Plant-Based Diet: What Is It, Why Try It, What Can You Eat?

Celebrities from Ariana Grande to Beyoncé are adopting plant-based diets.


Plant-based diets are all the rage—combining a growing interest in vegetarianism for ethical reasons with the health benefits of fruits and vegetables. Has the most sensible way to eat been in our own backyard all along?

What is a plant-based diet?

Veganism and vegetarianism have existed since the dawn of humanity, but in general a plant-based diet isn't about restrictions or prohibitions—merely focusing on filling up your plate with foods that are derived from plant sources.

plant based diet
A plant-based diet isn't about restrictions. Getty

"The evidence of every variety overwhelmingly highlights the benefits of plant-predominant diets for the health outcomes that matter most: years in life, and life in years; longevity, and vitality," Dr. David L. Katz of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center told New York magazine. "Forget about 'carbs,' and think instead in terms of the foods that are best for you."

That recipe, says Katz, emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, tubers, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. "That can be with or without seafood; with or without dairy; with or without eggs; with or without some meat; high or low in total fat," he adds.

In general, most people who practice a plant-based diet exclude or greatly minimize meat (including chicken and fish), dairy and eggs, as well as highly refined foods like bleached flour and refined sugar.

What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?

Forget about ethics, environmentalism or even cost, for a minute and think about your health: The World Health Organization has inextricably linked the consumption of processed meats to cancer.

In fact, processed meats are responsible for an additional 34,000 cancer deaths a year worldwide.

cancer meat plant based diet
The World Health Organization has classified processed meat as a carcinogen. Getty

In addition to lowering your risk of cancer, a plant-based diet is rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals that help lower blood pressure and cholesterol. It can also reduce the risk of heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and cognitive decline.

And a plant-based diet is healthier for Mother Earth, too: The pollution, deforestation, greenhouse gasses and more caused by our global obsession with meat are having just as much of an impact on the earth as all the cars on the planet. We don't have an alternative to the automobile, but we do have one for the hamburger.

Raising livestock is much less sustainable than farming: Animal protein production requires eight times as much fossil-fuel energy as production of plant proteins, and yields just 1.4 times more nutritients than a comparable amount of plant protein.

animal livestock plant based diet
The impact of factory farming would drop dramatically if more people adopted a plant-based diet. Getty

And, yes, there is an ethical benefit to a plant-based diet. "Farm animals feel pleasure and sadness, excitement and resentment, depression, fear and pain," wrote legendary animal advocate Jane Goodall in The Inner World of Farm Animals. "They are much more sensitive and intelligent than we ever imagined."

For all of those reasons and more, plant-based diets are increasingly being touted by celebrities: Ariana Grande has said, "Thank U, Next" to meat, and Natalie Portman, Jared Leto and World of Dance host Jenna Dewan are mostly meatless.

Kendrick Farris plant based diet
Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris has had to defend his plant-based diet from those who think "muscle equals meat." GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images

Vegan Olympic weightlifter Kendrick Farris says he's had to combat myths about meat and muscles. "We shouldn't get so caught up with 'protein, protein, protein,' he told Men's Fitness. "Because you can get an excess of protein, and most of it just gets passed through the body."

In perhaps the crowning moment for the movement, Beyoncé recently shared on social media that she switched to plant-based breakfasts and "meatless Mondays."

Bey even offered fans a chance to win free lifetime tickets to her concerts—if you switched to a plant-based diet.

What can I eat on a plant-based diet?

You don't have to worry that a plant-based diet means no wings on Super Bowl Sunday. But the truth is the American diet is very protein-centered, with many traditionalists seeing anything but the steak or porkchop on their plate as a bit player. A plant-based diet is different: the guest of honor is tofu or quinoa, with a few slices of steak or chicken as accompanyment.

Past research has indicated that the more a diet restricts animal products, the more health benefits someone will receive. SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

It's not about cutting out meat entirely, rather shifting the perception of what a meal should be centered around to stimulate a healthier lifestyle.

"A moderate change in your diet, such as lowering your animal food intake by one to two servings per day and replacing it with legumes or nuts as your protein source, can have a lasting positive impact on your health," Public-health expert Ambika Satija told Harvard Men's Health Watch.

And it's never been easier to adopt the plant-based lifestyle: The "McVegan" burger was launched in Tampere, Finland, in spring 2018 before being launched across Finland and Sweden. (More than 150,000 McVegans were sold within the first six months.) In the U.K., McDonald's worked with the Vegetarian Society to roll out a vegan Happy Meal for children, as well as a Spicy Veggie Wrap for grownups.

Most McDonald's outside of Europe (and inside, really) have yet to adopt a robust roster of plant-based meals. But several start-ups have begun to tap the market for sustainable meat alternatives: The buzzyworth Impossible Burger even "bleeds" like beef, thanks to the addition of soy lecithin. Ethan Brown says he was inspired to create the Beyond Burger, which purportedly matches the look, feel and taste of real beef, because of "growing issues attributed to livestock production and consumption—human health, climate change, natural resource depletion, and animal welfare."

Beyond Meat_Ethan Brown_Beyond Burger plant based diet
Beyond Meat

Vegan burgers aren't exactly new, but their entrance into the mainstream is: The Beyond Burger is on the menu at hip L.A. and New York restaurants, but is also available at TGIFriday's and numerous supermarket chains. Business has been so good Beyond Meat is going public, and recently filed for a $100 million IPO.

You can go easy on the meat, or even avoid it altogether, and still commit to an athletic lifestyle. (Farris is living proof of that.) "For extremely long or intense workouts, there may be advantages to carbohydrate and protein prior and concentrated antioxidants after to help with muscle recovery," says Katz. "But none of this is relevant for a trip to the gym; this is for the Tour de France or a marathon."

The point, he adds, is to " well over the course of each day, and distribute that eating around your workouts any way you like."

What to keep in mind if you decide to follow a plant-based diet.

1. Get enough protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin B12.
While readily available in meat and dairy, those nutrients can also be found in vegatables, nuts and beans, and can also be boosted with supplements.

3. Make sure you drink enough water.
That's good advice for everyone, but vegetarians tend to have more fiber in their diet. Water helps move that fiber through your digestive system and prevent issues like gas, bloating and constipation.

4. Be more mindful of what you're eating.
Embracing a plant-based diet doesn't mean cutting out meat or cheese completely, but if your lunch go-to is the pizza place down the block you might need to start brownbagging it.

And just because you're eating green doesn't mean you're being healthy—potato chips, french fries and sugary sodas are all plant-based.

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