What is a plant-based diet? What does it include and why is it called that way? There are many types of plant-based diets, from vegan to semi-vegetarian and they all include either all or partially energy sources from plants. Today we will discuss how is this possible and what does it generally mean. This will be the first of many plant-based explanatory articles.
What is “Plant-Based”?
The term plant-based refers to having all or most of the calories ingested through diet derived from plant energy sources. This term is being more and more common these days, responding to the rise and expansion in health research, populations health awareness and climate/environmental health. By removing or diminishing the amount of caloric intake from animal products, vegetable products such as tubers, legumes, grains, seeds, and nuts are getting more attention, since we need to replace the amount of energy the animal products supply with other sources. This is not a new concept since it was widely accepted and used in most eastern societies, such as Asian culture countries. Plant-Based has a lot of food variables and options to choose from, and it’s not as most people think, based on “eating just salads or spinach”.
Food Groups Included
When asked about what do people who do not eat meat usually eat, there are many questions and doubts. Most people assume that since there are no meat or animal products (or a reduced intake of these), the diet is only reduced to green leafy vegetables or salads. As you will see next, this is not the case at all. We normally juggle between only a small variety of foods. Once you know all the possibilities out there, you will see that a meatless diet should not be considered a boring diet.
This group refers to the foods that most people usually avoid when “on a diet”. As you will see soon, grains is one of the most vastly used good group in the plant-based diet and there is actually no reason to fear grains, as long as you are cutting down your fat and animal protein consumption. This group includes quinoa, brown rice, oats, whole-wheat pasta, wheat, bulgur, brown bread (with the lowest amount of fat possible) and other grain-based products. For this group, it is really important to note that the healthy products are the ones that are consumed in their unrefined form.
In order to be healthy, these carbohydrates need to remain in their natural form, where they are complex carbs. Once they go through the refining process, they usually lose most of their nutritional value (fiber, vegetable protein, minerals) and switch from complex carbs to simple carbs. By doing so, they become more likely to be stored as fat, and not used as carbohydrates or instant fuel for our regular body processes. Unrefined grains contain high amounts of vegetable protein, dietary fiber, and minerals. They also help to regulate your bowel movements and your gastrointestinal tract health.
Tubers are usually considered the roots of the plants, these are products such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, ginger, maca, yacón, mashua, oca, etc. These guys are loaded with complex carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals since they are the storage units of nutrients for plants. In order to keep their nutritional values, it is best to boil them with their skin on, and only remove it before consumption. They represent a large portion of these have a really long “shelf life” and can be stored for a long time. Just be aware of the right conditions to do so.
Being one of the best sources of vegetable protein, legumes are the best allies of a healthy, plant-based diet. Legumes include products such as beans (all the kinds of beans that you can name since they are a lot), lentils, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), lima beans, soybeans, peas, etc. As stated before, legumes provide a really high amount of vegetable protein, and to obtain all of their health benefits, you need to soak them in water before cooking since they have a toxic substance on their skins.
Most of the best meat replacement products are made out of legumes and provide a really high amount of vegetable protein. You can find burgers, tofu, powdered protein, etc. Besides being a good protein source, they provide complex carbs, dietary fiber and some basic mineral compounds.
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts & seeds are small and highly energy dense foods. They are usually good sources of unsaturated or “good” fat and come in a lot of different presentations. They can be eaten raw, toasted, roasted, salted, grounded, boiled, etc. and they all provide amazing health benefits if used correctly. These products are chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds, almonds, pecans, nuts, peanuts, among others. Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of insoluble fiber, which helps to regulate the digestive system. They are also a good source of vitamins and minerals and, as stated before, one of the best sources of “good” fat. I am using the quotation marks because, if used in excess, they can be harmful.
This group is kinda self-explanatory. We all know what fruits are, but we should be reminded that we should include them in our daily life as much as possible. These are the guys who are responsible for finding and inactivating all of the harmful cells in our organism, by providing the best source of vitamins and antioxidants.
All of the other foods that do not fall into any of the groups found above are considered vegetables (they all are, but they have some fancy sorting to make things easier). So green-leafy products such as kale, spinach, lettuce, etc. broccoli, carrots, green beans, artichokes, eggplants, pumpkins, onions, and so on and so forth.
These are the food groups included in the plant-based diets, and as you can see, they are really varied and full of health benefits. Do not stop here, I challenge you to do some research on your own and get to know which are the ones available in your country/region and how to use add them to your daily diet. Use as many colors, textures, and shapes as you can, including products from all of the groups explained above.
Types of Plant-Based Diets
The term vegan refers to someone who does not eat animal products whatsoever. Relating only to the food groups explained above, they reach a higher health state by having the best-proven health indicators so far, reducing the incidence of chronic nontransmissible diseases and even reversing some of the most common ones such as cancer, diabetes, and atherosclerosis. Of course, while doing it the right way.
There is also the social and environmental veganism, which includes not using any products made of animals or which promote animal cruelty. No fur, no leather, and no animal tested products.
Raw vegans follow the same dietary pattern as vegans but do not “cook” their food. It is only allowed to submit them to low cooking temperatures or dehydration.
Vegetarians remove meat products from their diets, maintaining dairy and eggs. By doing this, they are still getting a source of animal protein and saturated fat but reducing drastically the “normal” intake of these two. Vegetarianism is becoming really popular and most people who start with this dietary pattern, usually enjoy a healthier life than omnivores. There are three general types of vegetarianism, the one described above, vegetarians who do not eat eggs but eat dairy products, and vegetarians who do not consume dairy products but include eggs in their regular diets.
Vegetarians who do not eat dairy products. They can be seen as vegans who eat eggs.
Vegetarians who do not eat eggs. They can be seen as vegans who eat dairy products.
Semi-vegetarians avoid animal products generally but enjoy the occasional animal protein source. It is common to see this as a technique for avoiding animal products during the weekdays and including them back to the normal diet during the weekends.
Pescatarians avoid mammals meat but include fish and sea products in their diets. They reduce substantially the saturated fat intake but maintain a steady consumption of animal protein in their diets.
As you can see, plant-based is a really fun and broad topic, not just salads and spinach. There are many ways to reach a healthier nutrition and many ways to change your diet habits.This is just easy to read and digested information given to you to help you make an aware choice of what to eat, every day. Now that you know that there are more options than just what you were given all your life and introduced as “normal”, you can choose for yourself what you think is better for you.