There is no official definition of a plant-based diet. Generally, a plant-based diet is an eating pattern that consists of wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, dairy, pulses, lentils, nuts and seeds, with little or no animal-based foods.
Plant-based diets do not always mean plant-only diets, and there are many different plant-based eating patterns or ‘diets’, including:
Lacto-ovo vegetarians: People who eat dairy foods and eggs but not meat, poultry or seafood.
Ovo-vegetarians: People who eat eggs but avoid all other animal foods, including dairy.
Lacto-vegetarians: People who eat dairy foods but exclude eggs, meat, poultry and seafood.
Pesco-vegetarians: People who eat seafood, dairy foods and eggs but not meat or poultry.
Vegans: People who don’t eat any animal products at all, including honey, dairy and eggs.
Well-planned plant-based, vegetarian and vegan diets can be nutritious and healthy. They are also associated with lower risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. This may be because such diets often contain foods lower in saturated fat, fewer calories, more fibre and more plant-based chemicals (phytonutrients/phytochemicals that can have beneficial/protective health properties).
Interestingly, studies also show that people who follow plant-based diets for health reasons are also more likely to engage in other health behaviours, such as regular physical activity and not smoking.
They may also be from a higher socio-economic group, which potentially means easier access to plant-based foods (kim et al, 2018). This suggests that people who follow a plant-based diet might already be at a lower risk of developing health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease – a prime example of how nutrition and dietary advice is not always black and white!
Remember, you don't necessarily have to become vegetarian or vegan, but adding in more plant-based foods to your diet can help you gain some of the health benefits mentioned above. You can start by adding in plant-based foods to what you’re eating already or try one or two plant-based eating days per week.
Can plant-based diets provide you with all the nutrients you need for healthy living?
In one word: yes! In 2017, The British Dietetic Association (BDA) confirmed in a statement alongside The Vegan Society that “it is possible to follow well-planned, vegan-friendly diets that can support healthy living in people of all ages, and during pregnancy and breastfeeding.”
Remember that plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diets often exclude whole food groups, so good nutrition knowledge and planning is key to ensure you’re getting all the nutrients you need. Andy Burman, BDA Chief Executive, said, “It is important that people choosing to eat a vegan diet can get the right advice from the right sources, and know to visit a dietitian for advice on tailoring their nutrition and diet.”
How can a dietitian help with my plant-based diet?
There are certain nutrients to pay close attention to on a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet. Nutrition guidance and support from a dietitian can help ensure that you’re achieving a balance of key nutrients important for long-term health. These include iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, omega-3, iodine and selenium.
Iron and Zinc: These minerals are important for a healthy immune system, wound healing and cell growth. Iron deficiency is common in women and can result in tiredness and lack of energy, pale skin, headaches and hair loss. It’s important to eat a variety of iron & zinc rich foods, including wholegrains, nuts, leafy green vegetables, dried fruit, pulses, fortified cereals and seeds. Some people may need guidance from a dietitian and/or GP to consider a supplement or a general multivitamin if struggling with their iron levels.
Calcium: Calcium is a mineral important for healthy teeth, strong bones, nerves and muscle function, amongst several other things. Dairy foods are the best calcium sources, so if you eat a dairy-free or vegan diet, it’s important to have a regular intake of calcium-fortified foods like plant-based milks, plant-based yoghurts, calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified cereals and bread.
Vitamin D: This essential vitamin is needed a