Plant-based diets are on the rise. In 2021, the sales of plant-based foods increased three times faster than overall food sales. This fast-paced growth comes as no surprise, considering that eating a plant-based diet — and eliminating meat and dairy — is one of the most impactful steps you can take to improve your health and reduce your carbon footprint. But the term “plant-based” is broad and has varied definitions depending on who you ask. Whether you’re a vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or pescatarian, your diet may fall under the umbrella of “plant-based”.

With so many options available, figuring out which plant-based diet works for you can be downright confusing. As a result, many of us throw our hands up in surrender and dig our heels in the dirt with old eating habits. Fortunately, we spoke with a registered dietitian who gives useful insights to help you determine which one could work best for you to reduce your meat intake and eat more plants.

Are all plant-based diets equal?

“Firstly, it’s important to define what a plant-based diet is,” states Katie Cavuto, MS, RD, Executive Chef for Saladworks. “A plant-based diet [emphasizes] eating plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans. However, this doesn’t mean you don’t eat meat.” Here are various ways you can limit animal products and adopt a plant-based diet:

Different Types of Plant-Based Diets

  • Whole food, plant-based: Eats plant foods in whole, natural form, or as minimally processed as possible. Avoids processed and refined foods such as alternative meats or artificial sweeteners.
  • Vegan: Eliminates all animal products (meat, dairy, and eggs). Can include alternative meats, refined foods, and artificial sweeteners.
  • Vegetarian: Avoids meat, fish, and animal products but eats dairy, eggs, and honey. Includes lacto-vegetarian (eats dairy but not meat or eggs), ovo-vegetarian (includes eggs, no meat or dairy), and lacto-ovo-vegetarian (consumes eggs and dairy, no meat).
  • Flexitarian: A "flexible" approach to PBDs. Flexitarians are semi-vegetarian, eating primarily plants and occasionally small amounts of meat, poultry, and fish.
  • Pescatarian: Avoid meat and poultry but eat fish, dairy, and eggs.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology compared the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) between three different categories of plant-based diets by examining the dietary data of over 209,000 adults spanning two decades. The categories included:

  1. An overall plant-based diet that emphasized healthy plant foods while reducing the intake of animal products (similar to a flexitarian diet).
  2. A whole food plant-based diet that emphasized the consumption of only healthy plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, seeds, and healthy oils.
  3. An unhealthy plant-based diet that emphasized less healthy, processed plant foods, such as fruit juices, refined grains (white rice, white bread, cereals, pasta), french fries, potato chips, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

So which diet came out on top with the lowest risk of heart disease? You guessed it, the healthy plant-based diet that emphasized whole plant foods. Conversely, the highest CHD risk category was the unhealthy plant-based diet which focused on refined grains and processed foods.

The takeaway is that eating more whole plant-based foods is good for you, regardless of your overall dietary choices. “Most studies show that any increase in the amount of plant-based foods you eat will offer health benefits, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer,” explains Cavuto. “[In addition], there are some general ideas that we can all agree [on], including the fact that whole, unprocessed foods are more nourishing than their highly processed counterparts.”

How to eat a well-balanced plant-based diet

As a starting point for achieving a well-balanced plant-based diet, fill half your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables. Then, fill the rest of your plate with balanced amounts of plant protein, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats such as avocado or extra virgin olive oil. (Looking for healthy meal inspiration? Check out these 10 Easy and Healthy Plant-Based Soups and Salad Recipes.)

“Instead of focusing on percentages of specific nutrients, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends we simplify the way we view our food choices [...] by consuming a variety of whole foods while cutting down on foods that contain excessive amounts of salt, added sugars, and saturated fats,” says Cavuto.

The most important thing to remember is to choose the eating plan that feels the best for your body. Recognize that this may change depending on the season or your life stage. Cavuto advises, “Be open to listening to what your body needs versus subscribing to a way of eating that you “think” is healthy, as this will vary from person to person.”

The Best Plant-Based Foods to Add to Your Diet

  • Fruits & Vegetables: Any fruit or vegetable that’s in season or that you can get your hands on. The more colorful and varied, the better!
  • Whole grains: Brown rice, buckwheat, oats, whole wheat, barley, millet
  • Legumes: Lentils, chickpeas, beans, peanuts, green peas
  • Nuts & Seeds: Walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds
  • Plant Protein: Tofu, tempeh, quinoa, seitan, legumes

Start small if you’re on the fence about embracing a fully plant-based diet. A minor shift in your diet, such as reducing animal products or swapping meat for tofu or beans at one or two meals a day can significantly improve your health and reduce your environmental impact.

Bottom Line: Eat more plants and listen to your body.

Ultimately, there is no single diet that works for everyone. The “best” diet for you is whichever one gets you eating primarily whole foods from plant-based sources.

“Which type of eating plan you choose is a personal decision as our nutrition needs are all different, and while one way of eating may work for one person, it doesn’t mean it works for everyone,” says Cavuto.

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