What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

C. Mitchell

A plant-based diet is an eating plan based all or mostly on foods that come from plants. Animals in the herbivore category are commonly said to have a plant-based diet. The term can also be applied to people who choose vegetarian, mostly vegetarian, or vegan lifestyles.

A plant-based diet includes many fresh vegetables.
A plant-based diet includes many fresh vegetables.

Those with this kind of diet strive to design balanced meals using only foods that grow naturally in the earth. It consists of fruits and vegetables as well as grains, and can include wheat, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and soy and other natural proteins. Processed foods, even those that are labeled vegetarian, are not generally included on the list of "approved" products, though different diets teach different things.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are a large part of a plant-based diet.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are a large part of a plant-based diet.

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There are many reasons why a person might choose a plant-based diet. Health concerns and food allergies sometimes prompt doctors to prescribe this kind of diet. Animal rights activists and those for whom eating meat is a religious taboo often also adopt a plant-based lifestyle. Still others try to eat mostly plants as a way of improving overall health and longevity.

Some dieters go even further and eliminate animal products entirely. This includes not only meat, but also eggs and dairy. Others may occasionally incorporate animal products into their diets. For the majority of participants, the goal of the plant-based diet is to achieve better health, not necessarily to live according to strict dietary rules.

The evidence linking a plant-based diet to improved health is far from conclusive, though there have been a number of medical studies that link diets high in plant products to weight loss, heart health and the prevention of heart disease, and low cholesterol, among other things. Realizing these benefits does not usually require dieters to go completely meatless, however. Medical professionals often recommend a diet heavy in plant and other natural foods, but there is little reason to believe that adding some animal products to a mostly plant-based diet will lessen any of the health benefits.

One of the dangers of a plant-based diet is malnutrition. To make an all-plant diet work, a dieter must take care to make sure that the plants consumed contain enough nutrition, including adequate servings of protein, fiber, and vitamins. Striking the right balance usually requires a diversity of ingredients.

While plant-based foods are certainly natural, this does not necessarily give dieters a license to disregard calories, carbohydrates, and other typical diet concerns. Nuts, for instance, are very high in fat. A dieter who takes in the majority of his or her daily protein from nuts may need to work on incorporating in other, leaner protein sources. At the same time, dieters who eat only grains and raw vegetables may be missing out on some of the fats and proteins needed to properly fuel the body. It is possible to meet all nutritional needs through a plant-based diet, but taking vitamins and other supplements regularly is usually also recommended.

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