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What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

 A person who follows a plant-based diet should restrict their food intake to fruits, vegetables, seeds, legumes and grains. It can also include foods derived from plants, such as soups, smoothies, certain baked goods, pizza, meatless burgers and more. In a plant-based diet, you wouldn't eat meat or fish and would avoid dairy products and eggs. However, there is some confusion among healthy eaters about the exact definition of a plant-based diet. While there is no 'official' source or set of rules to follow, the below guidelines will help distinguish this eating style from other popular diets. 
 
plant-based diet

Guidelines

Should you choose to adopt a plant-based diet, you don't necessarily need to give up meat, fish, and dairy for good. A plant-based diet is more of a lifestyle than a set of strict rules. In a plant-based eating plan, what you are being asked is that you prioritize plant-derived foods over meat, fish, and dairy. 

Different Types

There are a number of diets you are likely already familiar with which can be considered plant-based diets as they emphasize plant-derived foods and minimize meat and dairy. 

1. Vegetarian diet: In this diet, you avoid meat, seafood, and poultry. There are vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy, in which case they are technically referred to as lacto-ovo vegetarians. Unless they limit their consumption of such foods, they are not necessarily considered plant-based eaters. 

2. Vegan diet: In this diet, you avoid meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, or any food made with those ingredients. However, the diet does not restrict processed foods, added sugars or fat. 

3. Whole foods plant-based diet: In this diet, meat, seafood, poultry, and dairy is avoided. Plant foods are consumed in their whole form, especially vegetables, fruits, legumes as well as seeds and nuts. 

4. Mediterranean diet: This diet focuses on plant-based eating but it encourages consumption of fish and usually includes small amounts of chicken, dairy products, eggs, and red meat.

5. Flexitarian diet: This is also known as a 'flexible vegetarian' and this eating plan emphasizes plant-based foods but allows for occasional allowances of foods that are not typically considered vegetarian. 

6. Raw food diet: This is typically a vegan diet in which you would avoid all foods that you would typically avoid on the vegan eating plan, along with any foods cooked at temperatures higher than 118°F. 

7. Fruitarian diet: A vegan diet that predominantly focuses on fruit. 

8. Macrobiotic diet: A vegan diet that emphasizes natural, organic whole foods that are grown locally. While plant-based foods are emphasized, meat and seafood may be consumed on occasion.

plant-based diet

Healthy eating

You might assume that eating a diet full of salads, smoothies and vegetable-based soups is healthier than other eating styles. While in some cases this may be true, a published paper recently suggested that 'physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, particularly those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.' Still, not all plant-based diets are healthy. In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology examined the difference between a healthy plant-based diet, one that primarily included whole foods, and a less healthy plant-based diet - one that included more processed foods. Study authors concluded that healthy plant-based diets were associated with a significantly lower risk for coronary heart disease, while an unhealthy plant-based diet is associated with higher risk. 

So, if you are looking to boost your health with a plant-based diet, remember that diet quality matters when it comes to overall health outcomes. If you are looking to reduce your risk for a certain condition, studies examining the relationship between plant-based diets and your risk for specific diseases have been examined. 

1. Heart health

Plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, evidence has shown. In addition to the study above, there have been numerous studies that link vegetarian diets, vegan diets and other plant-based eating plans to specific heart-related outcomes. It has also been found that people who follow a low-fat diet and plant-based foods, were more successful at lowering their cholesterol. 

2. Diabetes

Numerous studies have shown that eating a plant-based diet may help reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes and may also help treat the disease once diagnosed. "Plant-based diets not only appear to guard against getting diabetes in the first place, they may successfully treat the disease better than the diabetic diets patients typically are placed on, benefiting both weight and cholesterol," says Michael Greger M.D. FACLM, in an article for NutritionFacts.org. 

3. Cancer

Studies have also shown that people who follow vegetarian and vegan diets have lower rates of cancer. Some researchers cite a 10-12% reduction in overall cancer risk. It has also been found that consumption of certain meat products has been linked to higher rates of cancer. 

plant-based diet

Plant-based diets for weight loss

A plant-based diet is likely to help you lose weight. This may occur simply because changing your eating pattern requires you to become more thoughtful about your food choices. Furthermore, it helps you learn eating practices that are helpful for weight loss, including meal planning and increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables. This is why many physicians recommend a plant-based diet for patients who need to slim down. 

Getting started

If a vegetarian lifestyle is new for you, you need not be intimidated. Meatless diets have become easy to follow, more than ever. The key is to stock your kitchen with healthy plant-based foods so you don't feel deprived. Here are some tips to help. 

Take it one step at a time: If you are not ready to commit fully, you can take small steps to eating less meat. A great starting point is to begin with Meatless Mondays or to challenge yourself to eat two to three meals each week which do not include meat or dairy. 

Make healthy swaps: You can eat almost all of your favorite foods when you follow a plant-based diet. You just need to make a few clever swaps. For instance, if you love burgers, grill a Portobello mushroom and place it in a bun with your favorite toppings. Enjoy pizza with colorful veggies instead of meat and cheese. Add soy protein powder to smoothies instead of yogurt.

Learn to enjoy legumes: When you start a plant-based diet, beans are a must and they are an essential source of protein and fiber, giving you the sense of fullness and satiety that meat gives you. 

Have whole grain as often as possible: Opt for whole grain bread and pasta when you can. Legumes and whole grains also provide protein and fiber which can make sticking to your new eating plan easier. 

Eat the rainbow: It's easy to get stuck in a rut with plant-based eating, just like any other eating plan. As you move away from meat and dairy, aim for a colorful diet of fruits and vegetables to promote variety. Enjoy bright, orange peppers, blueberries, leafy greens, purple eggplant, red potatoes or pink passion fruit. 

Save money with frozen foods: While fresh fruits and vegetables are flavorful, you may also opt for frozen foods that are usually just as nutritious. Keep frozen berries, peas, corn and other veggies on hand. To save money, you could also buy seeds and nuts in bulk. 

Plan meals in advance: The best way to keep a successful diet is to plan your meals in advance. Keep cut veggies and fresh fruit on hand and prep meals for the week on Sundays. 

plant-based diet

A meal plan sample

To give you an example of what to eat when you are trying to avoid meat and dairy, there are plenty of options. Here are a few to keep in mind: 

Plant-Based Breakfast Ideas

Monday: Oatmeal with nuts and bananas
Tuesday: Avocado toast with a bowl of berries
Wednesday: Vegan zucchini bread
Thursday: Tofu scramble with sauteed veggies
Friday: Fruit smoothie with soy protein powder

Plant-Based Lunch Ideas

Monday: Creamy broccoli soup (make it creamy with white beans instead of dairy)
Tuesday: Dairy-free corn chowder
Wednesday: Mixed grain salad with grilled vegetables
Thursday: Whole grain wrap sandwich with avocado and sliced veggies
Friday: Portobello mushroom burger

Plant-Based Dinner Ideas

Monday: Three-bean chili
Tuesday: Zucchini noodles with olive oil and tomatoes
Wednesday: Spaghetti and meatballs made with mushrooms
Thursday: Eggplant lasagna with dairy-free cheese
Friday: Loaded sweet potatoes

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