Types of Plant-based Diets
How to Choose the Right One for Your Health
Veganism gets a bad rap, with some people unfortunately convinced that the only way to lead a consciously healthy and ethical lifestyle is to be militant and malnourished. In fact, there is an entire spectrum of plant-based diets. There is nothing wrong with going vegan, and it’s actually the best option for plenty of people’s personal moral and health goals. However, if you’re not ready for that sort of commitment, there are all sorts of other options.
The key is that it’s not about being restrictive. “Plant-based” best aligns with semi-vegetarian habits, which simply means: the fewer processed foods and the more plants, the better. Some meat and other animal products are an option, but it’s up to the individual and their own goals. If you’re feeling the pain of grocery price hikes, trying to make that New Year’s resolution work, or simply want a cleaner diet–take the time to see which plant-based diets might fit into your life.
The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Let’s talk about the reasons one might pursue a plant-based diet, first. Those who follow some variation of vegetarianism primarily attribute their decision to one or more of three key goals.
The first goal is physical health benefits. Our mothers always said, “eat your veggies,” and with good reason! Vegetarian diets help with weight management and reduce the risk of heart disease (including heart attacks, strokes, and high blood pressure), some forms of cancer (such as blood, breast, and prostate), Azheimer’s disease, kidney disease, and type 2 diabetes. Plus, plants are the exclusive source for fiber–which is lacking in many American diets. Much of the developed world suffers epidemic rates of obesity and wellness-based diseases, often from a combination of hyperpalatable food and poor food education. Following a plant-based diet is one method of taking control and making healthy choices for our bodies and our community.
Another common reason attributed to the growing popularity of plant-based diets is concern for the environment. When there is 100 degree weather in Siberia and catastrophic freezes in Texas, many of us feel motivated to help out in any small way we can. Plant-based diets are far more environmentally-sound than maintaining livestock: in fact, if the entire world had a diet as meat-heavy as Americans, converting all habitable land around the globe to cattle farmland would still not meet our daily intake needs.
Lastly, many turn to plant-based diets to promote animal welfare. The steak on your plate undeniably came from a living creature, who arguably has the same right to life as the dog by your feet. While there are eco-friendly and morally-sound ways to eat meat for subsistence, 99% of all meat that we consume comes from inhumane factory farms that contaminate groundwater, generate greenhouse gases from tightly packed livestock, and feed the animals with antibiotics (and other undesirables) that lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans.
While each of these facts account for some people’s motivation, everyone has their own reasons for adopting a plant-based diet. Now, let’s find which one is right for you.
The Plant-Based Diet Spectrum
Vegetarian or Vegan?
Conversely, veganism is often accompanied by a moral abstinence from non-food animal products such as leather and wool. There is a learning curve to recognize what foods you have to avoid while shopping, such as butter and food colorings. These restrictions can also lead to deficiencies in nutrients such as iron and vitamin B12, and may require supplements to stay healthy. That said, the exact details of a vegan diet vary from person to person, and if it is something you are motivated to pursue then the learning curve won’t be prohibitive. With a well-planned and balanced variety of plant-based foods, it is entirely possible to follow a vegan diet safely and healthily.
Culturally Plant-Based Diets
Some people apply a cultural aspect to their choices regarding dietary health, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Blue Zone plant-based diets can be extremely heart-healthy.
Consider the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is based on plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. It also includes fish, seafood, olive oil, and red wines in moderation; processed/red meats and sweets are limited to roughly once a month, while poultry, eggs, and dairy are seen in smaller portions than Western diets and usually not more than one serving a day. Eating is a social activity, and exercise is encouraged every day.
Another example comes from the Japanese island of Okinawa, where people have some of the longest lifespans of the planet. The majority of the Okinawan diet is based on plants, such as sweet potato, bamboo shoots, and bitter melon. Most of the rest is grains, with soy foods such as tofu and edamame preferred over low quantities of white fish. Jasmine tea is a staple drink, and spices like turmeric are emphasized for antioxidant and medicinal properties.
Other Plant-Based Diets
Ovo-vegetarians, lacto-vegetarians, and lacto-ovo vegetarians are some common variations on vegetarianism. Ovo-vegetarians will eat eggs and honey, but no other animal products. Lacto-vegetarians allow dairy and honey, while lacto-ovo vegetarians may eat dairy, eggs, and honey but draw the line there. Similar to veganism, practitioners seek to limit the exploitation of animals for our dietary convenience. However, there is also a goal here to maintain a diverse diet full of the nutrients they need. For example, if honey is something you just can’t do without, there are practices to sustainably produce it that even some vegans make an exception for.
Pescatarians can be an umbrella category, including distinctions such as lacto-ovo pescatarians. The main shared trait is that pescatarians readily consume fish for high quality proteins and healthy omega-3 fats, but exclude poultry and other meat. While pescatarians need to be mindful to eat a variety of preferably non-predatory fish to avoid accumulating mercury levels, they tend to get more calcium in their diet than other vegetarians and less sodium, cholesterol, and saturated fats. This also allows for the experience of meat dishes, without many of the factory farm concerns or health effects of frequent red meat consumption.
Flexitarians, or semi-vegetarians, model a plant-based diet for the modern person’s busy lifestyle and include small amounts of meat. While stricter vegans may consider this a cop-out, it is actually an excellent practice for the habitually meat-free, or those looking to improve their health and environmental impact without fully committing to a lifestyle that can be time-consuming and learning-intensive to start.
This is in direct opposition to philosophies such as a “whole food plant-based diet,” which limit all consumption to non-processed products. Harsh restrictions such as these can be red flags for unhealthy relationships with food, and can come from unsustainable practices.
Make a Plan for Your Health
The long and short is to do what works for you. Plant-based diets don’t work for everyone; but if you are considering making a change for your health and the planet, there are plenty of paths that could be the best suited to your lifestyle goals.
Plus, there are sooo many vegetarian recipes that even the staunchest carnivore would find delicious; don’t miss out just because you don’t think you fit a precise vegan mold Try the vegetarian filter on your favorite YouTube cooking channel, or find an online food blog that uses your favorite plant-based ingredients. Simply including more vegetables in your diet can have great health benefits and reduce your environmental footprint, whether you still eat meat or not; a full commitment to a plant-based diet will see those results multiply.