You might have heard of the plant-based, plant-forward or even chegan (a ‘cheat’ vegan) or flexitarian diets. These all revolve around foods of plant origin and are the topic of conversation in food circles of late. These lifestyle, and diet based trends, have been born from concern for our environment, animal welfare, and/or our health and well-being (Social Standards 2019).
However, there is no single, universally accepted definition for a plant-based diet. For the purposes of this blog, we will define a plant-based diet as a diet where most of the food consumed is of plant origin, whilst minimising those of animal origin, namely meat, dairy, and eggs. Plant-based foods are not limited to fruit and vegetables and also include: wholegrains, nuts and seeds, and legumes (Kim et al 2019; Tuso et al 2013).
It is important to know that some plant foods are unhealthy, just as some animal-based foods are unhealthy, think deep fried chicken nuggets or sausages. They have less nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, less beneficial fats and dietary fibre. As a result, these foods may lead to a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease (Satija et al 2017) or other chronic illnesses.
To reap its full benefits, a plant-based diet should “maximise consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods, while minimising processed foods, added sugars, oils, and animal based foods (Tuso, Stoll & William 2015, p. 62). This doesn’t mean you can’t have your favourite chips or biscuits, just that these shouldn’t be a part of your everyday diet, and when you do treat yourself, do so in moderation; avoid snackaccidence i.e. eating the whole bag of chips yourself (common sense, we know!). A diet of this nature can aid in weight loss or weight maintenance, can stabilise blood sugar levels, decrease blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, decrease inflammation, and enable more beneficial diet-gut microbiome interactions (Satija et al 2017).
It is interesting to note also, that eating a plant-based diet appears to allow for the occasional consumption of red meat without any detrimental effects. A high intake of red meat has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease (Tuso, Stoll & William 2015). However, perspective must be taken when considering the increased risk of cancer correlated to red meat consumption (this is beef, lamb and pork, opposed to processed meats like sausages, corned beef, biltong and jerkey). Although there is evidence to suggest that increased red meat consumption is linked to some cancers, the strongest of which is colorectal cancer, this evidence is still limited, suggesting there is a positive association, but other explanations could not be ruled out (World Health Organisation, 2015). The World Cancer Research Fund (2018) suggests that if you do eat red meat, to limit this to 3 servings per week (350g-500g of cooked red meat) and to eat very little, if any, processed meats. However, it is well established that greater body fatness plays a role in many disorders and diseases, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease (CHD) and other comorbidities.
Diet and disease prevention aside, this diet is also environmentally sustainable and uses fewer resources than a food system that produces foods of animal origin (Satija et al 2017). Sustainability, animal welfare and health are driving this increase in plant-based eating (Social Standards 2019).
Following a plant-based diet requires effort, planning meals, and reading food labels (Tuso et al 2013). Planning what you eat ensures you receive all the nutrients required to maximise health and well-being at any life stage. Particular importance should be placed on: protein, iron, vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, essential fatty acids, and choline (Derbyshire 2019; Plant-Based Diet Meal Plan 2019; Tuso et al 2013). Do your research and know what plant-based foods supply each.
Eating a plant-based diet rich in nutrient-dense foods appears to maintain health and well-being, prevent chronic illnesses, save the planet, and look after the animals. Hopefully this is a diet here to stay, not a passing trend.
This column is not intended as medical advice but rather to provide information for educational purposes. Consult with your GP or other medical professional regarding the applicability of any of the information provided.
Derbyshire, E, 2019, Could we be overlooking a potential choline crisis in the United Kingdom?, BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, vol. 0, pp.1-4.
Etemadi, A., Sinha, R., Ward, MH., Graubard, BI., Inoue-Choi, M., Dawsey, SM. & Abnet, CC, 2017, Mortality from different causes associated with meat, heme iron, nitrates, and nitrites in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study: population based cohort study, BMJ;357;j1957, pp. 1-11.
Hu, FB., 2003, Plant-based foods and prevention of cardiovascular disease: an overview, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(suppl): pp. 544S-51S.
Kim, H., Caulfield, LE., Garcia-Larsen, V., Steffen, LM., Coresh, J. & Rebholz, CM., 2019, 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, Journal of American Heart Association, vol. 8, pp. 1-13.
Satija, A., Bhupathiraju, SN., Spiegelman, D., Chiuve, SE., Manson, JAE., Willett, W., Rexrode, KM., Rimm, EB. & Hu, FB., 2017, Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, vol. 70, no. 4, pp. 411-22.
Social Standards, 2019, Plant-Based Food & Beverages 2019 Consumer Insights Report.
Tuso, PJ., Ismail, MH., Ha, BP. & Bartolotto, C., 2013, Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets, The Permanente Journal, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 61-66.
Tuso, P., Stoll, SR. & Li, WW., 2015, A Plant-Based Diet, Atherogenesis, and Coronary Artery Disease Prevention, The Permanente Journal, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 62-67.
https://www.livestrong.com/article/13721886-plant-based-diet-meal-plan/ (‘A 7-Day Plant-Based Meal Plan to Help You Lose Weight’ by Kelly Plowe, October 1, 2019)
World Cancer Research Fund, 2018, Recommendations and public health and policy implications, Analysising Research on Cancer Prevention and Survival, https://www.wcrf.org/sites/default/files/Recommendations.pdf
World Health Organisation, 2015, Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat, https://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/