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The Eater's Guide to Plant-Based Diets

Adventist Health Health and Wellness

As a reader of the LivingWell blog, you've probably noticed we at Adventist Health are big proponents of plant-based diets. We're such fans, we even offer a vegetarian cafeteria at Adventist Medical Center and the LivingWell Bistro, a vegan eatery in our southeast Portland Pavilion.

It's a natural fit in Portland, which just happens to be one of Frommer's top 10 cities for vegetarian travelers. Across America there are an estimated 6 to 8 million adults who eat no meat, fish or poultry. About a third of those consume no animal products at all.

But if you're not one of them, you may be wondering what's the real scoop with plant-based diets. We're going to try to explain some of the most common types of eating plans that avoid or eliminate animal products.

Let's break it down to the basics so you know what you're choosing at your local grocery or restaurant.

Food preparation at the LivingWell Bistro

Vegan: The Whole (Animal-Free) Enchilada

 A vegan diet includes only foods that come directly from plants. Vegans don't eat any type of animal product. That means in addition to not eating land or sea animal flesh, vegans avoid eggs, milk and other dairy products. Strict vegans also skip honey, since honey is made by bees.

Really strict vegans avoid animal products outside of their diet too. For instance, they'll avoid using or wearing leather.

Different vegans choose this style of eating and living for different reasons. Some major reasons include:

  • For their health, especially in avoiding cholesterol and animal fats
  • Out of concern for animals
  • Other political and spiritual reasons

A vegan diet is a great way to eat to encourage heart health. 

When eating a strict vegan diet, it's important to pay attention to what you're eating so you ensure you're getting an appropriate amount of protein, amino and omega fatty acids, and vitamin B12.

Vitamin B12 is involved in the functioning of every cell in the human body. One study showed 92 percent of vegans are deficient in this critical nutrient.

Vitamin B12 adequacy is often the No. 1 concern with choosing a strictly vegan diet. It's important to take a B12 supplement and/or eat plant-based foods fortified with B12-such as fortified cereals, almond and rice milk, and many soy products.

Eating a variety of vegetables, beans and whole grains will provide you with the protein and amino acids your body needs. Many vegans choose to add nutrient dense iron and omega fatty acid containing foods or supplements to their diet to ensure they're meeting those nutritional needs as well.

Vegetarian: Fleshing Out an Eating Plan

Vegan food can be an excellent source of nutritionAlthough there are different interpretations, in general terms a vegetarian avoids eating animal flesh, whether from land animals like cows and chickens or sea animals like fish and shellfish.

Because milk, eggs and honey are products made by animals but aren't flesh, a vegetarian diet typically includes these foods. Though milk and eggs contain fat and cholesterol, they also add nutrients like vitamin B12 that may require more attention in a vegan diet.

Many vegetarians still limit how much they eat things like eggs and cheese in order to keep their fat and cholesterol lower. Like vegans, vegetarians get plenty of protein from plant-based sources like vegetables, whole grains and beans.

Plant-Based: Less Meat Is More

An optimal plant based diet centers on eating minimally processed plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, root vegetables, whole grains and tubers while avoiding the consumption of meat, fish, and animal products such as dairy and eggs.

This diet is naturally lower in saturated fats than a more meat-based diet. Plant-based foods are high in nutrients and fiber. Most plant-based oils are also healthier than animal-based fats like lard.

People sometimes make the choice to eat a plant-based diet to improve their overall health. Side effects of eating a greater portion of plant-based foods include improving your immunity and improved weight management.

Read our advice on starting with small diet changes.

Chronic conditions like constipation, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are often improved when you move away from animal-based foods to more plant-based foods.

Other-arians: The Custom Approach

Other diets include variations on this theme. Examples of other diets that vary how much focus is on animal-based foods include:

Pescatarians: Taken from "pesce" (Italian for fish) and "vegetarian," this term describes people who eat fish along with an otherwise plant-based diet. Many people choose this plan of eating to avoid eating red meat, which is often cited in studies as a food to avoid for health's sake. By eating fish, they also get an increased amount of omega-3 fatty acids and can raise their HDL (the good cholesterol). Choosing fish wisely is important though. Some types of fish are known for their high levels of toxins like mercury and PCBs.

Pollotarians: Like pescatarians, pollotarians eat a mostly a plant-based diet. They avoid red meat and fish, but they do add chicken (Italian "pollo") and other fowl to their diets.

Beegan: Vegans who do not avoid honey.

Flexitarian: Flexibility is the key in this semi-vegetarian diet. Flexitarians tend to eat a mostly plant-based diet while adding some meat as a way of taking a middle-of-the-road approach. Some flexitarians choose to only eat meat at certain meals of the day as a way of restricting their intake.

What to Choose

So what's the bottom line with all these lifestyle/dietary choices? Can you really get what you need from a plant-based diet in one form or another?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics weighs in: "A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can meet the nutrient needs of people from all stages of life, including pregnant and lactating women, children and athletes. It’s just about making sure you get the nutrients you need."

Annabel Facemire, MD, FACC

Annabel Facemire, MD, FACC

Adventist Health's own Anabel Facemire, a board-certified cardiologist with Northwest Heart & Vascular, is quick to recommend a vegan diet to her patients. When she sees patients with heart disease risks, she tells them she can put them on medication or they can change their diet. The diet change is effective, inexpensive and comes without side effects.

If you're used to a more typical steak-and-eggs diet, try changing your vegetables-to-meat ratio. Limiting your meat intake to just a day or two a week while filling your plate with a rainbow of vegetables the rest of the time will give you a lot of the health benefits of a plant-based diet while you let your taste buds adjust to the new approach.

Most importantly, learn to savor and enjoy plant-based foods. "This isn't about suffering," says Dr. Facemire. "This is about the rest of your life."

For more ideas about eating a healthy plant-based diet, keep visiting the LivingWell blog for new plant-based recipes and articles.