Updated: Mar 25
Many people are switching to plant-based diets as they become more aware of the risks of excessive meat consumption both to the human body and the environment. However, many people still mistakenly believe that switching to a plant-based diet automatically leads to becoming vegan. Is this really the case? This eco-pedia will look at several forms of plant-based diets and how they may benefit the human body.
What are plant-based diets?
Plant-based diets simply mean that you emphasize eating foods that come from plants which are low in salt, saturated fats, and added sugars. This is not only limited to fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. Plant-based diets do not imply that you completely omit meat and poultry, sweets, or dairy products consumption. Rather, you focus more on consuming the majority of your diet from plant sources. However, you may also exclude meat completely from your diet if preferred.
Common types of plant-based diets
According to the World Health Organization (2021), there are a few common types of plant based-diets, which of course, not only limited to vegan. The table below describes the types of plant-based diets and how they differ from each other:
All animal products are avoided, including meat, dairy, fish, eggs, and usually honey.
Exclude meat, fish, poultry and eggs, but still includes dairy products such as milk, cheese, yogurt and butter.
Exclude meat or fish, but still includes eggs and dairy,
Exclude meat, poultry, seafood and dairy products, but still allow eggs.
Excludes meat, but allow fish, dairy and eggs.
Semi-vegetarian (or flexitarian)
Still include meat, dairy, eggs, poultry and fish on occasion, or in small quantities.
As the table suggests, vegan is a diet that is strictly limited to plant-based foods, avoiding all sorts of animal products and all their derivatives. However, when it comes to being a vegetarian, this diet is more adaptable and flexible rather than vegan diet, since it still allows meat consumption although in a smaller amount.
What are the benefits of having plant-based diets?
Plenty of research have been done regarding the benefits of plant-based diets, in which it have been linked to lower overall and ischemic heart disease mortality, supporting long-term weight management, lowering the risk of most chronic diseases, lowering the incidence and severity of high-risk conditions like obesity, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and hyperglycemia, and even possibly reversing advanced coronary artery disease and type 2 diabetes. Other than that, plants contain vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants that aid in cell maintenance and keeping the body function in balance, allowing your immune system to fight-off invading pathogens from causing harm to the body. Antioxidants also scavenge all of the free radicals that can destabilize the body and minimize inflammation. Moreover, plant-based diets also aid in healthy body weight maintenance, which also reduces the risk of developing cancer. Lastly, plants are the main source of fiber.
Although fibers can not be digested by the human body, it is important in preventing constipation since it regulates bowel movement and nourishes the gut microbiota. Furthermore, consuming meat may also bring several harms to the body. Meat contains a high percentage of saturated fat and cholesterol, which is associated with increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases. Meat also contains a hormone known as insulin like growth factor-1 which may promote proliferation of cancer cells. Carnitine, which is mostly found in meat, can be transformed by gut bacteria into trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), which is linked to inflammation, atherosclerosis, heart attack, stroke, and mortality.
Concerns of consuming plant-based diets
When it comes to plant-based diets, the main concern lies on nutrient deficiency. Plant-based diets are often criticized for lacking in providing necessary proteins for the human body. Many people believe that meat, dairy, eggs, and fish are the sole protein sources. But, turns out, you can get adequate protein from plants as well! Foods such as chickpeas, edamame, lentils, beans, peas, spirulina, kelp, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, nutritional yeast, wild rice, pasta, almonds, walnuts, cashews, hemp, chia seeds, sesame, sunflower, tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy yogurt, are some plant-based protein sources to consider adding to your plant-based diets. The more amino acids you get from a diverse diet, the better. Furthermore, iron is also present in plant-based diets, however, it is less bioavailable than iron found in meat, indicating that they are less efficiently absorbed by the intestine. Several iron-rich plant-based foods include kidney beans, black beans, soybeans, spinach, raisins, cashews, oats, cabbage, and tomato. Other than that, vitamin B12 intake in vegans was shown to be much lower. Vitamin B12 is required for the formation of new red blood cells and cell division, in which insufficiency may result in macrocytic anemia as well as irreparable nerve damage. Hence, people who follow plant-based diets are highly advised to consume vitamin B12 supplements.
Moreover, plant-based diets must also supply the body with sufficient calcium, since insufficiency may lead to bone damage. Tofu, mustard and turnip greens, bok choy, and kale are all good sources of calcium. Although calcium is abundant in spinach and other plants, it is linked to oxalate and hence poorly absorbed. Lastly, plant-based diets are often lacking in essential fatty-acids in the form of alpha-linolenic acid and the plant form of omega-3 fats, which may lead to skin and hair abnormalities. Several foods that may supply the essential fatty acids include ground flax seeds, flax oil, walnuts, and canola oil.
Is switching to a plant-based diet the best option?
Whether assessed by the occurrence of heart disease, cancer, or death, plant-based diets have been shown to be way healthier than other meat-based diets. As explained above, these advantages most likely arise due to the absence of meat and the preponderance of vegetables and fruits in the diet. However, it must always be kept in mind that a plant based diet is also highly advised to be well-balanced provide the body with all the sufficient nutrients needed.
McManus K. What is a plant-based diet and why should you try it? - Harvard Health [Internet]. Harvard Health. 2021 [cited 6 March 2022]. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-a-plant-based-diet-and-why-should-you-try-it-2018092614760
Plant-based diets and their impact on health, sustainability and the environment [Internet]. Apps.who.int. 2021 [cited 6 March 2022]. Available from: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/349086/WHO-EURO-2021-4007-43766-61591-eng.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Hever J. Plant-Based Diets: A Physician’s Guide. The Permanente Journal. 2016;.
Alexander H. 5 benefits of a plant-based diet [Internet]. MD Anderson Cancer Center. 2019 [cited 6 March 2022]. Available from: https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/5-benefits-of-a-plant-based-diet.h20-1592991.html
The 18 Best Protein Sources for Vegans and Vegetarians [Internet]. Healthline. 2022 [cited 6 March 2022]. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/protein-for-vegans-vegetarians
Tuso P. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. The Permanente Journal. 2013;17(2).
Stafford R. A skeptical look at popular diets: Vegetarian is healthy if you tread carefully [Internet]. Scope. 2022 [cited 6 March 2022]. Available from: https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2019/02/07/a-skeptical-look-at-popular-diets-vegetarian-is-healthy-if-you-tread-carefully/