What does Plant Based Mean? What are the Benefits?

I’ve been dying to share a post with you on the benefits of plant-based eating for a while, but especially since I was able to attend the first Plant Based Nutrition Leadership Symposium, hosted by Wonderful Pistachios.* That happened to be at the start of baseball season, so now that sports nutrition for pro baseball is off of my to-do list, I have more time for thoughtful blog posts like this!  I’m excited to share with you plenty of plant-based eating benefits, along with important factors to consider.

Plant Based Benefits and Controversies

*I was not paid to attend this symposium and funded my own travel. 

The areas of information on this topic are vast, so it’s impossible for me to share everything I’d like in one post. I share little tid-bits regularly on Instagram and Facebook as well as in my recipe posts, but in depth information takes a lot of work.

Plant-Based Education to Come

This post is meant to first describe what plant-based eating really means. Then it will lay highlight evidence-based benefits of eating patterns rich in plants. Later this week I’ll also be sharing a video and post on plant-based eating for muscle recovery and building, along with dozens of recipes from dietitians.

In the coming months, I’ll be shelling out even more details on the following:

  • Iron-rich plant-based recipes
  • A review of the latest plant-based documentary, The Game Changers, that showcases athletes
  • In depth information on environmental benefits
  • Nutrients of concern for those following almost exclusively plant-based diets
  • Emerging research on drawbacks of animal food intake
  • “Processed” plant-based meat and dairy alternatives
  • Myths about plant-based diets

What Does “Plant Based” Mean?

plant based spring roll

This for some reason brings up a lot of controversy, but it’s pretty simple really. A diet based in plants. It does not mean a diet of exclusively plants – the word for that is vegan. I am often asked, “does plant based mean vegan?”. Vegan diets also plant-based, maybe obviously. However, individuals who sometimes eat red meat can follow a plant-based eating pattern, too.

Both of the below salads are plant-based! The one with tofu is vegan. The one with the salmon may have a larger portion than necessary, but those are times you may (I) take half of the protein home to pair with more plants the next day.

plant based salad

plant based salmon salad

At the leadership symposium, the meaning of plant based was a topic of conversation. I was lucky to hear some of the most well-known researchers around the world speak, while discussing topics with nationally recognized dietitian peers. The majority of us agreed that a plant based diet emphasizes whole plant foods as the star of meals and snacks. It may or may not include animal products, but the frequency of animal product consumption, and the portion sizes of animal products, are smaller than most conventional American diets.

plant based organic breakfast

For me, plant-based looks different from day to day, week to week. Despite the definition above, many people still assume “plant based” to be vegan. For this reason, I usually choose the term “plant-forward” when describing my eating pattern and the eating pattern I recommend to others. Often, I eat completely vegan for a week or more without thinking about it. Other weeks, I eat eggs three days and fish twice. I let my body’s needs guide me, while always emphasizing a large amount of plants. It is a personal choice of mine not to eat meats and poultry for animal welfare reasons, but that is a personal decision and I encourage you to let your own values guide you. I have a mild dairy allergy where it induces asthma attacks, but in general encourage people to eat less dairy and choose more plant alternatives.

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Since this term is pretty straightforward, I’m going to move on to the most well-known health benefits. If you still have questions about the term, leave a comment below, or contact me via Instagram or email!

Benefits of Plant Based Eating Patterns

The position paper on vegetarian diets from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has been a go-to resource for me for a decade now. Updated in 2016, this review article covers a variety of benefits seen long term from plant-based diets, along with how to navigate intake of common nutrients of concern. While it is a paper on vegetarian diets, rather than any plant based diets, the health benefits highlighted are able to benefit anyone. If you have two omnivores, and one chooses to eat mostly plants such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, while the other’s diet is more heavy on animal products and refined foods, the benefits vegetarians acquire will be similar for the omnivore eating more plants.

Plant Food and Chronic Illness

With a high intake of whole plant foods comes a high intake of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemical antioxidants. While I just mentioned that any increased intake of plants has benefits (which it does), compared to diets of omnivores, vegan diets have been found to protect against chronic illnesses such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and even all-cause mortality. Higher intake of fruits and vegetables has also been associated with improved sleep, quality of life, and lower levels of depressive symptoms.

It isn’t just the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants in plants that prove beneficial to health. The positive impact on gut microbiota associated with vegan diets may reduce inflammation, adding to the anti-inflammatory benefits from consuming a wide variety of phytochemicals. As I’ve covered, we feed our gut bacteria by eating a variety of whole plant foods! Additionally, plant-rich diets are naturally high in organic nitrates, which enhance blood flow and have been shown to lower blood pressure.

By limiting inflammation, enhancing the microbiome, and supporting heart function, there is good reason to believe that plant-based diets are not only adequate for, but may offer benefits for enhanced athletic performance.

Plant Based for the Planet

On top of the personal health benefits, eliminating animal products can positively impact use of natural resources and cause less environmental degradation. This can be a controversial topic, so it is one I’ll dig deeper into in the future. For example, many who do not promote plant based diets argue that carbon emissions and water use from cattle aren’t very high. That may be true in terms of the emissions and use directly from the cow. But, it doesn’t consider all of the deforestation for cattle (see Amazon rainforest fires), or the land and water required to grow the plants the animals eat. Again, more on that in the future. For now, below are a few references from the symposium via reputable sources.

First, the original recommendations for the 2015 dietary guidelines committee stated the following. This was not what was published in our recommendations in the US. Why? The meat and dairy industries support the dietary guidelines materials, and the “reasoning” behind removal of this language was that environmental health should not be part of our dietary guidelines for human health. What’s unfortunate is that our dietary choices now impact food availability and contagious disease exposure that will be altered as the climate changes.

original 2015 dietary guidelines

I’ll just leave this next photo for you to read. No description from me needed:

If you haven’t heard of it, The EAT-Lancet Commission indicates the following for a healthy and sustainable food system. It is based on the 2017 UN Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement Goals. Again, note that there is room for animal products and refined foods!

Finally you can see that the following recommendations are able to improve human health and environmental health. All while still including predominantly animal proteins!

eating for the planet

Are animal foods harmful?

This is a loaded question, and another one that deserves an entire post (likely several). Recently, media headlines were flying around indicating a study showed that there was not adequate evidence that reducing meat intake could positively influence health. I covered the claims in this Instagram TV video, since most people only read headlines. After recording it, the New York Times published an article sharing that the scientist behind discrediting guidelines to reduce meat intake failed to disclose his ties to the meat industry.

Like I’ve mentioned throughout this post, the greatest benefits to plant-based eating likely lie in the increased intake of plants. However, Americans eat way too much meat. Just check out the graph below, which was shared at the symposium.

Emerging research shows drawbacks to animal protein consumption, but we still need more evidence to be certain that there is a direct effect. Generally speaking, red meat is linked to higher risk of certain cancers, including colorectal, breast, and pancreatic. There are also studies showing a higher risk of heart disease and diabetes with intake of just 3.5 ounces per day. Studies have been published on and are being conducted on the potential for heme iron to be inflammatory (see meta-analysis here) and on TMAO and gut microbiota changes from high meat intake.

Takeaways

plant based appetizer

While in my eyes it’s too early to say there’s a proven direct effect between meat intake and health, there ARE clear benefits of eating more plants. Higher intake of plants will certainly displace animal intake, which can not only benefit the environment, but also start to increase variety of antioxidant intake in one’s diet.

You’ll continue to see plant-forward recipes on my blog as you always have, and I’m excited to share more videos, recipes, and resources with you going forward. Please leave your questions below so that I may address them in a future Q&A video or create an entire post on the topic!

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