Why Plant-Based Diets Don’t Have to Be Completely Meat-Free

Are you interested in learning more about the latest healthy-eating buzzword, “plant-based”—and what that even means? A plant-based diet focuses on consuming more foods that are derived from plants—which means not only fruits and veggies, but also whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. And surprisingly, while most vegetarians and vegans would probably tell you that they follow plant-based diets, going plant-based doesn’t mean you have to swear off meat (and dairy) entirely.  

In fact, increasingly, people who eat some meat have also been adopting the label for their eating styles. Referring to your diet this way may inspire you to eat more healthily by making a commitment to eating those whole, plant-based foods, whether or not you consume animal products.  

“Using ‘plant’ in the title of the diet would certainly keep plant consumption top of mind,” says Katie Coles, MS, RDN, an Austin, Texas-based registered dietitian. “Plants have tremendous benefits, but you don’t need to exclude meat to get those benefits.”

Plant-based diets may lead to well-rounded nutrition

The difference between vegetarian and plant-based? Just because people avoid meat, it doesn’t mean that they follow a plant-based diet; many processed foods that don’t contain much fiber—or many vitamins and minerals—qualify as vegetarian or vegan. By contrast, people who choose a plant-based lifestyle typically focus on consuming whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and more, which sets them up for better nutrition.

“Most plant-based eaters get their needed nutrients from phytonutrients, which are only found in plants,” says Katrina Pilkington, a Tampa, Florida-based NASM-certified personal trainer and wellness educator.

Including some meat in a mostly plant-based diet may help you consume nutrients that can be difficult for vegetarians or vegans to get, including vitamin B12, which is only found in animal sources, and the omega-3 fat DHA, which is mainly found in fish.

“You’ll be consuming quality amino acids that are very bioavailable and particularly good for building and preserving muscle, B12—which is not present in plant products, vitamin D, zinc and choline, and plenty of heme iron, which is more bioavailable than what is found in most plant foods,” Coles says.

A plant-based diet may also enable you to better control your weight, if you mainly eat fruits, vegetables, and other fiber-rich, plant-based whole foods.

“Whole plant foods are very filling and tend to be lower in calories than animal products, so by going on this diet, people tend to eat less without necessarily trying,” Coles says. “They may spontaneously eat fewer high-calorie foods while also consuming more antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, minerals and other components that are high in plants.”

It is important to know, though, that not all plant-based foods are created equally. Researchers have found that people who followed non-vegetarian, plant-based diets containing a high volume of healthy, plant-based whole foods—fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains, which are high in fiber, unsaturated fats, antioxidants, and other micronutrients—had a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure than people who ate higher proportions of plant-based foods that are less healthy, like refined grains, sugar, fruit juice, and potato products. So, just because something is technically derived from plants does not mean it is healthy, like the processed foods we just mentioned. Interestingly, both groups ate some animal products. 

The amount of meat that plant-based eaters consume varies

There are no set rules for plant-based diets, although most people who adopt the label eat considerably more plant-based foods than animal products. Choosing this eating style gives you the freedom to create a menu for yourself that you’re comfortable with. Whether that means eating meat two or three times per week, or more or less often, is up to you.

If you identify with the plant-based lifestyle, you may be more likely to eat some meat within a stir-fry dish that’s predominantly vegetables, but the flexibility of the eating plan means that you may find a way to fit a steak into your diet periodically, if that’s what you enjoy on special occasions—similar to calling yourself a flexitarian

“Personal preference can be the indicator of how much meat someone has,” Pilkington says. “The goal is to not be so binary on thinking when it comes to eating and solely include more phytonutrient-rich foods and nutrients from real food sources that benefit health, instead of decline it.”

If abstaining from meat entirely is the reason you are shying away from adopting a more plant-based diet, know that you can keep meat incorporated into your diet, and still identify as a plant-based eater. 

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