From meatless Mondays to veggie options cropping up at chain restaurants, plant-based diets are getting a lot of attention recently. However, many wonder what makes a plant-based diet so special and if they are all that good for you. Find out as we explore the science behind plant-based diets, as well as their benefits and potential risks.
What is a plant-based diet?
Essentially, a plant-based diet consists of consuming foods derived from plants¹, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds. This kind of diet excludes foods derived from animals, like meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and, in some cases, honey. Different types of plant-based are distinguished by what they exclude. Here are the most common variations of this diet².
- Vegan: Excludes all animal products, but does not limit fat or refined sugar.
- Raw food, vegan: The same as vegan, but does not allow food cooked at temperatures higher than 118°F.
- Lacto-vegetarian: Allows for consumption of milk products, but excludes eggs, meat, seafood, and poultry.
- Ovo-vegetarian: Permits the consumption of eggs, but excludes meat, seafood, poultry, and dairy.
- Whole-foods, plant-based, low fat: This diet focuses on consuming foods in their whole form, including vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, and nuts. Animal products are limited, and fat is also restricted.
- Mediterranean: While it is similar to a whole-foods, plant-based diet, this diet allows for small amounts of chicken, dairy products, and eggs. However, red meat should only be consumed once or twice a month. Fat is allowed, and consuming fish and olive oil is encouraged.
Although the types of plant-based diets vary, studies show that there are benefits to this way of eating.
Health benefits of plant-based diets
Research² suggests that plant-based diets can reduce the risk of:
- Heart disease
- Digestive disease
- Colon cancer
- Breast cancer
Moreover, the mortality rate for people following plant-based diets is significantly lower. A meta-analysis conducted in 2012 found that vegetarians had a 29% lower mortality rate³ than non-vegetarians. Furthermore, a more recent study on healthcare workers during the Coronavirus pandemic showed that those who followed plant-based diets had lower odds⁴ of moderate-to-severe COVID-19 severity. On the other hand, healthcare workers following a low carb, high-protein diet had greater odds of moderate-to-severe COVID-19 severity.
Potential risks of a plant-based diet
Nonetheless, there are some potential risks associated with a plant-based diet. Since the early 2000s, studies have suggested that individuals following plant-based diets experience early menopause. A 2018 study highlighted the connection between diet and menopause, affirming that vegetarians reach menopause earlier than meat eaters⁶. Furthermore, men⁷ who follow plant-based diets also experience hormonal changes, while most women on plant-based diets note changes in their menstrual cycle⁸. Although there are some concerns that plant-based diets can affect cognitive health, a recent study found no correlation between the two. However, it did highlight that people with vegan or vegetarian diets have a higher risk of developing depression⁹.
The importance of a nutrient-rich diet
Even though research shows that plant-based diets have health benefits, it is crucial to consume appropriate levels of fiber, vitamins, and minerals⁵. In addition, consuming enough protein with essential amino acids is vital to maintaining muscle mass, strong bones, and healthy skin¹. Diets that contain little to no animal products can still be unhealthy if they lack nutrients. Therefore, people who choose to follow plant-based diets must obtain their protein from a variety of sources. Some plant-based protein¹⁰ sources that contain essential amino acids include:
A 2017 study¹¹ that analyzed the plant-based diets of 209,000 participants found that the most healthful diets were those that contained only healthy plant foods rather than refined grains, fruit juices, and highly processed foods. Harvard Medical School suggests that the ideal plant-based diet contains a healthy balance of vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins, fruits, water, and healthy oils. At the end of the day, how good a plant-based diet is, depends on the quality of the food consumed.
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- Team, Digestive Health. “What You Should Know About Plant-Based Diets.” Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, 13 Aug. 2020, health.clevelandclinic.org/is-a-plant-based-diet-right-for-you/.
- Tuso, Philip J, et al. “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets.” The Permanente Journal, The Permanente Journal, 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662288/.
- Huang, Tao, et al. “Cardiovascular Disease Mortality and Cancer Incidence in Vegetarians: A Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review.” Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, Karger Publishers, 1 June 2012, www.karger.com/Article/FullText/337301.
- Kim, Hyunju, et al. “Plant-Based Diets, Pescatarian Diets and COVID-19 Severity: a Population-Based Case–Control Study in Six Countries.” BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, BMJ Specialist Journals, 18 May 2021, nutrition.bmj.com/content/early/2021/05/18/bmjnph-2021-000272.
- “The Right Plant-Based Diet for You.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health Publishing, 30 Mar. 2021, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-right-plant-based-diet-for-you.
- Bilodeau, Kelly. “Diet and Age at Menopause: Is There a Connection?” Harvard Health, Harvard Medical School, 10 Aug. 2018, www.health.harvard.edu/blog/diet-and-age-at-menopause-is-there-a-connection-2018081014468.
- Allen, N E, and T J Key. “The Effects of Diet on Circulating Sex Hormone Levels in Men.” Nutrition Research Reviews, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2000, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19087438/.
- Barr, Susan I. “Vegetarianism and Menstrual Cycle Disturbances: Is There an Association?” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 1 Sept. 1999, academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/70/3/549S/4715003.
- Iguacel, Isabel, et al. “Vegetarianism and Veganism Compared with Mental Health and Cognitive Outcomes: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Nutrition Reviews, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2021, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32483598/.
- Olsen, Natalie. “15 Best Plant-Based Protein Foods.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 12 Apr. 2018, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321474#15-best-vegan-proteins.
- Satija, Ambika, et al. “Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults.” Journal of the American College of Cardiology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28728684/.
Ashuni Pérez is a writer in the culinary, as well as health and wellness industries. With a background in teaching and digital media, she loves to learn and help others discover more about their food, where it comes from, and how best to prepare it. A foodie through and through, she is always searching for new recipes and the freshest ingredients.