What are the different types of plant-based diets?

Some negatives of a plant-based diet include giving up foods you enjoy, finding restaurant meals, finding affordable plant-based foods, and getting enough protein.
Some negatives of a plant-based diet include giving up foods you enjoy, finding restaurant meals, finding affordable plant-based foods, and getting enough protein.

A plant-based diet means different things to different people. One widely accepted definition is a diet that contains mostly plants. A plant-based diet includes:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Beans and other legumes
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts and seeds

Experts say plant-based diets can be healthy, but there are some cons to plant-based diets as well.

The major types of plant-based diets are:

  • Vegetarian: No meat, poultry, or seafood
  • Vegan: No animal products, including meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy
  • Whole foods plant-based: No animal products and no highly processed foods, even plant-based ones

Who recommends plant-based diets?

Many doctors and health experts support plant-based diets, saying that they can:

Plant-based diets reduce all-cause mortality, meaning death from all causes.

What are some cons of a plant-based diet?

Following a plant-based diet isn't easy. You may struggle to:

  • Give up foods you enjoy
  • Find appropriate restaurant meals
  • Learn how to follow a plant-based diet
  • Give up family eating habits and traditions
  • Find affordable plant-based foods

Another negative of a plant-based diet is the time it requires. You'll need to plan meals, shop carefully, and read food labels.

Can you get enough protein on a plant-based diet?

Getting enough protein while eating plant-based requires effort. You may need to try some unfamiliar foods, such as tofu, lentils, and quinoa. But almost every plant contains some protein. Foods that are especially high in protein include:

  • Soy
  • Quinoa
  • Mushrooms
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Other legumes

Can you meet other needs with plants?

Another con of a plant-based diet is the likelihood of possible gaps in nutrition. Five nutrients present special challenges.

Vitamin B12

A deficiency of vitamin B12 can cause anemia and nerve damage. B12 occurs naturally in some animal products but is not found in plants. Those who eat a plant-based diet can get vitamin B12 from a supplement or from fortified foods, such as breakfast cereal and nutritional yeast.

Iron

Plants contain iron, but the body doesn't use iron from plants as readily as it uses iron from meat. Still, it's rare for vegans and vegetarians to be low in iron. Beans, spinach, and raisins are especially good sources of iron.

Calcium

If you do not eat dairy, you may develop a calcium deficiency. Green leafy vegetables and tofu are high in calcium. You can also use foods fortified with calcium, such as cereal, plant milk, and orange juice. Some people may need calcium supplements.

Vitamin D

Many people are deficient in vitamin D. You can get enough by taking a supplement or by eating foods fortified with vitamin D. You should be especially sure to get enough vitamin D during the winter months. Older people may need to take a supplement.

Omega-3s

For healthy skin, hair, and nail, people need omega-3 fatty acids. Those who do not eat fish may be low in omega-3s. Good plant sources include walnuts, ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, and canola oil.

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Does a plant-based diet have other health risks?

Experts are concerned about two major health risks that may go along with a plant-based diet.

Fractures

Some studies indicate vegans are at an increased risk of breaking a bone, probably because of insufficient calcium. Plant-based diets are high in other nutrients that promote bone health, such as potassium, magnesium, and vitamin K. Vegans who are careful to get enough calcium and vitamin D should have no greater risk of fractures than others.

Stroke

One study done in the United Kingdom showed vegetarians and vegans had an increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke. Researchers are unsure why and say the subject needs more study.

Are there unhealthy plant-based diets?

A plant-based diet of highly processed foods does not have the health benefits of a whole foods plant-based diet. If you eat an unhealthy plant-based diet, you may have about the same risk of heart disease as a meat-eater.

Burgers and other "meat" made from plants give consumers an alternative to animal products. Nutritionists point out that these plant-based meats are highly processed. Also, they often have as much fat as animal products. Burgers made from beans or lentils may be a healthier choice.

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Medically Reviewed on 11/30/2021
References
American Heart Association: "How does Plant-Forward (Plant-Based) Eating Benefit your Health?"

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Health effects of vegan diets."

BMJ: "Vegetarian and pescatarian diets are linked to lower risk of ischaemic heart disease, study finds."

Harvard Health Publishing: "What is a plant-based diet and why should you try it?"

Journal of the American College of Cardiology: "Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults."

National Institutes of Health: "Vitamin B12."

National University of Natural Medicine: "Plant-Based Diets: Pros and Cons According to NUNM."

Journal of the American Heart Association: "Plant-Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All-Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle-Aged Adults."

M.D. Anderson Cancer Center: "Plant-based burgers: Are they healthy?"

Permanente Journal: "Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets."

Sustainability: "A Comprehensive Review of the Benefits of and the Barriers to the Switch to a Plant-Based Diet."