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By Sara Colman, Balanced Habits RDN, CDE

Most likely you have heard the term plant-based diet. But what exactly does it mean? Is it vegetarian? Is it vegan? Is it plants only?

The main focus of plant-based diets is eating more plant foods. Not everyone decides to ditch meat, eggs and dairy. Plant-based eating includes many levels. For some, it may be starting with Meatless Mondays, or cutting out red meats. Over time there may be a progression to include fewer animal foods, as more plant-based foods are included. For others, eating only plant-based foods is preferred. So a plant-based diet may include vegan, lacto-ovo vegetarian (includes eggs and dairy), pescatarian (includes fish and seafood) or semi-vegetarian (small amounts of animal foods). In all variations the primary focus is to eat more plant-based foods.

Which Foods Are Included?

The main foods included in plant-based diets are fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, seeds and nuts. If animal foods are included, the amount and frequency are reduced. Also, food choices focus on minimally processed items.

Benefits of Plant-Based Diets

  • Lower body weight
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Healthy gut microbiota and digestive health

Nutritional Benefits

Plant-based eating also means a higher nutrient intake. Benefits include lower cholesterol and saturated fat intake, higher fiber intake, more phytochemicals and antioxidants, greater intake of vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, magnesium and potassium. Lower sodium intake is also associated with a plant-based, minimally processed diet.

Nutrient Concerns

Several nutrients may be deficient in a plant-based diet, especially if animal foods are excluded. Vitamin B12 is only present in meat, eggs and dairy foods. A daily supplement or fortified products will help meet requirements for B12. Iron intake is lower and may require a supplement or iron fortified foods. Calcium may be low, but can be boosted by adding a fortified milk alternative, tofu and leafy green vegetables or a calcium supplement. Vitamin D intake may be low. Add vitamin D fortified foods, a vitamin D supplement and get sunlight exposure when possible.

What About Getting Enough Protein?

There are many plant-based protein sources, and it’s not difficult to eat a high protein plant-based diet. Options include soy foods such as soy milk, tempeh and tofu; beans, lentils, and peas; nuts, seeds and butters made from nuts and seeds; whole grains such as quinoa, cracked wheat and oats; even vegetables provide 2 to 6 grams protein per cup.

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