A plant-based diet is one where the diet is primarily focused on eating plants or the produce grown from them. Unlike other diets, there are many variations of a plant-based diet and while some exclude specific food groups others merely advise against eating them.
For example, some would argue that all foods derived from animals, oils, and processed foods are not allowed. While others would argue that so long as the majority of the diet was plant-based then eating the odd pleasure item would be totally fine. It is for this reason that a grey area has surfaced around the term plant-based diet.
To clear the confusion here are some plant-based diets and their allowances:
Varieties Of Plant-Based Diets
- Vegan – excludes meat, eggs, dairy products, and all other animal-derived ingredients.
- Vegetarian – may include eggs and dairy foods, but no meat, poultry, ﬁsh, or seafood.
- Lacto-Ovo vegetarian – does include eggs and dairy foods, but no meat, poultry, ﬁsh, or seafood.
- Lacto vegetarian – includes dairy, but no eggs, meat, poultry, ﬁsh, or seafood.
- Ovo vegetarian – includes eggs, but no dairy, meat, poultry, ﬁsh, or seafood.
- Semi-vegetarian – mostly vegetarian with occasional eggs, dairy foods, meat, poultry, ﬁsh, and seafood.
- Flexitarian – semi-vegetarian that includes limited meat intake or being vegetarian on certain days of the week
- Pescatarian – semi-vegetarian that includes occasional eggs, dairy foods, ﬁsh, and seafood, but no meat or poultry.
- Macrobiotic – semi-vegetarian that includes processed foods with or without animal products.
- Whole Food Plant-Based – excludes processed foods, sugars, oils, dairy, seafood, animal products, and derivatives.
- The Mediterranean Diet – largely plant-based but with no real exclusions
As you can see plant-based diets come in lots of shapes and sizes, and you should choose the version that works best for you.
Unfortunately, healthy eating does not have a one size fits all solution and it’s vitally important to recognize this. Although we may look the same, different people have different needs, and some needs might be very specific. Therefore individuals should consider involving a nutritionist and a doctor to help, advise, and support them in their decisions.
Vegan and vegetarian diets are well understood these days. However, there are specifically two diets fast growing in popularity and it is these two diets that we will discuss here. These diets are the whole food plant-based diet and the Mediterranean diet.
What Is A Whole Food Plant-Based Diet
Dr. T Colin Campbell originally coined the term “whole food, plant-based diet”.
He defines the term as meaning, “only plant-based foods and no animal products“.
Furthermore, a whole food plant-based diet focuses on eating foods from plants which should be eaten as close to their whole unprocessed form as possible. It includes a wide variety of plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, tubers, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and small amounts of healthy fats.
It does not include animal products and their derivatives, such as meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs. Nor does it include processed foods, oils, or sugars. It is therefore argued by many nutritionists to be the most sustainable, natural, and healthiest diet. Many also argue that it is the best diet for achieving long-term health and longevity of life.
However, as previously stated, there are no one size suits all diets so this diet may not be suitable for you.
Foods To Be Avoided On A Whole Food Plant-Based Diet
- All animal-based foods and meats including fish, dairy and eggs
- Processed and refined foods including sugars, flours, and rice
- Vegetable oils including coconut, canola, and olive
- Foods with additives, sweeteners, preservatives or colorants
- Genetically modified, chemically sprayed or artificially enhanced foods
Health Benefits Of A Whole Food Plant-Based Diet
- Most plants are naturally low in calories but high in fiber which means that weight loss and weight management are easier to control. In addition to this hunger pains and the accompanying stress can be avoided by no longer having to count the calories.
- Eating a plant-based diet will encourage the growth of healthy gut bacteria which can be advantageous to the human body. This bacteria will control the spread of various diseases and in some cases reverse their effects, such as type 2 diabetes.
- Although weight loss is not the primary goal of a plant-based diet, dismissing processed and refined products will help you lose a few pounds.
- Plants have the power to control and reverse various diseases, like heart disease and certain cancers.
- Over time you will benefit from better skin color, stronger hair, and nails.
- Improved digestion and overall gut health. The diet is high in fiber which helps avoid constipation and indigestion.
- Since you substitute refined sugar with fruits and berries, you inevitably improve your blood glucose and sugar levels. That’s why your risks of diabetes-related conditions go down.
- Eating clean carbs, protein and antioxidants helps you stay more energetic.
- By consuming various fruits and veggies with high vitamin C content—that stimulates collagen production—you boost the metabolism and slow the aging processes.
The Main Problem Encountered When Starting A Whole Food Plant-Based Diet
When moving to any new diet it is not uncommon to experience complications as the body adjusts to it. This is especially true of a whole foods plant-based diet as it requires your body to undergo a great change.
This is because the diet includes a wide variety of plant foods eaten in their whole unprocessed form. This sudden explosion of fiber, natural sugars, healthy nutrients, vitamins, and minerals can then overload the gut bacteria. Unfortunately, the effects you experience can include bloating, flatulence, constipation, stomach, and intestinal pains and diarrhea.
It sounds frightening, doesn’t it! Therefore in my judgment, I would advocate a much gentler approach when beginning this diet.
Try changing just one meal a day/week to one which is entirely whole food plant-based. From here you can scale up at your own pace replacing all your foods to the whole food plant-based diet over time.
I also advise you to take the same approach when phasing out your processed foods, sugars, and oils. Phase-out your old diet over time and slowly phase in the new. In this way, you should avoid the possible unpleasant side effects.
However, this does not mean that you can’t go all out and change your diet in one day if you wish to. Some people do prefer that option and do quite well on it with no side effects at all. But please do remember to get medical advice first.
Will I Get All The Nutrients I Need?
Eating a plant-based diet is very nutritious and will provide you with all the essential nutrients you need except for Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. Plant foods have no Vitamin B12 and so anyone on a whole foods plant-based diet must take a vitamin B12 supplement.
What Happens If I Don’t Get Enough Vitamin B12?
Vitamin B12 deficiency is very serious and has a wide range of symptoms and if left untreated, can cause irreversible damage to the human body. Symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include difficulty maintaining balance, depression, confusion, dementia, poor memory, and soreness of the mouth or tongue.
Other symptoms may include tingling of the hands and feet, numbness of the nerves, weight loss, constipation, megaloblastic anemia, tiredness, and a general feeling of weakness. However, the average person only requires about 250 micrograms a day or 2,500 micrograms a week which can be easily absorbed from a supplement.
Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products. For those not on a whole food plant-based diet, it is also found in fortified breakfast cereals. So as we cut these out of the diet and increase the plant intake we also increase the need to take the supplement.
The Mediterranean diet is one that largely consists of a whole food plant-based diet. However, this diet does include a lot of oil consumption. This would arguably be the reason why people from the Mediterranean are healthier but still struggle with some weight issues. For example, there is an amazing 119 calories in just one tablespoon of olive oil!
However, it also has to be said that if olive oil is consumed in the right quantities, especially extra virgin olive oil, it can actually be an aid to weight loss. This is because extra virgin olive oil is unrefined, has no additives, can retain all its antitoxins, and contains oleic acid.
Oleic acid is a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid found in many healthy high-fat foods such as avocado and macadamia nuts.
These monounsaturated fatty acids that are found in olive oil are also healthier than the refined trans fats found in butter and refined oil. So if you do want to add oil fish and meat to your plant-based diet then try the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet has been extensively studied and deeply researched. Therefore the health benefits to those who are eating this plant-based diet have been well documented and proved.
These benefits include:
- Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease
- Improved feeling of emotional and physical wellbeing
- Relief from depression
- Reduced incidence of obesity and greater weight control
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved immunity
- Improved blood sugar control
- lower risk of diabetes
- Research consistently shows a lower risk of some cancers
- Increased longevity.
Plant-based diets have been shown to offer all these benefits and more. They also include all the necessary vitamins, minerals, fibers, and essential nutrients required to keep the human body in optimal health. (Except for Vitamin B12 in the case of a strict whole foods plant-based diet).
In addition, a plant-based diet stimulates the growth of healthy gut bacteria which can help with hormone imbalance issues.
9 Daily Decisions Associated With A Plant-Based Diet
- Eat whole grains for breakfast. Stay clear of refined breakfast cereals and add fruit, nuts and/or seeds where possible.
- Change your milk to plant-based milk. Kinds of milk that have fewer calories and less fat than cows milk include soy, almond, oat, coconut, or rice milk.
- Make healthy choices around fats. Remember that we need fats and that not all fats are bad for you. Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFA) such as those found in almonds are considered helpful in the world of weight loss and weight management.
- Let meat be an infrequent choice. There are many benefits to be had for you and the environment if we all eat less meat. Try thinking of meat as treat rather than as a necessity.
- Eat lots of vegetables. There are thousands of vegetable-based recipes online including snacks and smoothies so get creative and eat the rainbow.
- Greens are good. Leafy green vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet. Eating leafy greens provides you with antioxidants and phytochemicals and they are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. All this goodness and they are low in calories.
- Snack on soup. Vegetable soups can be made, frozen, heated, and transported very quickly whilst being extremely nutritious and filling. Try thinking of soup as more than just a meal but more like a low calorie, instant hydrating pick me up.
- Be creative with salad. A salad is more than just lettuce, cucumber, and tomato. First, try filling a bowl with a mixture of romaine, spinach, baby, or lambs lettuce then add beetroot, beans, peas, seeds, carrot, and tofu. Then secondly, just look at this as your base and add your passion from there. I guarantee you that you will be snacking on this salad all day and will never get bored with it.
- Eat more fruit. Fruit is not just for dessert. Mother nature combined all her knowledge and made fruit the ultimate food. Its high in fiber, low in calories and carries all the nutrients, water, and minerals that are essential to life. Don’t overlook the power of fruit but think of it as nature’s sweets.
So choosing to eat a plant-based diet doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and must never eat meat or dairy. Rather, you are proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources and therefore improving your diet. How far you go and how quickly you get there is completely up to you and only you.
Don’t get hung up on the labels or change your diet because of pressure from other people.
The only person in charge of your body is you.
Remember, plant-based diets come in many forms, and they are all beneficial to the body. This is true no matter which forms they take. A strict whole food plant-based diet requires that a Vitamin B12 supplement to be taken regularly and in small amounts, about 250 micrograms a day.
Whereas a Mediterranean diet is far more relaxed and takes less will power to make it work. Vegan or vegetarian diets can be far more complex and are great if you want to niche down with like-minded individuals.
However, no matter which diet you choose, your health will improve, and you might buy yourself a few extra years to boot!
Mark Aspland is a proud father of two boys, would be amateur actor and green living enthusiast. He has been sharing hints, tips and sustainable living content on his website Sustainability Dad since august 2019.
He now has an army of followers who are like hearted individuals passionate about the environment and how to affect positive change through peaceful action.