Updated: Nov 2
Plant based diets are increasingly popular eating patterns and perfectly capable of supplying all your nutritional needs. It is useful to know the differences between them.
So why all this talk of plant based diets and their increasingly popularity. Being vegetarian or vegan has long established roots across many cultures. Recently concerns about nutrition, the environment, animal welfare and a string of documentaries touching on all of these issues have brought plant based eating to a wider and younger, internet driven audience.
Many of us are omnivores, we eat a bit of everything both animal and plant. What is the ‘normal’ omnivorous diet? In the case of many nations it is, or is enroute to becoming, the Standard American Diet (SAD), heavily focused on animal products and processed foods. This highly inflammatory eating practice is vastly different from the omnivorous diet that most Western societies were consuming pre-1950's and the boom in ready to eat and ultra processed foods. This diet has become the prevalent diet across North America, Europe and ANZ and many nations in Asia are increasingly following this eating pattern. SAD is effectively eaten by hundreds of millions of people and, as we can see from rocketing rates of obesity and chronic illness, it is devastating our societies.
Plant based or plant forward are two catch all terms that have come into common usage, essentially meaning vegetarian. These eating patterns prioritise plant foods and do not have to exclude animal products. You might also see the term 'whole food plant based' used. This is a focus on eating unprocessed or minimally processed foods that are richer in nutrients than their processed (or ultra processed) counterparts.
Vegans are those who avoid all animal products for ethical reasons, for example, concerns over animal welfare and the environment. It is not therefore an eating pattern in its own right. When it comes to nutritional health, veganism (by definition) is no more or less healthy than other whole food plant based eating patterns. To note, there are now many vegan 'junk' foods, ethical and yet highly processed - far from health promoting.
Other popular plant based eating patterns include:
Flexitarian eating some meat or fish, perhaps a few times a week.
A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet includes dairy, eggs and avoids meat and fish.
Ovo-vegetarians allow eggs, avoid meat and dairy.
Pescatarians include fish in their diets but not meat.
Yes, plant based eating patterns can include animal products although the type, quantity and frequency between individual practitioners vary. Traditional plant based eating patterns, such as the well studied Mediterranean diet, contain a limited amount of animal protein in the form of fish, meat or dairy products.
What About Nutrition?
Some people have concerns over whether a plant based or even a 100% plant diet can provide all one's nutritional needs. This is a valid question and the answer is, with a little planning, Yes. Generally the more restrictive a diet one follows the more planning is needed.
A common example raised is that vegans require additional Vitamin B12, calcium, iodine and Omega 3 fats. This can easily achieved with supplements or ensuring that the diet includes foods with these nutrients. New comers to 100% plant based eating should also ensure that they eat enough calories; you need to eat more food than on an omnivorous diet as plant foods are generally less calorically dense.
Certain groups (children, pregnant, elderly, athletes) have specific nutritional requirements that need to be accounted for. Eating additional protein to meet the recommended daily intake is important as plant proteins are not as bioavailable as animal sources of protein. It is worth mentioning that plant based diets are rich in many nutrients that people on a 'standard' omnivorous diet fail to consume in sufficient quantity, including key vitamins and minerals as well as all important fibre to support a healthy gut microbiome.
As we have seen plant based eating patterns can, but don't have to, exclude animal products. Many people enjoy the Mediterranean diet (eating pattern) with its focus on plants and legumes and including small amounts of meat and fish. In its traditional form this is essentially a flexitarian diet and similar to other traditional eating patterns from Africa to Asia.
As you can see there are generally only umbrella terms and catch all phrases when it come to eating patterns. Whether you have concerns about your health, the environment or the terminology used most people can agree that on a societal level we could benefit from eating more fruit and vegetables and a little less meat.
Felicia and Alastair
Scroll down to see links to more information and related scientific studies.
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For more information on plant-based eating:
Meat Free Monday A popular way to explore plant based eating is to try one vegetarian day per week
SG Vegetarian Society (Singapore)
USA Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (vegan resources for the public and physicians and useful fact sheets)
Explore studies linked to these eating patterns:
English LK, Ard JD, Bailey RL, Bates M, Bazzano LA, Boushey CJ, Brown C, Butera G, Callahan EH, de Jesus J, Mattes RD, Mayer-Davis EJ, Novotny R, Obbagy JE, Rahavi EB, Sabate J, Snetselaar LG, Stoody EE, Van Horn LV, Venkatramanan S, Heymsfield SB. Evaluation of Dietary Patterns and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review. JAMA Netw Open. 2021 Aug 2;4(8):e2122277. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.22277. PMID: 34463743; PMCID: PMC8408672.
Sakkas H, Bozidis P, Touzios C, Kolios D, Athanasiou G, Athanasopoulou E, Gerou I, Gartzonika C. Nutritional Status and the Influence of the Vegan Diet on the Gut Microbiota and Human Health. Medicina (Kaunas). 2020 Feb 22;56(2):88. doi: 10.3390/medicina56020088. PMID: 32098430; PMCID: PMC7073751.
Dinu M, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A, Sofi F. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017 Nov 22;57(17):3640-3649. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447. PMID: 26853923.
Rogerson, D. Vegan diets: practical advice for athletes and exercisers. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 36 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0192-9