Plant-Based Diets

A variety of plant-based meals on a white wooden table, taken from above, with two people's hands reaching in with forks.
Source: iStock

There are endless benefits to eating a plant-based diet — benefits for your health, the planet, animals, and so much more. Keep reading to learn all about what it means to eat a plant-based diet.

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet is a diet centered upon eating plants, with little or no animal products. Food that’s part of a plant-based diet includes fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

The benefits of eating a plant-based diet are endless. It can have a variety of positive health effects on humans, it hurts less animals than a standard American diet, and it has a much lower environmental footprint.

What is a whole food plant-based diet?

Many people who follow a plant-based diet for health reasons try to stick to a whole foods plant-based (WFPB) diet, which focuses on eating foods in their whole form, as they appear in nature. Someone eating a WFPB diet might also limit their consumption of processed or refined foods, such as oil, refined sugar, white flour, and packaged snacks made with chemicals.

What is veganism?

Veganism is a lifestyle that seeks to exclude the use of animals as much as possible. Going vegan is usually a decision one makes based on ethical reasons, after learning about the animal agriculture industry’s terrible treatment of animals, as well as the industry’s high environmental impact.

Does plant-based mean vegan?

The terms vegan and plant-based are often used interchangeably — and while the two terms are very similar, there are a few differences.

A vegan eats a plant-based diet — but that’s only one part of veganism. In addition to foods like dairy, meat, fish, eggs, and honey, vegans also avoid animal-derived additives like gelatin and lanolin. Additionally, vegans extend their belief that animals should not be used by humans beyond what’s on their plates, ranging from cosmetics to household cleaning products to clothing to furniture.

Conversely, someone who eats a plant-based diet is not necessarily a vegan. The motivation behind veganism is the animals and often the Earth, while the motivation behind a plant-based diet is usually health or weight loss (though that’s not a hard and fast rule). Because of that, people following a plant-based diet might treat it like just that — a diet — and therefore occasionally eat animal products; they may eat foods made with animal-derived additives; they may also still buy clothing, furniture or other items made from animal materials such as leather, wool, and fur; and they may buy personal hygiene products that were tested on animals.

That said, eating a plant-based diet with health as your motivation is still a great thing. Not only can eating mostly plants help prevent and reverse disease, aid in weight loss, and optimize health, but you’ll also enjoy the positive side effects of lightening your environmental footprint, and you’ll hurt less animals.

Is a plant-based diet healthy?

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is the U.S.’s biggest nutrition organization, made up of more than 100,000 professionals. The organization has found that vegan diets are appropriate for people at all stages of life, including infancy and pregnancy, as well as people facing chronic illnesses.

“Well-planned vegetarian and vegan diets containing vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds can be nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of some chronic diseases,” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Vandana Sheth told Reuters.

What are the health benefits of a plant-based diet?

The health benefits of a plant-based diet go on and on — especially for those eating mostly whole foods. For one thing, plant foods are high in fiber, which can improve digestion and aid in weight loss. Various studies have found that a WFPB diet can help maintain weight for a long time, as opposed to low-carb/high-protein diets (such as keto or Atkins), which are often just temporary weight-loss fixes, according to Healthline.

Additionally, plant-based and vegan diets do not include any dietary cholesterol. Consuming excess cholesterol can lead to heart disease, and since cholesterol is only found in animal products, going plant-based can significantly reduce one's risk of developing heart disease.

In addition to heart conditions, animal products have also been known to cause type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity — so by decreasing your intake of animal products, you are also reducing your risk of developing those diseases. Not to mention, transitioning to a WFPB diet can also help reverse some of the aforementioned diseases.

Where can I find plant-based recipes?

The internet is filled with vegan recipes to satisfy everything from a hearty appetite to a sweet tooth. Click here for a list of vegan recipe developers who share recipes on their YouTube channels and blogs.

If you’re transitioning to a plant-based diet, you may be surprised to discover that some of your favorite foods may already be vegan — for example, french fries, pasta with tomato sauce, bagels, dark chocolate, and smoothies. Additionally, you can easily veganize your favorite recipes by replacing animal-based ingredients with plant-based alternatives, like almond milk, Beyond Burgers, and vegan cheese.

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

Yes, you can get 100 percent of the protein your body needs from plants!

Almost every whole plant food — from vegetables to fruit to beans to nuts to bread (yes, even bread) — has protein in it. Additionally, you probably don’t need as much protein as marketing has made you think you do. According to Dr. Michael Greger, famous plant-based physician and founder of, humans only need 0.8 to 0.9 grams of protein “per healthy kilogram of body weight.” That means that a 100 pound person only needs up to 40 grams of protein a day.

Dr. Greger also notes that humans eating enough food are unlikely to develop a protein deficiency — more likely, humans eating diets high in animal protein could experience a protein excess, which can cause kidney problems, liver diseases, an increased risk of cancer, and more.

What are high protein vegan foods?

It's easy to get all the protein you need from a plant-based diet.

If you are trying to build muscle and feel that you need more protein in your diet, plant foods with high concentrations of protein include: beans, lentils, nuts, quinoa, soy products (such as edamame, tofu, or tempeh), broccoli, spinach, and potatoes. There are also plenty of plant-based protein powders on the market.

What are the environmental benefits of a plant-based diet?

A University of Oxford study found that eating plant-based can significantly reduce our environmental footprints. “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use,” Oxford researcher Joseph Poore told The Guardian, based on the study’s results. The study also found that if we stopped producing meat and dairy, we could reduce worldwide farmland by more than 75 percent.

Plus, according to Our Land in Data, livestock uses about 80 percent of agricultural land on Earth, while only supplying 20 percent of the world’s calories. In addition, a massive amount of plant foods (mostly corn, soy, and grains) are required to feed livestock; when cattle pass gas, poop, and burp, they emit significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas; and runoff from factory farms can pollute soil and waterways, which is a public health risk for neighboring communities. This all further increases the environmental impact of animal products.

Are plant-based diets better for animals?

99 percent of animals raised for meat, dairy, and eggs in the U.S. spend their lives on factory farms, according to the Sentience Institute. Unfortunately, animals in factory farms are treated in a way that no compassionate human could call humane. Farmed animals spend their lives inside, crowded in cages or on the floor of a factory — even if the label on your carton of eggs says things like “free-range,” “organic,” or “cage-free.” Those words are not much more than marketing terms, designed to make consumers feel like they are supporting animal welfare by purchasing those products, when in reality, the animals are sadly living in filthy, unhealthy conditions.

Plus, when it comes to animal byproducts like milk, cheese, and eggs, where it may seem like the animals are not suffering, they unfortunately are — and when they are no longer profitable, they are slaughtered, just like animals raised for meat. So by transitioning to a plant-based diet, not only can you improve your personal health and lower your environmental footprint, but you can also stop contributing to the animal agriculture industry.

Is eating plant-based more expensive?

Contrary to popular belief, a plant-based diet is often more affordable than an omnivorous diet — as long as you are eating mostly whole, plant foods, and only occasionally eating things like meat and cheese alternatives. Some of the cheapest (and most nutritious) foods in your grocery store are fruits and veggies (especially frozen or canned varieties); grains like pasta and rice; and legumes like beans and lentils (which can be even cheaper if purchased dry instead of canned).

A vegan diet gets the reputation of being expensive or inaccessible — which can be true if you’re focusing on buying alternative products like faux meat, vegan cheese, or frozen vegan meals. But if you keep your plant-based diet focused on whole plant foods, you could actually save money by going plant-based.

How can I transition to a plant-based diet?

There’s no wrong way to transition to a plant-based diet, but there are a few techniques that can help things go smoothly. You can: try replacing your milk with non-dairy milk like soy milk, almond milk, or oat milk; start with Meatless Mondays, and eat vegetarian or vegan every Monday; cook your favorite meals with plant-based substitutions in lieu of animal-based ingredients; or simply try new plant-based dishes, either at home or in restaurants, whenever you have the chance. Focus on the new foods you’re adding to your diet, as opposed to the animal products that you may be taking out of your diet, and things should go swimmingly.

Check out Green Matters' guide to switching to a plant-based diet.

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