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Plant-Based? Does That Mean Vegan?

The plant-based world of food may seem a bit confusing from the outside looking in. Maybe it even seems too intimidating to try to learn about for fear of being judged for your own food philosophy that might include meat or animal products. You might be a little scared that anyone who calls themselves “plant-based” might end up throwing red paint on your leather jacket… Well, you’re in luck, because this is a judgement-free space to learn from an extremely cool registered dietitian. We are going to start with the broad term of “plant-based diets”, which means incorporating more plants into your diet— not a prescribed kind of diet or lifestyle— and why anyone would even care to do so.

Why are More People Switching to Plant-Based Diets?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people were locked down and found themselves standing at the fridge more often or using services like DoorDash. People were getting less exercise, watching more TV for news updates, all while stress increased in every household. Americans started to see their waistlines increasing and their blood pressures rising. For some, the answer to this dilemma was choosing what they considered healthier choices when they went out to eat— the plant-based option. According to the Plant Based Foods Association, plant-based food sales were up 27% in 2020 due to this rise in health-consciousness in Americans.

Health is a strong reason that some people switch to more plant-based diets. Many studies have shown an association with plant-based diets lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. This in turn reduces the risk for heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. Allegorically, many people report simply feeling better overall by cutting out or back on specifically red meats. Are plant-based diets really healthier? That depends on what you’re actually eating. Keep in mind that potato chips and Oreos are vegan, but they won’t help you better reach your health goals. To optimize a plant-based diet for health reasons, choose more whole grain products and limit your salt, sugar, and fat intake (ahem, as in, don’t eat fried foods as often). Try to fill half of your plate with vegetables, and vary their colors often (in other words, think outside of simply green vegetables). Cook at home more often than dining out so that you can limit the empty calories and increase the flavor using herbs and spices.

Another reason some people switch to a plant-based diet is for environmental reasons. Standford University released a statement that read, “If everyone in the U.S. ate no meat or cheese just one day a week, it would have the same environmental impact as taking 7.6 million cars off the road.” Why is this? It requires a lot of energy, water, and land to produce meat products that also result in higher greenhouse gas emissions, and ultimately leading to global warming. Cows have the largest environmental footprint, as pigs and chickens produce much fewer emissions. I would be remiss to not also bring up the global impact of overfishing (catching fish faster than they can restock), which has resulted in the endangerment of many kinds of marine life. National Geographic actually published an article in 2006 that seafood may be gone by the year 2048 if consumption is not reduced.

The support for animal rights may be the main factor for some people to switch to a plant-based diet. There are many expose books, videos, and documentaries on animal cruelty that is conducted on farms, in chicken coops, and slaughterhouses. Some people will choose to only eat animal products from local farmers whom they personally know treat their animals humanely, while others are opposed to even the thought of eating any animal or animal product, considering it murder or torture of another living thing.

No matter which reason may stick out to someone choosing to eat less meat, they are ultimately benefitting their body, the environment, and limiting animal cruelty all at the same time. It might not be a golden ticket to heaven, but there is something to be said about following the mantra, “When you know better, do better.” I encourage you to read more about how following a more plant-based diet may help you follow through on the philosophy you have on how you desire to your live life.

Below are the more popular types of plant-based diets, which do not have to be super strict! Becoming more plant-based can truly start with trying out Meatless Mondays and then seeing what works with your lifestyle from there.

A Quick Reference Guide for Plant-Based Diet Types

Vegan— this is usually more than a diet of eating absolutely zero amounts of animal products (like dairy or eggs). This lifestyle would also include not using any animal products like leather or fur, or any products that were tested on animals. Vegans may also not eat anything with honey, since honey is a bee product.

Vegetarian— this a broader term than vegan, though diet-wise they may look the same (eating no meat or animal products). Most vegetarians would eat honey. A lacto-ovo vegetarian may simply call themselves a vegetarian, so it’s always best to ask someone who says that they are a vegetarian if they are OK with dairy and/or eggs before serving it to them.

Lacto-Ovo Vegetarian— this person would not eat any meat whatsoever, but would be OK with eating anything with dairy and eggs.

Pescatarian— this is the camp that I happily reside in! Think of this as a lacto-ovo vegetarian who includes seafood into their diet. Some people may even consider this more of a “Mediterranean Diet”.

Flexitarian— this is a person who tries to include more plant-based meals, but continues to eat meat upon occasion. They might tell you that they are “mostly vegetarian”. I wouldn't say that my husband would yet identify at this level because he usually does eat some meat every day, but he would tell you that he has greatly increased his plant consumption in the last two years, which has improved decreased his blood pressure and cholesterol significantly. And see? We still get along!

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