The Different Types of Plant-Based Diets

Nearly one in four Americans reduced their meat intake in 2019. Whether for health, moral or budgetary reasons, more people are moving toward a plant-based diet. This includes fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds, nuts and little to no animal products. When making such a change, it’s important to know the different types of diets and their specific restrictions. Here are some of the most common plant-based options:

  • Flexitarian – Also known as semi-vegetarian, a flexitarian diet doesn’t require the total elimination of meat. It primarily focuses on plant-based foods but allows room for some animal products. This is a great approach for those wanting to reduce their meat intake, without a restrictive lifestyle change.
  • Pescatarian – Like flexitarians, a pescatarian is mostly plant-based, except for seafood. It’s often used as a main source of protein, while incorporating heart-healthy fat from fish. Pescatarians exclude beef, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb and wild game. Yet, they do consume salmon, sardines, herring and other types of seafood.
  • Vegetarian – A vegetarian diet prohibits the consumption of meat or any type of animal flesh. Among this group, individuals who eat dairy and eggs are called lacto-ovo vegetarians, those who omit meat and eggs are lacto-vegetarians and those who eat eggs but don’t consume dairy are called ovo-vegetarians.
  • Vegan – For many people, vegan isn’t just a diet—it’s a philosophy and lifestyle. It strictly prohibits the eating or wearing of any animal products. That includes meat, dairy and eggs, as well as leather, fur and some cosmetics. Vegan meals typically consist of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, seeds, tofu, herbs and spices.

Health Benefits of Plant-Based Diets
Many adopters of plant-based diets consider them healthier and more sustainable. Research has found that they can lower the risk of certain cancers and chronic disease, including heart disease—the leading cause of death in the U.S. Plant-based diets can also reduce body inflammation, increase fiber consumption, lower cholesterol and help individuals manage their weight.

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, compiled by the United States Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services, states that a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet should consist of 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 cups of vegetables. Yet, the average American only eats 0.9 cups of fruit and 1.4 cups of vegetables. A plant-based diet prioritizes these food groups, which can help followers meet their recommendations.

Health Concerns Regarding Plant-Based Diets
Omitting one or more food groups has raised concerns about nutrient deficiencies. The most notable criticism of plant-based diets is the reduction of protein, vitamin B12 (only found in animal products), iron and calcium. Since traditional diets use meat and dairy as primary sources, most plant-based diets use alternatives like beans, lentils, nuts and non-dairy milk substitutes.

There are also concerns about mercury poisoning among pescatarians. Most seafood contains varying traces of the element, but too much is toxic to the human body. Overexposure can cause long-term damage  to the nervous, immune and digestive systems, as well as vital organs including kidneys, lungs, skin and eyes. Pescatarians, especially children and women who are nursing, are encouraged to avoid fish high in mercury like shellfish, swordfish and king mackerel.

Before starting a plant-based diet, individuals should talk to their doctor about finding a meal plan that aligns with their health goals and personal beliefs.

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Photo credit: UliU

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