What Is a Plant-Based Diet, Really?

By Karla Walsh

Everyone from Kim Kardashian West to your next-door neighbor are buzzing about it. Nope, it’s not the latest blockbuster film or trendy fashion line—it’s a plant-based diet. And Google Search trends prove that the rest of America is interested, too. But what exactly is a plant-based diet…and how is it different from following a vegan or vegetarian diet?

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet means something different to different people, explains Jenna A. Werner, RD, creator of Happy Slim Healthy, but in general, a plant-based diet is a diet that is comprised mostly of foods derived from plants. “In other words, the menu is primarily made up of fruits, vegetables, grains, seeds, legumes, and some animal-based products,” she says. “Each plate is loaded with different colors.”

RELATED: 7 Easy Plant-Based Dinners Your Family Will Love

So, a plant-based diet can be interpreted as a vegan diet (a.k.a. no animals, eggs, dairy, or honey). But here’s the catch: Vegans who eat a ton of processed foods technically wouldn’t be plant-based. It’s really about what you’re adding to your diet, not what you’re taking away.

“Many define a plant-based diet as ‘mostly plants,’ says Stephanie Schiff, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Huntington Hospital in Huntington, New York. “In this case, the diet is not necessarily even vegetarian.”

For what it’s worth, that’s 100 percent our philosophy at Nutritious Life: fill your plate with a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes, but don’t deprive yourself of healthy animal products, either (see: dairy and grass-fed meat).

What can (and can’t) you eat on a plant-based diet?

Most view a plant-based diet as a whole foods plan, featuring: 

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables 
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Plant-based oils
  • Beans and legumes
  • Plant-based proteins, such as tofu and tempeh
  • Dairy (organic when possible)
  • Meat (grass-fed when possible)

Notably, a plant-based diet isn’t necessarily a vegan diet, so meat and dairy are on our list. But a plant-based eater generally abstains from anything artificial because processed foods are often loaded with sugar and sodium and low in vitamins and minerals. Meaning, you’d cut back on:

  • Processed meats
  • Fast food
  • Packaged foods
  • Refined grains

“I always encourage my clients to add more fruits, vegetables, and plants to their diets,” Werner says. “More plants mean more nutrients—and more volume.”

The health benefits of a plant-based diet

Beyond the environmental impacts of eating less meat, numerous studies have linked plant-based diets with lower risk for chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and some cancers. The American Diabetes Association endorses a plant-based diet to control blood sugar and the American Heart Association says a mostly plants plan can reduce the likelihood of having a heart attack, stroke, or another form of cardiovascular disease. Plus, plant foods are full of fiber, which can increase feelings of fullness and prevent overeating.

Is a vegan plant-based diet the healthiest of all?  

“Some proponents and researchers would have you think so, but there isn’t a definitive answer yet as far as large-scale, evidence-based research is concerned,” Schiff says. 

And again, whole foods are an important part of a plant-based diet. So, a lunch of Oreos, Fritos, and beer could be considered vegan, but it’s far from plant-based. Minimally-processed and whole foods are very nutritious, but processed, high-sodium choices begin to decrease the potential wellness wins of eating less meat. 

“Check your nutrition labels,” Schiff recommends. “Some of those new meat-like plant-based burgers that look and taste like meat may pack a ton of sodium, and some processed vegetarian products can be full of chemicals. So be careful about what else is in the food you’re eating.” 

RELATED: A Simple Guide to the 10 Most Popular Diets

A sample plant-based diet menu

The bottom line on the plant-based diet

A plant-based diet embodies the Nutritious Life food philosophy perhaps more than any other “trend.” It’s balanced, sustainable, and flexible, all important things in a healthy, long-term diet.

Werner believes that the best thing about a plant-based diet is that nothing is off-limits, and you can define what it means to you. “In my opinion, it’s not a ‘diet’ at all, just a great way to include more goodness in your food intake.”

Both Werner and Schiff agree: Animal products need not be completely off-limits, but the more plants, the better.

“You shouldn’t feel bad if you can’t go totally vegan or vegetarian, and can maybe make it as far as pescatarian, with only fish as your animal protein,” Schiff says. “It’s your diet and your life, and you have to be comfortable with it.” 

RELATED: Why Dairy and Plant-Based Foods are Better Together

(Photo: Shutterstock)

About Nutritious Life Editors

The Nutritious Life Editors are a team of healthy lifestyle enthusiasts who not only subscribe to — and live! — the 8 Pillars of a Nutritious Life, but also have access to some of the savviest thought leaders in the health and wellness space — including our founder and resident dietitian, Keri Glassman. From the hottest trends in wellness to the latest medical science, we stay on top of it all in order to deliver the info YOU need to live your most nutritious life.

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