You’ve likely seen the term “plant-based” popping up everywhere.
In the marketing of Impossible Foods products. All over the snack world. In one-sided films posing as documentaries.
But what, exactly, does “plant-based” mean?
That’s unclear at this point, as there is no USDA or FDA definition of the term.
“The term ‘plant-based’ has been used to describe a few different dietary approaches,” says Charlotte Martin, M.S., R.D.N. “Some use the term synonymously with vegetarian and vegan diets and others use it to describe a diet that’s composed mostly, but not entirely, of foods derived from plants,” she says.
So what’s the difference? Let’s break it down.
What does “plant-based” mean?
A plant-based diet is one that focuses on foods mainly from plants, like legumes, nuts, grains, produce like fruit and veggies, and other types of plant proteins, says Maggie Michalczyk, M.S., R.D.
“It doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat, seafood or dairy. Rather, you are proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources,” she says. For example, you might eat meat on occasion but don’t make it the focus of your meals.
You can animal products, such as beef, fish, poultry, and eggs and dairy, can be eaten on a plant-based diet. “When switching to a plant-based diet, meals are less centered around animal proteins, like chicken, dairy, seafood, and eggs. Instead animal foods can serve more as a complement to some meals,” says Martin. “For example, you might enjoy a big bowl of oats and berries that has some Greek yogurt mixed into it,” she says.
That said, it’s important to choose nutritious plant-based foods most of the time. Foods like white pasta and potato chips are considered plant-based foods, but eating a lot of them can weight gain and other health issues, says Martin.
Plus, eating entirely plant-based foods could lead to low levels of several key nutrients such as vitamin B12, zinc, and iron. “It’s for these reasons that I don’t typically recommend vegan or strict vegetarian diets unless the person feels an ethical responsibility to avoid consuming animal products or simply doesn’t like the taste/texture of them,” says Martin.
What does “vegan” mean? And how’s it different than “vegetarian?”
Although there are different levels of vegetarianism and veganism, all approaches exclude the consumption of animals (meat, poultry, and seafood) and possibly animal-derived products (eggs, cheese, and milk), says Martin.
“The vegan diet excludes all animal products from the diet, including the animals/seafood themselves (i.e. meat, poultry, and seafood) plus animal-derived products (i.e. eggs, cheese, and milk), but less strict vegetarian diets, such as lacto-ovo-vegetarian, exclude meat, poultry, and seafood, but allow eggs and/or dairy products (i.e. cheese and milk),” she explains.
If you are vegan or vegetarian, you may want to supplement. “Excluding certain groups of foods like in a vegetarian or vegan diet can lead to certain nutrition deficiencies like B vitamins and iron,” says Michalczyk.
And it can make it hard for people to eat enough high quality sources of protein, as not all plant-based sources of protein are complete, so they don’t all contain all the amino acids necessary to build muscle, she adds.
Soooooo what diet is best for me?
“I think many would benefit from a general plant-based diet, where increasing plant-based foods becomes the main focus without eliminating animal-based ones. Increasing plant-based food intake could help with weight loss, controlling blood sugar, and lowering cholesterol,” says Martin.
And if you are a fan of eating meat but see the benefits of increasing your fruit and vegetable intake and exploring more plant-based proteins, then a plant-based eating might be for you, adds Michalczyk.
If you want to give a plant-based diet a try, Martin recommends starting slow. Start by incorporating a plant-based meal two to three times per week. Take a look at your current diet—what, nutritious plant-based foods do you already enjoy? Consider upping your intake of those first to ease into it.