Which Diet is Healthiest – Plant-Based, Vegetarian or Both?

Before you choose a plant-based or a vegetarian diet, you should plan and educate yourself about each, decide which foods you are going to eliminate, and ensure that you replace them with the same key nutrients.  “The easiest way to think of it is that if you’re removing something, try to replace it with foods that replace the nutrients you’ve removed,” suggests Amy Kimberlain, RDN, LDN, CDCES, a registered dietitian with Baptist Health’s Community Health.

Amy Kimberlain, RDN, LDN, CDCES, a registered dietitian with Baptist Health’s Community Health

“Someone who follows a plant-based diet will possibly include animal protein such as chicken occasionally and focus on consuming less animal protein, while someone who is vegetarian will not,” Ms. Kimberlain says. To create a healthier eating pattern, she reminds us to go back to the basics. “Consume lots of fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, seeds and foods that are rich in fiber and low in saturated fat,” she advises.

Many people assume that a vegetarian will automatically make you healthier, according to Ms. Kimberlain. “That’s not always the case – not all vegan/plant-based/vegetarian items are created equal,” she explains. “There are a lot of products to choose from these days but, unfortunately, some of them aren’t all that healthy. Read the labels.”

What is a plant-based diet?

“You’ve probably seen the term many times,” says Ms. Kimberlain. “But books, articles and interviews that discuss ‘plant-based diets’ use it as an umbrella term and are often referring to different things.” Everyone has their own definition of what plant-based really means, she says, but plant-based or plant-forward eating patterns focus on foods primarily from plants and on consuming less animal protein.

Ms. Kimberlain says that plant-based followers can include vegans, vegetarians, pescatarians and flexitarians – people who may not be willing to go vegan or vegetarian but simply wish to include more plants and less animal proteins in their diet. “Following a plant-based diet does not equate to being a vegetarian or a vegan,” she adds.

What is a vegetarian diet?

According to Ms. Kimberlain, vegetarians can be divided into different types of vegetarians. Lacto-ovo vegetarians allow dairy and eggs, lacto-vegetarians allow dairy and ovo-vegetarians allow eggs. The common denominator for all three is that they exclude meat, poultry and seafood from their diet.

People choose a vegetarian diet or eating pattern for many different reasons, Ms. Kimberlain says. Among them are:

  • Health – lowers heart disease risk, diabetes risk, lowers the risk for certain cancers.   
  • Environment – reduces water, carbon monoxide emissions, global warming, etc.
  • Ethics – saves the animals and protects how they’re ultimately treated.
  • Preference – may not like the taste/texture of meat, and/or may have allergies to certain animal products.

“If you decide to become a vegetarian or begin a plant-based eating pattern, you need to choose the plan that best matches your needs and lifestyle,” says Ms. Kimberlain. 

Easy steps to starting a “plant forward” diet

  • Eat your veggies. Many Americans are missing the mark when it comes to vegetable consumption. Aim to fill half your plate with vegetables at both lunch and dinner. Start with a salad to incorporate more veggies into the mix. Fresh, frozen or canned vegetables can be a part of planning a nutritious vegetarian meal. Have frozen spinach on hand to throw into soups, for example. Use fresh tomatoes for salads but use canned tomatoes for soup or chili. 
  • Cut the meat. Cutting back and having a 3- or 4-ounce piece of meat may be a way to become more plant-based. When you do eat animal protein, watch the quantity and pay close attention to the quality of the meat because there are cuts that are lower in saturated fat.
  • Balance your plate. By consuming less animal protein, it leaves more room to fill half your plate with veggies. 
  • Plan weekly vegetarian meals. You can build this meal around beans, whole grain and vegetables. You can continue to add different meals that focus more on plants while you cut back on animal protein. Try to add other vegetarian meals slowly throughout the week – it doesn’t have to be all or none.
  • Stick to familiar flavors. If you like tuna sandwiches, try making a chickpea sandwich with the same seasonings/spices. If you like taco Tuesdays, include tacos as part of the mix, maybe give lentil tacos a go and make sure to include veggies, where they may normally have left them out. A simple cabbage slaw with a few slices of avocado not only gives extra flavor, but also extra fiber.
  • Get your grains. Aim to make half of your grains whole. Use a variety of grains such as rice, quinoa, oats and barley; use whole grain breads, pitas and tortillas, and whole grain flours to make healthy muffins, pasta and crackers.
  • Pick your fruit. Fresh, frozen or canned, delicious fruits are readily available throughout the year and can add important nutrients to your meal – not to mention flavor.
  • Got milk? If you’re including milk or using a plant-based milk instead, make sure it’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D; same goes with your yogurt. If you’re including cheese, try nut-based cheeses and check the labels to see if they have protein, as not all do.
  • Let yourself go nuts. Nuts and nut butters (peanuts, almonds, cashews, walnuts, etc.) can be part of a healthy and filling snack, as are seeds such as chia, hemp, flax, pumpkin and sesame and edamame. Products such as tahini and tofu are also healthy additions to your diet.
  • Spice it up. Extra-virgin olive oil; spices and herbs; vinegars and mustards are all great ways to add a little zing to your plant-forward diet.

Watch Your Proteins and Nutrients

If you’re starting to phase out animal protein and replace it with plant protein, Ms. Kimberlain warns that certain nutrients are more abundant in animal protein sources. “That’s not to say you can’t obtain these nutrients from plant protein, because you absolutely can,” she says, “but pay attention to the following nutrients, especially if you’re a woman.”

  • Protein. If you are meeting your caloric requirements with a balanced diet, you will also be meeting your protein needs and consuming enough essential amino acids. The key to meeting your daily protein requirement is to make sure to have some protein at each meal, spread throughout the day. Protein also plays a role in supporting the immune system and can even play a role in weight management. For women, bone health and density are important, especially as you age. By getting enough protein, you can keep your bones strong and help minimize the density loss that will come as a natural part of aging. Additionally, it keeps your hair and nails looking healthy and strong.
  • Iron: It has been shown that vegetarians may have the same iron intake as meat-eaters, however, they still have a lower serum iron level. The non-heme iron sources from plants like leafy green vegetables are not as easily absorbed and are paired together with compounds that may inhibit iron absorption.
  • Calcium: Another mineral to watch and make sure adequate amounts are being consumed. When removing cow’s milk that has both calcium and vitamin D, it’s important to choose a plant-based milk that’s fortified with these nutrients, as not all of the products in this category are. Vegans are at the highest risk of calcium deficiency out of all plant-based diets. Additionally, several lifestyle factors can affect bone health:   smoking, drinking and activity levels.
  • Vitamin D. This is one to watch as many Americans are low in general and because it aids in calcium absorption (the two go hand in hand). 
  • Vitamin B12. Vegans are at a higher risk of inadequate intake as most food sources containing this vitamin are from animal products. There are some foods that are fortified with B12 although they can vary in their formulation.

Regarding supplements, Ms. Kimberlain says it’s always encouraged to try and obtain your nutrition via food first. But, she adds, the nutrients above would be the ones to pay attention to, particularly vitamins D and B12.

“Regardless of whether you choose a vegetarian or a plant-based eating pattern, there are significant health benefits when compared with non-vegetarian diets,” Ms. Kimberlain says. “If you’re on the fence, a combination of the two might be best for you.”

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