The definitions for the concept of a plant-based diet vary wildly. Many use it interchangeably with the vegan diet, some allow for the consumption of dairy products, and others see it as semi-vegetarian.(1) What they all have in common, however, is the predominant consumption of plant-based products. This in itself contributes to many health and environmental benefits, with a few accompanying downsides. This article touches upon what they are.
What is a plant-based diet?
The term “plant-based diet” is inconsistently used and thus sometimes causes confusion and ambiguity.(1) Some agree that it should mean a complete avoidance of animal-derived ingredients, while other sources state that the diet may include fish, poultry and dairy in varying amounts.(1)
However, no matter how much they differ, there is one thing all definitions have in common - they all largely focus on the promotion of healthy plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, pulses, nuts and seeds.(2) A person following a plant-based diet should get most of their nutrients from healthy plant foods.
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is linked to a long list of health benefits, with scientists striving to determine which can be proven to be the result of the diet itself. The term “plant-based” seems to be an umbrella term, so caution is needed when looking at the reported effects of the diet, as research is based on its different types - some containing fish and dairy in varying amounts, others containing no animal products at all.(1) Still, plant-based diets are rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans and pulses, which are known for their health benefits.(3)
Research has shown that, compared to other diets, a well-balanced plant-based diet has contributed to higher weight loss and improved metabolic status.(4) Not only that, but it is also associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes(5), heart disease(6) and some types of cancer.(7) However, the exact reason for this is not understood completely, but it is likely due to the fact that a plant-based diet is high in vitamins, minerals, fiber and unsaturated fats.(8) Following a well-balanced plant-based diet also reduces the amount of sugars, salt, saturated fat and processed meat a person consumes, thus further contributing to a healthier life.(8)
If we look at the broader picture, however, a plant-based diet is beneficial for more than just our health. It is also good for our planet.
Food production has a great impact on our environment. Interestingly, the production of vegetable substitutes typically has a lower impact on the environment than the lowest-impact animal products.(9) Therefore, plant-based diets have the potential of also being sustainable healthy diets.(10) This means they promote all dimensions of an individual’s health, have a low environmental impact, are accessible, affordable and safe, while also supporting the preservation of biodiversity and planetary health.(10) Of course for the plant-based diet to be sustainable, we must also take care to use sustainable packaging, try to minimize food waste and use local and seasonal food.(2)
What are the downsides to a plant-based diet?
We should avoid looking at this topic through rose-colored glasses and admit that a plant-based diet also has some downsides.
Appropriately planned plant-based diets, including vegan, are healthy, nutritionally adequate and may prevent certain diseases.(12) They are appropriate for all stages of life, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and for athletes.(12) The biggest emphasis here is that they should be well-balanced, appropriately planned and carried out, with appropriate quantities of nutrients and quality products. If not, plant-based diets can have the same harmful effect on the body as any other unhealthy diet and can lead to an increased risk of nutrient deficiencies.(12) Particular care is needed when making sure that a person’s requirements for certain nutrients are met, such as B12,(12) which is important for brain function and the production of red blood cells. In this case, fortified foods or supplements are the only suitable source of B12.(12)
It is also worth mentioning that one should be careful when choosing plant-based meat alternatives, as some of them contain large amounts of salt, thus potentially having a harmful impact on our health.(11)
Protein deficiencies are also commonly associated with plant-based diets, but this is a misconception.(2) A person can get enough protein from a plant-based diet, as long as a variety of plant foods, such as pulses, whole grains and beans, are consumed.(2) Some evidence even suggests that a higher consumption of plant-based protein is associated with many health benefits.(13)
How to go about planning a healthy plant-based diet?
Enjoying the benefits of a plant-based diet is about choosing healthy plant foods above the unhealthy ones, limiting the latter as much as possible.(2) When going about planning your diet, make sure to choose unsalted seeds and nuts, whole grains, plant oils rich in unsaturated fat (such as olive or rapeseed oil), and plant food high in protein (such as beans, pulses and tofu).(2) Aim to eat more fruits and vegetables and limit foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt.(2) If you decide to also replace or reduce dairy and meat products, make sure to replace the former with fortified drinks made from plants (such as soy), and the latter with meat alternatives low in salt.(2)
The plant-based diet has many benefits for your health, but simply replacing animal products with plant-based ones is not the way to go. It is very important to base your diet on a balanced variety of foods that will take care of all of your nutritional needs and demands, in order to experience any of the before-mentioned health benefits. If your menu is not filled with diverse and healthy plant foods, the plant-based diet will be no better for you than any other unhealthy diet.
If you do decide to follow a properly executed plant-based diet, you are not only doing your body a favor, but you are also contributing to planetary health. Try to find foods and recipes you enjoy, to make the change more pleasant and enjoyable, so you can stick with it long-term.
(1) Storz MA. What makes a plant-based diet? a review of current concepts and proposal for a standardized plant-based dietary intervention checklist. Eur J Clin Nutr 2021. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41430-021-01023-z.
(2) What is a plant-based diet and does it have any benefits? Food facts for healthy choices. 2021. Available at: https://www.eufic.org/en/healthy-living/article/what-is-a-plant-based-diet-and-does-it-have-any-benefits. [Accessed 29.11.2021]
(3) Bechthold A, Boeing H, et al. Food groups and risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and heart failure: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition. 2019: 59(7), pp.1071-.
(4) Medawar E, Huhn S, Villringer A, et al. The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: a systematic review. Transl Psychiatry. 2019; 9, 226. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-019-0552-0. [Accessed 1.12.2021]
(5) Qian F, Liu G, Hu FB, Bhupathiraju SN, Sun Q. Association between plant-based dietary patterns and risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA internal medicine. 2019; 179(10), pp.1335-1344.
(6) Satija A, Hu FB. Plant-based diets and cardiovascular health. Trends in cardiovascular medicine. 2018; 28(7), pp.437-441.
(7) World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. Continuous Update Project Expert Report. 2018.
(8) Mihrshahi S, Ding D, Gale J, Allman-Farinelli M, Banks E, Bauman AE. Vegetarian diet and all-cause mortality: Evidence from a large population-based Australian cohort - the 45 and Up Study. Prev Med. 2017; 97:1-7. Available at: doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.12.044. [Accessed 1.12.2021]
(9) Poore J, Nemecek T. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science. 2018; 360(6392), 987-992.
(10) FAO and WHO. Sustainable healthy diets – Guiding principles. 2019.
(11) Fresán U, Mejia MA, Craig WJ, Jaceldo-Siegl K. Sabaté J. Meat Analogs from Different Protein Sources: A Comparison of Their Sustainability and Nutritional Content. Sustainability. 2019; 11(12), p.3231.
(12) Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: vegetarian diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016; 116(12), pp.1970-1980.
(13) Naghshi S, et al. Dietary intake of total, animal, and plant proteins and risk of all cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. BMJ. 2020; 370:m2412.