, Korean, and even Indian food. You’ll go to farmer's markets and learn to make a meal plan based on what produce is currently in season. You’ll check out and even buy some of those weird vegetables in the produce section that you used to ignore completely. Instead of eating fewer foods, you’re going to eat more!
- Time to Get Creative
Skipping out on meat and potentially dairy maybe removing a lot of your go-to recipes from rotation. But not to worry! This is the time to get creative and have fun!
First, you can try some of those favorite recipes without meat. Vegetarian chili is a great place to start. Then, make use of our good friend, Google, and start searching the internet! You can find anything from single recipes, cookbooks, and even full meal plans all available to you on the interweb. You can also use the internet to look up vegetarian or plant-based restaurants in your area, because who wants to cook all the time?
Save time by planning your meals for the week and prepping them all at once
Cook and store your plant-based meals ahead of time to minimize headaches, confusion, and last-minute heading out to the drive-thru of your local fast-food restaurant.
Don’t quit Meat cold-turkey
You might be the type of person who can say, “I’m never going to do that again” (in this case, eating meat or animal products), and actually stick to it. But if you are, you’re the exception and not the rule. If, on the other hand, you’re human like the rest of us, you’re better off making this change gradually. By taking things slow, you’re setting yourself up for long-term success. By quitting meat cold-turkey, you open the door for negative thoughts to creep in - thoughts like this is way too hard, and I'll never be able to keep this up. And you already know, if you think like that, it's exactly what will come to fruition.
Set healthy goals
Instead, try to set small, manageable goals for yourself. Say, I’m going to start my plant-based diet this week, and what that means for me is for the next 7 (or 10) days, I’m going to make 80% of my meals plant-based. Or, if that doesn’t feel quite lofty enough, try, for the next 10 days, I’m going to eat vegetarian with fish if I want to. The goal itself is all going to depend on what your starting point is and what you’d like to achieve in the long run. Fully vegan? Just getting more fruits and veggies on your plate? Those are two different extremes of this plant-based spectrum, and you’ll have to decide where you fall and where you want to be.
Take those goals and run with them
You’ll know when you’re on a roll, and you can start ramping up the intensity of your plant-based diet. 10 days came and went? Go for 30. Thirty was no big deal? Try losing the fish portion or the dairy and see how you feel.
Be easy on yourself
When you commit to one of these goals, be it 7, 10, 30, or some other number of days, get it done, but remind yourself that if you really, really don’t like it- you can quit. It’s that simple. But, I’m willing to bet that once you get to those long periods, you’ll be loving the way that you look and feel and won’t be thinking about quitting any longer.
Track Progress and Celebrate your Wins
Try keeping a food and mood journal when you start this process. It is incredibly telling to look back over your journey and see the changes going over you, in both mind and body. Keep a record of your energy levels, your sleep patterns, how you feel when you wake up, your moods - literally anything you feel like tracking (and remember you don’t have to do them all at once).
Celebrate your wins, too. Made it 10 days? 30 days? 6 months? Reward yourself for hitting these milestones with something that makes you happy. You’ll not only feel good about your achievements, but you’ll be reinforcing those healthy habits, too.
FOODS TO EAT WHEN GOING PLANT-BASED
Here is a quick, obviously non-exhaustive list of some of the things you’ll be eating on your plant-based diet.
- Fruits: Apples, Bananas, Pears, All types of Berries, Citrus fruits like Oranges and Lemons, Tropical fruits like Pineapple, Mango and Papaya, Peaches, Pomegranates, and more..
- Vegetables: Carrots, Cucumbers, Bell Peppers, Kale, Spinach, Tomatoes, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Onions, Eggplant, Asparagus, and more
- Starchy vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and more.
- Whole grains: Brown rice, rolled oats, quinoa, brown rice pasta, and more.
- Healthy fats: Avocados, olive oil, coconut oil, nut butters, and more.
- Legumes: Black Beans, Red Beans, Peas, Chickpeas, Lentils, and more.
- Nuts and Seeds: Flax Seeds, Almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and more.
- Plant-based milk: Almond milk, Coconut milk, cashew milk, and more.
- Spices, herbs, and seasonings: Mint, Basil, Rosemary, Turmeric, Black pepper, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, chili powder, and more..
- Condiments: Hummus, Salsa, Guacamole, Mustard, nutritional yeast, vinegar, lemon juice, and more..
- Plant-based protein: Beans, Tofu, tempeh, edamame, plant-based protein powders, and more.
If supplementing your plant-based diet with animal products, the most important thing is to choose quality products from local stores or farms.
- Eggs: Pasture-raised when possible.
- Poultry: Free-range, organic, when possible.
- Red Meat: Pastured or grass-fed when possible.
- Seafood: Wild-caught from sustainable fisheries when possible.
- Dairy: Organic dairy products from pasture-raised animals whenever possible
FOODS TO AVOID ON A PLANT-BASED DIET
Aside from meat and other animal products, you are generally going to want to avoid fast food, processed food, added sugars, refined grains. Here is another, non-exhaustive list:
- Fast food: French fries, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets, etc.
- Added sugars and sweets: soda, juice, pastries, cookies, candy, sugary cereals, etc.
- Refined grains: White rice, white pasta, white bread, bagels, etc.
- Packaged and convenience foods: Chips, crackers, cereal bars, frozen dinners, etc.
- Artificial sweeteners: Equal, Splenda, Sweet’N Low, etc.
If you’re making the switch to no animal products whatsoever, you’ll have to start putting on your detective hat, too. Food labels can be confusing and misleading, and some foods that are clearly meat-free can contain hidden animal products. Here are a few seemingly plant-based foods that can have strange animal products snuck in there: Gummies and other candy, beer and wine, salad dressings, non-dairy creamers, bagels, and bread products, refined white sugar, anything with vanilla flavor, worchestire sauce, and more.
THE MOST POPULAR PLANT-BASED DIETS
Now that you’ve got a solid basis of what the term plant-based means when it comes to lifestyle and dietary changes, it’s time to look into some of the most popular plant-based diets and eating patterns out there today. Let’s go over the major details of the Mediterranean diet, the Flexitarian diet, Ornish diet, the Vegetarian diet, and the Nordic diet. These are not only the most popular plant-based diets but more or less the easiest to commit and stick to. They run the gamut from being a lifestyle (not a traditional diet) to diets with a meal plan to follow.
THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET
The Mediterranean diet is a plant-based eating approach that places the most significant emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, plus seafood, olive oil, and a healthy amount of red wine. People who live in this area are known to live longer and live healthier lives than people in other parts of the world. They suffer less from cancer, heart disease, and cardiovascular issues. Researchers think people from the Mediterranean enjoy these benefits because their diet is low in red meat, sugar, and saturated fat while being high in plant-based foods like vegetables and whole grains. They also stay physically active and are generally not obese. Switching to a Mediterranean diet may help you lose weight, improve heart health, and aid in cancer prevention.
It’s important to note that just like plant-based diets, there isn’t one Mediterranean diet that you can follow to the letter, but rather that it is a flexible approach to eating. Fill in most of your diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seafood. You may consume poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt while following a Mediterranean diet, but in moderation.
The Mediterranean Diet is one of the easier plant-based diets to stick to because it doesn’t force you to ditch any food groups entirely. Inspiration abounds on the internet, and a quick google search for Mediterranean recipes can fetch a ton of Mediterranean diet inspired meals.
You shouldn't have an issue with not feeling satiated when following this diet since healthy fats plus fiber are fairly filling, and the majority of your meals will contain fiber in the form of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and cooking with fats like olive oil. It is important to feel satisfied after your meals to avoid overeating as well as maximize enjoyment.
THE FLEXITARIAN DIET
This diet is based on a joining of the words flexible and vegetarian. The concept Flexitarian was created by author and registered dietitian, Dawn Jackson Blatner, and first used in her book, "The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease and Add Years to Your Life.” The idea behind this diet is that you don’t need to completely eliminate meat from your diet in order to see the health benefits that are normally associated with a vegetarian diet. Intrigued? Blatner reasons that if you eat mostly plants, then you can still enjoy some red meat when you’re absolutely craving it.
The Flexitarian diet focuses on adding rather than eliminating foods from your diet. There’s that mindset shift again! By adding fruits and vegetables, whole grains, non-meat protein sources like beans and eggs, you can both improve health outcomes as well as potentially lose weight while following this flexible approach.
This one is more of a diet in the traditional sense, as the Flexitarian book itself provides a 5-week meal plan with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even snack recipes included plus shopping lists to make things extra simple. You’ll save time (not to mention brain power) when making use of these resources. You have the choice to follow the plan exactly or mix and match meals from different weeks to make it your own, making this plan reasonably easy to follow and commit to. That's some flexibility for ya!
THE ORNISH DIET
The Ornish diet is a holistic approach to nutrition, meaning it takes into account the whole of a person in body, mind, lifestyle, environment, and social factors. Its focus is on the reversal of diseases, improving health outcomes, relieving stress, and including more physical activity. The Ornish diet was created by its namesake, Dr. Dean Ornish, in 1977 to help people “feel better, live longer, lose weight, and gain health.” The diet itself aims to be low in refined carbs, fat, and animal protein. It is a whole-food, plant-based eating approach and is made up almost entirely of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, and avoids processed foods and added sugar. The Ornish diet organizes food into five categories from 1 (most healthful) to 5 (least healthy), but the most significant thing about the Ornish diet is that it's not just a diet.
It is a total lifestyle approach that makes recommendations for exercises, stress relief and management, and even social relationships. The Ornish diet focuses on increasing strength training, aerobic activities, and flexibility, and mobility. In the stress management arena, you’ll practice deep breathing techniques, meditation, yoga, tai-chi, or other holistic remedies for relaxation. Daily practice is essential. Finally, social relationships come into play in the Ornish diet, as spending time with friends and loved ones are supposed to affect your health and health outcomes positively.
Here is where the Ornish diet gets a little bit more nuanced. This diet, when followed to the letter, has been scientifically proven to reverse heart disease without any additional drugs or surgery. If this is one of your goals, you’ll need to get serious about this diet, and it will be a little more restrictive. For example, only 10% of your daily calories can come from fat, and little to none of them should be saturated fat. Foods that contain any cholesterol, refined carbs, oils, high caffeine content, or animal products are restricted altogether. The exception being egg whites and a single cup per day of nonfat milk or yogurt, plus some seeds and nuts. An emphasis is placed on complex carbs like peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Two ounces or less of Alcohol is permitted per day. To truly follow this diet you’ll also be including more physical activity, you’ll quit smoking, you’ll include some of the stress-management techniques listed above, and you’ll lean on friends and family for social support.
The Ornish diet doesn’t have to be quite so strict, however, especially if your goals are just losing weight, lowering your blood pressure, or other general health benefits. In this case, you’ll be following what Ornish refers to as The Spectrum Approach, and it means you make your own decisions within the diet’s guidelines based on your personal goals, priorities, tastes, and the level of your commitment.
Either way, on the Ornish diet the best things you can do are to fill your kitchen with fresh fruits and vegetables, make the switch from full-fat to low-fat or nonfat dairy products, skip the refined carbs like white bread and focus on whole-grain choices, limit animal products and processed foods, and add exercise, stress-management and time spent with friends and family to your daily to-do list.
Loosely defined, a Vegetarian diet cuts out all consumption of meat and meat products. There are different types of vegetarian diets, however. There is what’s referred to as a Lacto-Ovo vegetarian approach, meaning they skip out on meat, fish, and poultry, but continue eating dairy products and eggs. Next comes Lacto-vegetarians, who, in addition to the above restrictions, also stop consuming eggs, and finally, Ovo-vegetarians, who take out all dairy products as well, while vegans exclude all animal products both food and otherwise.
VEGETARIAN DIET VARIETY
Vegetarian diets come in lots of shapes and sizes, and you can choose the version that works best for you and your family, your goals, your tastes, and your values.
- A Semi-vegetarian still consumes eggs, dairy foods, and on occasion, meat, poultry, ﬁsh, and seafood.
- A Pescatarian eats eggs, dairy foods, ﬁsh, and seafood, but does not eat meat or poultry.
- A Vegetarian ( referred to above as Lacto-Ovo vegetarian) includes eggs and dairy foods, but no meat, poultry, ﬁsh, or seafood.
- Vegan includes no animal foods or products whatsoever.
Once again, this one is a lifestyle and not a diet with a meal plan. That might make it more difficult as you will have to search out and try your own recipes and cooking, but at the same time might make it easier as there are literally an endless amount of vegetarian dishes, and all can be edited according to which type of vegetarian you might be.
If you’re the cook, scoop a vegetarian cookbook (I’ve listed some suggestions below!) or do a quick internet search and pick out something interesting. You can even find fully downloadable PDFs of a week or month-long vegetarian meal plans if you want to take the planning and brainstorming side out of it. If you’re headed out, almost every restaurant these days has a few vegetarian options and maybe even some vegan dishes, too. One thing to keep in mind, though, vegetarian doesn't automatically equal healthy, so watch your portion sizes and ingredients.
Since a vegetarian diet is so customizable, you really shouldn't have any issue making the commitment to this eating approach and sticking to it. If you aren’t ready to completely give up red meat, however, a vegetarian diet might not be for you - yet.
THE NORDIC DIET
The final plant-based diet I want to talk about is The Nordic diet. This diet was created by a nutritional scientist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark to improve public health and change the way Nordic cuisine was cooked and prepared by infusing aspects of traditional Scandinavian dishes and culture. Once again, this one is a lifestyle approach, so it includes things like a focus on meals enjoyed with friends and family, aims to include sustainable and environmentally friendly choices, and focuses on in-season and locally-sourced produce.
There are 10 ideals that the Nordic Diet describes:
- Eat more fruits and vegetables every day.
- Eat more whole grains.
- Include more foods from the seas and lakes.
- Choose high-quality meat – but eat less meat overall.
- Seek out more food from wild landscapes.
- Use organic produce, whenever possible.
- Avoid food additives.
- Base more meals on seasonal produce.
- Consume more home-cooked food.
- Produce less waste.
Since the Nordic diet has a whole food, back-to-your roots approach to nutrition, it has become a popular choice for those looking to make the switch to a plant-based diet and just overall eat healthier. There is a focus on getting back to the basics, eating what our ancestors ate, ditching the processed foods that have little nutrients, and including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Since the idea is eating locally-sourced foods, you might not be doing it exactly as the Danes are (elk meat, anyone?) But you’ll focus on foods that are local you.
There isn’t any calorie counting involved with this diet, but the Nordic diet does specify that you should shoot for a carbohydrate-protein ratio within your meals. The suggestion ratio is 2 grams of carbs to 1 gram of protein per plate. This ratio, what they feel is a proper balance, is supposed to help prevent weight gain, reduce inflammation in your body as well as lower your risk of chronic disease, diabetes in particular.
There is also a focus on foods that are low on the glycemic index, meaning they are digested more slowly and don’t cause blood sugar and insulin levels to spike fast. If you choose to go on this diet, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with foods that are low on the GI Index. But for starters, foods like rye bread, steel-cut oats, lower-fat dairy products, and most fruits and vegetables are low on the glycemic index.
The protein ratio on your plate will help you fill up and keep you feeling full, contributing to your satiety, an essential factor if you are trying to lose weight while following the Nordic diet. Protein will come from seafood sources like shellfish or white fishes, plus lean cuts of pork, veal and beef, and skinless poultry. Salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in omega-3s. Plus, legumes, like lentils and beans, are good protein choices for those trying to follow the Nordic diet while focusing on consuming a little less animal products.
In “The Nordic Way” you can find a full month-long meal plan for this diet. A typical plate should be half vegetables, fruits and/or berries; one-fourth low-GI carbohydrates, and protein-rich foods in the final quarter. Protein should be included in every meal and snack. Starches like rice and pasta don't have to be eliminated entirely from your diet, but try to focus on lower quantities than plant-based foods, lean meat, and fish.
Oh and one last thing: don’t forget your water bottle! The Nordic diet emphasizes drinking water throughout the day and with every meal.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the popular plant-based diets that are on the market, so to speak, today. There are plenty of books out there that have created their own plant-based diets and each come with their own specific recommendations of what to eat, what not to eat, how and when to exercise, where to buy your food, and more. These diets can all range in how much they cost, as well. In general, skipping over the butcher section in the supermarket can save you money, as meats are one of the most expensive additions to our dinner plate. By the same token, produce can sometimes be costly as well, especially if you are buying organic, non-local, or out of season varieties. This is just one more reason to shop at your local farmers market and buy produce that is currently in season as much as possible. You can also stock up on items in bulk when they’re in season and freeze them for later. The diets also range in how strict or lenient they are, making them less or more easy to follow. Most of them have plenty of recipes to choose from, with a simple trip to your local bookstore or grabbing your laptop and searching the internet. Finally, there is a very broad range in the overall definition of plant-based, so you can follow a diet that works and makes sense for you. The only thing that is really a non-negotiable: eat more fruits and vegetables.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR ATHLETES
So, we’ve discussed how plant-based diets can improve your physical and mental health, can benefit animals (obviously) and the environment, and how they can help you lose weight. But what is weight-loss is not one of your goals at all? Can a plant-based diet still be beneficial if you are an athlete, for example, or if you are trying to build more lean muscle?
The answer is a resounding YES! First of all, there are already many famous athletes from all different sports who have made the switch to plant-based or full-on vegetarian/vegan lifestyles and are seeing incredible successes - and we can follow their lead. Athletes like Serena Williams (tennis), Nate Diaz (MMA), David Haye (boxing), and Lewis Hamilton (Formula 1 racing) have all gone plant-based and are literally at the top of their (respective) games. Not to mention, take a quick peek at some of the most powerful and muscular creatures from the animal kingdom like horses, gorillas, and ox, and guess what? They’re all herbivores. This means that meat is absolutely not essential when it comes to both building and maintaining healthy muscle.
While we discussed a caloric deficit that is needed for weight loss and how you can achieve this with any diet as long as the deficit is maintained, the opposite is true when you are actively trying to build muscle mass- you need to focus on maintaining a caloric surplus. You can still achieve this on any diet you choose to go on, which is why a plant-based diet can still meet your needs if you are an athlete or just looking to bulk up. So, to achieve this surplus on a plant-based diet, read: taking in more calories than you expend both through exercise in addition to your metabolic expenditure, you will need to focus on getting healthy, whole foods on your plate, with a healthy combination of carbs, fats and focusing specifically on your protein intake. You already know what they are: fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans/legumes, and for fats, stick to whole food-based fats like avocados, nuts, and seeds. Beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are the more calorically dense options (as opposed to fruits and vegetables), so you’ll want to load up on those to make sure you’re hitting that caloric surplus each day.
Muscle growth isn’t just about your diet, of course, you’ve also go to put in the work when it comes to both your training and your recovery.
LET’S TALK PLANT-BASED PROTEIN
In all honesty, coming up with a plant-based meal plan that is high in protein is more uncomplicated than non-vegetarians would have you believe. If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “But where do you get your protein?!” coming from a meat-eater, then you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Listen - it comes from the food! Plant-based foods contain protein, and all you have to do is eat enough of them calorically, and eat a variety of them to make a complete amino acid profile, and you’re done. Here are a few examples of plant-based proteins:
Soybeans and quinoa top the list because they are both examples of complete proteins, meaning that they contain all nine essential amino acids that are needed by humans. Tofu, tempeh, and edamame are plant-based foods that are rich in protein. Chia seeds can be a fun addition to your diet, as these tiny little nutritional powerhouses contain about 3 ½ grams of protein per two tablespoons. Not to mention, they also boast other essential nutrients like calcium, iron, and zinc. Another popular seed is Hemp! Hemp seeds contain around 6 ½ grams of protein per two tablespoons and are ridiculously delicious when added as a salad topping or in your morning smoothie. Black Beans (15g of protein per 1-cup), Lentils (18g of protein per 1-cup), and Chickpeas (14g of protein per 1-cup) are yummy common additions to a plant-based diet when it comes to getting more protein. How about Nutritional Yeast? This is a tasty addition for plant-based eaters not only because it contains about 8 grams of protein per two tablespoons, but can be used to replace parmesan cheese on your pasta, salad or popcorn.
While food should be your main focus when it comes to getting protein, you can also supplement with protein as well, and there are quite a few good options out there when it comes to plant-based protein powder. These are great for meals in a pinch or post-workout smoothies and snacks. My best advice is to do your research if you decide to supplement with plant-based protein powder. Try to choose one with a short and to the point list of ingredients, one that is organic if possible, and to keep in mind that “all-natural” doesn't have any legal meaning at all. Supplements are still murky waters as they don’t have a ton of FDA oversight, so make sure you are doing your part to choose the right one for you - especially if you are going through all the effort of eating plant-based and trying to clean up your diet and avoid processed foods, you don’t want to blow it all on a shady choice of protein powder.
I’ll end with this: no matter if your goals are weight loss, weight maintenance, or weight gain in the form of healthy, lean muscle mass, a plant-based diet can work for you.
PLANT-BASED DIETS: FINAL THOUGHTS
With all of the different diets out today, between fad diets, lifestyle diets and other nutritional philosophies, all of whom are in the media claiming to be the next big food revolution, it can turn the simple act of eating - something we need to do to sustain life - uncomfortable, complicated simply, and even produce feelings of guilt or embarrassment if you aren’t doing it the “right way.”
But honestly, all of the different diets out there today are really more common than you think. No matter what foods they are prescribing or avoiding, the thing about diets is that they make you pay attention to what you’re buying, cooking, and ultimately putting in your mouth. In this case, plant-based diets are no different. Forget numbers, forget macronutrient breakdowns, forget good foods and bad foods and just simply focus on eating more fresh, whole foods.
As obesity rates, heart disease, diabetes, allergies, and the predominance of a sedentary lifestyle continues to rise, it is more important than ever to start making dietary and lifestyle changes. As we have seen, a plant-based diet is a viable solution to these issues. A plant-based diet is healthy, includes vitamins, nutrients, and minerals that are essential to optimal body functioning, can reduce the risk of these chronic diseases, and in some cases, even reverse the damage done. Plant-based diets can potentially boost your mood, your happiness, and your energy, and they can most definitely help you lose weight. On the flip side, a plant-based diet doesn’t mean you have to give up your athletic body type, either. By concentrating on your caloric surplus and getting protein from a variety of sources, you can still build and maintain lean muscle.
Finally, a plant-based diet can work for literally anyone, as there are so many different factors that you can switch up to make it a viable solution for you, your family, your goals, your preferences, and your values. When it comes down to it, choosing to follow a plant-based diet will absolutely promote overall health and well-being.
For Further Reading…
Want to dive even deeper into the topic of plant-based diets? I’ve got a few recommendations for you!
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
I mentioned Pollan’s motto earlier in this article, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” so it just makes sense to list his book here!
- Flex Appeal: A Vegetarian Cookbook for Families with Meat-Eaters by Pat Crocker and Nettie Cronish
If not all members of your family are ready to jump on the plant-based bandwagon with you, things can get challenging. This book is excellent if you’re trying to cook and prepare meals for people with different dietary approaches
- River Cottage Veg: 200 Inspired Vegetable Recipes by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
This “vegetable cookbook” is more like a manifesto on why you need to eat more vegetables, and stat. To inspire you, River Cottage Veg is brimming with delicious vegetarian meals. Plus, most of the recipes can be adapted to meat-eaters in your household, as well.
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