“Plant-Based Diet”: what it’s not

I’m asked all the time, “What’s a Plant Based Diet?” It’s a valid question. Plant-based diets are linked to all kinds of health benefits. If you’re interested in your health, it makes sense to adopt that sort of diet. But how?

There is no official definition, so health advocates are left to come up with their own definitions. For example, one of my RDN colleagues defines it as 75% of your plate covered by plant foods. That’s nice, if you eat everything off a neatly arranged plate with the food in separate piles. But most of us don’t do that.

I don’t have a definition. Let’s say I know it when I see it. But that’s not helpful, so it occurred to me that it might be more helpful to describe what it’s not. That would at least address some of the confusion about plant-based eating.

The Plant-based diet is NOT:

  1. Complicated: If you look on Pinterest or other recipe websites for plant-based dishes, you find plenty of complicated/fussy/gourmet/foo foo stuff that may look like artwork or just impressive in the photo, but in fact is really time consuming and messy to prepare. Making your own “cheese” by grinding up and soaking cashews? Oh please. This kind of thing is a huge turn-off for people who may be unconvinced about plant-based. And for all the time and mess and expense, you get something that tastes ‘meh’ or is not at all filling. In many cases the meals are not at all nutritionally balanced either. A lot of these recipes are just vegetables. Vegetables are fine, but a meal needs other foods to balance it out.
  2. Weird: The belief that plant-based means eating weird food is another road block to change. You DO NOT have to eat quinoa, jackfruit, fake cheese, seaweed, tofu, avocado brownies or chocolate beet cake to eat a plant-based diet. In fact you’re probably eating plant-based meals by default every week, perhaps every day, and you don’t even think about it.
    • You have to use Fake Meat. No No No. This just adds to the weirdness factor for lots of people. If you really want to eat that stuff, that’s your choice. I never recommend it; I never buy it or use it myself. It’s highly processed and full of additives that are needed to make soy beans or whatever look (sort of) and taste (not really) and have the texture (not at all) of real meat.
    • You have to use fake milk and cheese. Again NO NO NO. Same reason as above. Your choice; not my choice. SIDE NOTE: I really hate going to vegetarian restaurants and seeing “cheese” or “Parmesan” or “chicken” listed like that, in quotes to hint that in fact it’s not cheese or chicken at all. It’s some fakery. Why not just say the taco is made with Jackfruit? Do they think customers need to be fooled?
  3. Expensive: See # 1 and 2. Having to buy expensive and unusual food that you (a) may not like and (b) may not use up before it goes bad is another huge disincentive. Yet plenty of those plant-based recipes on the web list numerous ingredients that fit that description. Himalayan salt is completely unnecessary, as is vital wheat gluten (gave me a wicked stomach ache the one time I ate it), agave nectar, tempeh and on and on.
  4. Always healthy: Wrong. In fact it’s really easy to eat an unhealthy plant-based diet. One group of researchers actually created a plant-based scoring system, and one category was “unhealthy plant-based”. It included foods like white bread, pancakes, french fries, corn chips, sugar-sweetened coffee and tea drinks, candy, cake, pie, jam and jelly. All officially “plant-based”, but a diet that’s limited to processed foods is just as unhealthy as a processed diet that happens to include large servings of meat.
  5. Meatless: Speaking of meat, a plant-based diet is not necessarily meatless. Not vegan or vegetarian, although both of those are in the plant-based universe. You can still include meat, poultry, fish and eggs. It’s just that those should only be consumed in limited portions, or less frequently.
  6. Dairy-free: Plant-based can also include dairy products like milk, cheese, yogurt, kefir and cream. But as with meat, servings should be smaller or less frequent. There’s a big “BUT” here for older women who need to build bone strength. Including 2-3 servings of dairy foods each day is the preferred way to boost calcium intake for that purpose. If anything, it’s an argument for focusing on dairy foods, with much less emphasis on meat. A vegetarian diet is a good choice, since dairy and eggs are included.
  7. Just Vegetables: This might be one of the biggest misunderstandings about plant-based. The word “plant” conjures images of green plants — vegetables. It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that you just eat vegetables. No. Obviously vegetables should be a big part of this style of eating, but they aren’t the only part.
  8. Organic: Organic is fine if you prefer it. But it’s not an essential aspect of a plant-based diet.
  9. “Free of-” foods: Gluten-free, soy-free, non-GMO, HFCS-free, blah blah blah. None of this is part of a plant-based diet, although if any of these prohibitions float your boat, that’s your business.
  10. “Low in-” foods: low fat, low sodium, low carb, blah blah blah. You can choose those if you like, but I don’t advise it. In fact, the most famous plant based diet — Mediterranean, with well known health benefits — is famously not low fat. It’s moderate or even high fat according to some. Of course the fat is plant-sourced — olive oil mostly. Low sodium can be an oxymoron of sorts. If you’re eating whole foods, they’re naturally low sodium anyway. And as for low carb, not a great plan when you’re focusing on plant foods, which are naturally higher in carbs. You’d be limited to avocado and some nuts if you were trying to eat low carb plant diets.

So now you know something about what “plant-based diet” is not. What about what foods are included. Well, pretty much everything can be included. The key is to focus on all of the plant-sourced foods:

  • Vegetables: fresh, frozen, canned, dried
  • Fruit: fresh, frozen, canned, dried
  • cooked grains: rice, quinoa, varieties of wheat, oatmeal
  • grain-based foods: pasta, noodles, bread, flat bread, cereal, wraps and tortillas
  • potatoes of all types
  • nuts and nut butters
  • legumes (beans)
  • tofu and other soy products
  • vegetable oils: olive, canola, corn, soy, sesame, etc. Even coconut.
  • herbs, spices and seasonings, salt and pepper
  • Here are some other plant based foods you might not think of as such: coffee, tea, wine, beer, chocolate. Yum!
  • And of course animal-sourced foods in small and/or infrequent servings

What does it look like?

Here are some simple, commonplace examples of plant-based meals you might already be eating:

  • morning cereal (hot or cold) topped with milk or yogurt, with dried or fresh fruit, perhaps some nuts
  • tossed salad with nuts, grated cheese optional, baguette or pita bread
  • burrito with refried beans, salsa, chopped fresh vegetables and grated cheese
  • cheese vegetable pizza (light on the cheese, heavy on the veggies)
  • spaghetti with marinara sauce and grated Parmesan
  • Chili made with ground meat, beans, tomatoes, peppers, onions and seasonings, served with rice/pasta/tortillas
  • peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • vegetable soup and grilled cheese sandwich
  • 2 egg omelet made with chard or spinach, tossed green salad

The list could go on and on. The point is: plant-based meals are probably already part of your repertoire. You don’t need special fussy recipes. You don’t need expensive weird foods. And you can still enjoy the occasional (emphasis on occasional) indulgence in meat. If you’re fond of steak, have a really good steak once every 2-3 months, and buy a high quality cut of meat, instead of having lower quality steak weekly. If you like BBQ ribs, have that every 3-4 months and enjoy. You don’t need to eat a pile of ribs every week or even every 2 weeks.

I hope this helps you start to feel comfortable with the idea of a plant-based diet. Try to have one day a week that’s completely meat-free. Re-think use of meat in certain foods like spaghetti sauce or burritos. Re-think portion sizes of meat or dairy foods.

And remember what I said above: coffee, tea, wine, beer and chocolate are all plant-based foods. Plant-based doesn’t mean no treats.