If you’re thinking about changing your eating plan, consider the pros and cons of a plant-based diet. Learn how it might help you and pitfalls to avoid!
Thinking of going plant based? You may be surprised to learn that there are a few pros and cons of a plant-based diet. And knowing what will help you succeed and what may be a roadblock can make choosing a plant-based diet easier. Now, let’s take a look to get started!
What is a plant-based diet?
There’s no one-and-done definition for a plant-based diet. These are the three most common definitions of a plant-based diet:
For some people, eating plant-based means following a strict vegan diet. Vegan diets avoid all animal products––including meats, seafood, dairy, eggs, and even honey.
For other people, a plant-based diet means following a vegetarian diet. Vegetarian diets include animal products like dairy and eggs––but eliminate meat and seafood.
3. Flexitarian/Flexibly Plant Based
Other people who follow a plant-based diet consider it to be a diet with a more flexible approach. This way of eating, sometimes referred to as a flexitarian diet, includes animal products but in lesser quantities. For example, someone following a flexitarian approach to eating plant based might have a small portion of meat at lunch and may skip the meat altogether for dinner.
The bottom line: No matter which eating pattern you choose when following a plant-based diet, the theme remains the same. Eat mostly plants, and eat a lot of plants! Now, let’s look at the top plant based diet pros and cons.
Pros of a plant-based diet
There are many, many pros to following a plant-based diet. Let’s take a look at them:
Benefits to heart health
Eating more plants is beneficial for heart health, per a recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association. This prospective study used a diet quality score to rate the diets of adults ages 18 to 30. The results found that people following what the study termed a plant-centered diet with “subsets of animal products” had a significantly lower risk of heart disease.
Another study published in 2019 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found similar results. The study authors found a link between eating a healthy plant-based diet and having a reduced risk of death due to heart disease. It’s important to note that both studies differentiated between healthy plant-based diets rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes––as well as less-healthy, plant-based diets consisting of refined grains, fruit juices, sugar-sweetened beverages, and desserts. This difference is key when evaluating the impact a plant-based diet may have on heart health.
Benefits for the environment
Eating a plant-based diet, and specifically reducing beef intake, may be beneficial for the environment. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, cattle contributes the most emissions. This is followed by other animal proteins including pork, chicken, and eggs. Thus, choosing to replace meat with plants like beans is helpful for the environment.
And according to a 2017 study in Geoscience Letters, replacing beef with beans has big benefits. If Americans replaced beef with beans, between 46 and 74 percent of greenhouse gas reduction targets for 2020 would be met. Of course, this example is no longer relevant in today’s 2022 reality. But it does illustrate the significant effect a simple dietary change could have on the environmental impact of the diet.
But before you give the plant-based diet too much praise, consider this: A team of Tufts University researchers found that some healthy diets may have environmental trade offs, per the study they published. Healthy diets with plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains can be helpful to the environment, but the researchers found that those same diets are linked with increased food waste that has a negative effect on the environment. So while adding more plants to your diet is both good for you and the environment, it only accomplishes both if you actually eat what you buy.
Benefits for your diet and mood
Healthy plant-based diets are connected with a reduced risk of death, according to a study published in 2021 in Clinical Nutrition. However, this study highlighted that not all plant-based diets are created equally. For example, sugar-sweetened beverages, chips, and candy may be plant based but do little to improve your diet quality. However, if you’re committed to increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat as well as to making healthy swaps like replacing refined grains with whole grains, then a plant-based diet has the potential to improve your overall diet quality and health.
Healthier plant-based diets have a few themes:
- Choosing whole grains in place of refined grains
- Eating the recommended amount of fruit and vegetable servings daily: 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables daily
- Swapping saturated fat for sources of unsaturated fat, such as butter for olive oil
- Adding in plant-based proteins from beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds
- Limiting added sugar, saturated fat, and excess sodium
In addition, ensuring that your plant-based diet is of higher quality may also be beneficial for your mood. One study in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health found that vegan and vegetarian eaters who followed high-quality, plant-based diets had a reduced risk for experiencing symptoms of depression.
Benefits for your budget
Any diet you choose can range in cost, depending on a variety of factors––such as buying in-season produce, choosing generic versus name brand items, and opting for conventional versus organic foods. Considering these factors, it’s still true that increasing plants in the diet can contribute to a lower grocery bill.
This is especially the case if you’re replacing meats with plant-based proteins like beans, tofu, or tempeh and if you’re swapping to budget-friendly plant sources like those that are in season. Additional ways to save on your grocery bill when going plant based? Shopping for generic brands as well as in bulk.
What about meat substitutes?
Meat substitutes are unlikely to help you save on your grocery bill due to their high price tags. In fact, some of these specialty plant-based protein substitutes may be more expensive than their animal-based counterparts. Some estimates put plant-based beef at two times the cost of conventional beef.
Cons of a plant-based diet
While many pros of a plant-based diet exist, there are several cons of a plant-based diet, as well.
You may not eat enough protein
Eating a balanced plant-based diet requires paying extra attention to what’s on your plate. This is especially true if you’re following a strict vegan or vegetarian diet, versus taking a more flexible approach to eating plant based. Without proper planning, it may be challenging for you to meet your daily protein needs.
Getting adequate protein through a plant-based diet requires eating a variety of beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains throughout the day. If eating on the go is a regular occurrence, then it may be difficult to meet your needs with convenience foods and/or foods away from home. Take the time to plan your day and prepare for meals away from home. Pack protein-rich snacks and choose restaurants that offer complete, plant-based meals with a balance of nutrients.
You may be fooled by plant-based labeling
Foods can come with a “health halo,” in which a product’s label leads consumers to believe it’s healthier than it really is. In other words, a product may not actually be a healthy option. But if it carries a label, such as “plant based,” then you may assume it’s healthier option than an identical or healthier product without the plant-based label.
The term “plant-based” doesn’t have a regulated definition, and products with this label aren’t required to meet specific nutrient criteria. Keep in mind that any product carrying the plant-based label does so independent of its nutritional profile. To avoid falling into the health halo trap, ignore front-of-package labels and check ingredient lists, as well as nutrition facts panels, for details on the healthfulness of products.
You may need to supplement some essential nutrients
You may still come up short on some essential nutrients even when eating a well-balanced plant-based diet. This is because some nutrients are abundant in animal products and less so in plants. For example, B12 is an essential B vitamin present in a variety of animal products but in plant sources is limited to foods such as nutritional yeast and fortified foods.
Other essential nutrients such as vitamin D and iron may also be a challenge when eating a plant-based diet, especially one that is strictly vegan. Vitamin D is found in fatty fish and fortified dairy products, two categories of foods that are avoided on strict vegan diets. Vitamin D is also found in mushrooms treated with ultraviolet light as well as fortified, plant-based foods like cereals and juices. The limited number of foods with vitamin D may make supplementation a necessary addition to your plant-based diet.
Iron is an essential nutrient to pay close attention to when following a plant-based diet. This is because while iron is abundant in plants, the type is not as bioavailable as that found in animals. Known as non-heme iron, plant-based sources of iron aren’t absorbed in the same amounts as heme iron. To increase how well your body is able to absorb plant-based iron, pair non-heme iron with a source of vitamin C in a meal. Think lentils paired with peppers or tofu paired with broccoli.
From heart-health benefits to a mood boosts, choosing to follow a plant-based diet can have many positive benefits for your health. The drawbacks to any new diet become a significant barrier if you’re not well prepared with a sustainable solution to each problem. Keep these plant-based diet pros and cons in mind as you decide if going plant based is right for you.
- A recent study in the Journal of the American Heart Association
- A study published in 2019 in the Journal of the American Heart Association
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
- A 2017 study in Geoscience Letters
- A study by Tufts University researchers
- A study published in 2021 in Clinical Nutrition
- A study in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health
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