There has been some confusion surrounding plant-based foods and what makes up a plant-based diet, and much of this is due to the term “plant-based” having two primary definitions. According to an article appearing on Harvard Health, the term “plant-based” includes a spectrum of diets that focus on foods derived from plants—such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and oils.
Under this definition, some plant-based diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, allow for the consumption of small amounts of animal products such as meat and dairy a couple of times a week. Vegetarianism, or a diet that excludes meat but allows for the consumption of dairy and eggs, is also included in this group of diets. Veganism, a diet that excludes all animal products—including meat, dairy, and eggs—rounds off the spectrum of plant-based diets.
For the purposes of this article, “plant-based” will align more with the second definition, which includes only veganism and excludes all animal products—including red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy. This definition is one that is used commonly within the animal protection movement and can also be found within academic discussions about plant-based diets.
What Are Plant-Based Foods?
A plant-based diet provides not only for the enjoyment of many familiar foods but also encourages the exploration of new and exciting varieties of food.
A person eating a plant-based diet can enjoy any of the many fruits from around the world. Just a couple of examples are the banana variety Matoke, which is native to Uganda, and which can be enjoyed boiled, steamed, or roasted, and the jackfruit, which is the national fruit of Bangladesh, and can be prepared in a number of savory ways including being barbecued and shredded for a delicious sandwich. Fruits such as peaches, oranges, apples, and pomegranates, among many others, can also be enjoyed without any preparation.
Leafy Green and Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables include a variety of highly nutritious options such as broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, and bok choy. These are excellent when stewed, steamed, or roasted. Leafy greens include the many types of lettuce, and spinach, which is known as one of the most nutrient-rich vegetables.
This group consists of certain root vegetables such as potatoes and parsnips, as well as corn and acorn squash.
Whole grains are those products that include all three parts of the grain—the germ, endosperm, and bran. They are usually high in fiber, iron, magnesium, and several other essential vitamins and minerals. Consuming whole grains has been tied to a decreased risk of heart disease.
There are a number of plant-based sources for healthy fats that can easily be incorporated into meals, including avocado, canola oil, tahini, peanuts, and flaxseeds.
This category includes beans such as black beans, lima beans, and kidney beans, as well as peanuts and green peas. Many of these foods are high in protein. For example one cup of lima beans provides 29 percent of a day’s protein, while the same amount of kidney beans contains 31 percent of a day’s protein.
Perhaps one of the trickiest categories to navigate when following a plant-based diet is that of beverages. While most may seem completely plant-based upon first glance, animal products are used to produce many items. Some Guinness products, for example, use fish bladders in production. Some juices fortified with omega-3 fatty acids contain fish oil. Despite the difficulty of identifying whether some beverages are plant-based or not, there are nevertheless a huge number of options that can be easily consumed, such as whole fruit juices that are not fortified.
Plant-Based Protein Nut Butters
Enjoying a plant-based diet means that there is a seemingly endless supply of protein-rich nut butter to taste and enjoy. Peanut butter, which is among the least expensive options, provides 16 percent of a day’s worth of protein in a single serving. Other options include almond butter, cashew butter, and a variety of fun flavors such as cinnamon bun nut butter or lemon coconut nut butter.
Unsweetened Plant-Based Milk
With a wide range of different options available, there is a plant-based milk available to satisfy everyone’s palate. Several of these options—such as hemp milk, oat milk, almond milk, and coconut milk—are healthier than dairy milk.
Spices, Herbs, and Seasonings
The world of spices, herbs, and seasonings available to those following a plant-based diet is expansive. The only seasonings to be wary of are certain combinations, such as bouillon, that sometimes contain animal products. However, there are also ample alternative options that do adhere to a strictly plant-based diet.
There are a number of delicious condiments that can be eaten as part of a nutritious plant-based diet, not least familiar favorites like ketchup, mustard, and A1 sauce. Most hot sauces are also plant-based. There are also alternatives available to those that traditionally contain animal products, such as veganaise (mayonnaise), Worcestershire sauce, and ranch dressing.
The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
In addition to the environmental and ethical benefits, there are a number of health advantages to adopting a plant-based diet.
Following a plant-based diet has been shown to be beneficial for weight control in a variety of scenarios. In fact, one study found that those following a vegan diet lost more weight than those following the U.S. National Cholesterol Education Program weight-loss diet, which advocates a low-calorie diet that is also high in carbohydrates. Another study found that mothers that followed a plant-based diet during pregnancy were less likely to experience maternal excessive weight gain.
Avoid Heart Disease
Following a plant-based diet has been shown to contribute to greater heart health. When compared to omnivorous athletes, vegan athletes were found to have a better functioning heart. Case studies have also shown that following a plant-based diet can be used effectively to treat angina, or chest pains, as well as to reduce cholesterol.
Reduce Risk of Cancer
Another prominent health benefit of following a plant-based diet is a reduction in the risk of cancer. Researchers at the University of Florence analyzed the results from 96 studies relating to diet and cancer risk and found that following a vegetarian diet resulted in an 8 percent decrease in cancer incidence, while following a vegan diet resulted in a 15 percent decrease in cancer incidence.
Slow or Prevent Cognitive Decline
A number of studies have connected adherence to a plant-based diet to stronger cognitive function. One such study appearing in the Journal of Nutritional Neuroscience included 3,039 participants, and found that those that followed a plant-based diet had better performance on the cognitive tasks administered.
Is Plant-Based Food Good for the Planet?
The numerous environmental benefits of adhering to a plant-based diet have been well-documented. Animal agriculture is a primary driver behind climate change, deforestation, and water pollution.
Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Reports have attributed up to 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions to livestock products such as meat, dairy, and wool. A case study of Denmark found that a global shift to the Planetary Health Diet—a reference diet made up half of fruits and veggies and containing only a small amount of animal protein—could cause a reduction of up to 86.5 percent in CO2 emissions from Danish agriculture, due to a shift from animal to plant-based farming.
Help Drive the Local Economy
Following a plant-based diet does not in itself have any impact on local economies. However, it is important to keep the value of local, sustainable agriculture in mind when choosing to eat plant-based. Choosing to eat foods sourced from local farms that use sustainable practices helps to reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilizers being released into the environment. Being conscious of the sourcing of food can multiply the impact of eating a plant-based diet significantly.
Reduce Water Consumption
Freshwater shortage is quickly becoming a global crisis, with 64 percent of the global population expected to live in areas with a stressed water basin by 2025. The livestock industry alone is responsible for 8 percent of global freshwater use, primarily via the cultivation of feed crops for animals. Animal agriculture also contributes heavily to the pollution of available freshwater, with Western industrial practices having a disproportionately large impact on freshwater pollution. Following a plant-based diet reduces the stress on the global freshwater supply by eliminating the need to grow crops to feed animals raised for consumption.
Reduce Land Use for Factory Farming
Approximately 30 percent of land surface globally is used by the livestock industry. Expanding livestock production also contributes heavily to deforestation, especially in Latin America where 70 percent of previously forested land in the Amazon is now pasture. A large portion of the remaining 30 percent is used to grow feed crops. Plant-based agriculture reduces the demand for land, as fields can be used for crops that can go directly to feeding people.
What Are the Potential Disadvantages of Adopting a Plant-Based Diet?
There are several obstacles that must be considered when adopting a plant-based diet. Perhaps the most prevalent is that eating plant-based can be less convenient than eating a typical Western diet. This, however, is easily surmountable by preparing food at home. In addition, several restaurants including Burger King, KFC, and Starbucks have introduced plant-based options in their premises around the world. A number of cuisines such as Southern Indian food and Ethiopian food traditionally offer a variety of plant-based options.
Another consideration is eating a balanced diet inclusive of all necessary vitamins and minerals. While this can be challenging, it is achievable through the addition of supplements. According to the National Health Service of the United Kingdom, with careful dietary planning all necessary vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, and vitamin B12, can be gained from a fully plant-based diet.
How to Get Started With a Plant-Based Diet
Several organizations provide free starter guides to help with the transition to a plant-based diet including Mercy for Animals, PETA, Million Dollar Vegan, Veganuary, and TryVeg. These starter kits typically include recipes, nutritional information, and support resources, and are excellent for helping with the transition to more ethical and conscious plant-based eating habits.
Grace is an animal advocate with a passion for social justice within the animal protection movement.