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Plant-based diet.. What does it actually mean and should I give it a go?

First and foremost, a 'plant-based' diet or rather a plant-forward eating is not a 'diet'. Instead, it is a totally different way of thinking of our meals. As a dietitian, I have done thousands of diet history as part of nutrition counselling. Normally, what I ask a client what they eat for dinner, the first answer is a type of meat. For example, a client might say 'I usually have chicken or beef for dinner' Now if you look at the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating here, the meat component make up of less than one quarter of the plate. Yet most of us think of meat as the first component of a meal. So plant-based eating, in many way, will change that narrative.

colourful plant based food denoting plant-based eating
picture showing colour fruit and vegetables

Now back on the topic, what does 'plant-based' eating actually mean. While there is no official definition, as the name suggest, a eating style that is plant-based and this allow for a small amount of animal products, such as meat, dairy, egg etc in the overall diet.

So the basic principles are:

  • Emphasis of minimum processed ingredients.

  • Limit or avoid animal product

  • Plant focus food. Think wholegrain, seeds, nuts, legumes and lentils, fruit and vegetables. Not 'rabbit food' as I was once told.

  • Minimise sugar or foods high in added sugar or refined extracted carbohydrate such as refined fructose or corn syrup etc.

Plant-based eating is often confused with vegan or vegetarian eating. I think about these three in this way:

VEGAN - Plant-based food and foods from plants only. If the food come from or processed from or with animal or an insect, then no (so honey, eggs and dairy are out, some colouring such as E120 red is from an insect are also out).

VEGETARIAN - Vegan + honey + egg + dairy. The egg and dairy part will depend on whether the individual choose to include them or not. Think ovo-lacto-vegetarian or ovo-vegetarian or lacto-vegetarian

PLANT-BASED - Mostly plant food with addition of small amount of animal-derived food.

Now why would one choose plant-based over say a vegan diet? Now this is the million dollar question. For a variety of reasons, such as personal preference, cultural preference or medical needs, a plant-based diet maybe a way to benefit from the health (and environmental) effects of plant-focused eating.

Plant-based eating benefits from a number of health condition

1. Heart Health

Two large studies, the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study, included almost 110,000 men and women whose health and dietary habits were followed for 14 years. The result showed the higher the average daily intake of fruits and vegetables, the lower the chances of developing cardiovascular disease. Compared with those in the lowest category of fruit and vegetable intake (less than 1.5 servings a day), those who averaged 8 or more servings a day were 30% less likely to have had a heart attack or stroke.

2. Cancer

Lifestyle changes can impact on the risk of developing certain cancers. A large study of more than 77,000 people demonstrated that those who followed vegetarian diets had a 22% lower risk of developing colorectal cancer than non-vegetarians.

For breast cancer, a study based on data from over 65,000 postmenopausal women who were tracked for more than two decades, found that a healthy plant-based diet was linked with a 14% lower risk of breast cancer while an unhealthy plant-based diet was linked with a 20% higher risk of breast cancer. The findings were consistent across all breast cancer subtypes.

In people who already developed cancer, including breast, prostate and colon cancer, plant-based diet seems to have improve their outcome according to this recent review in 2022.

3. Type 2 Diabetes

A systematic review on plant-based diet for the management of diabetes in the British Medical Journal showed plant-based diet 'significantly improve psychological health, quality of life, HbA1c levels and weight and therefore the management of diabetes.' Furthermore, six studies reported a reduction or discontinuation of diabetes-related medication in the intervention groups. This is great news for people living with diabetes.

4. Chronic kidney disease

Higher adherence to healthy plant-based diets and a vegetarian diet was associated with favorable kidney disease outcomes, according to a 24-years follow-up study of 14,686 adult. This mean a plant-based diet does less damage to the kidney over time and the kidneys hold up its function longer.

This is just a snapshot of the many benefits plant-based eating confer. There are also evidence that it may improve our mood, reduce risk of developing dementia and even long covid symptoms. With so many benefits of a plant-based eating, I will let the reader decide whether plant-based eating is for you.


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