By Sophie Hung, MPH, RDN, CPT
Founder of A Healthier You Journey
Sophie is a registered dietitian nutritionist who has been coaching clients for more than 12 years. She believes that food should both nourish our bodies and bring us joy. She was kind enough to share with us her journey toward a plant-based diet and a holistic lifestyle, as well as some tips and tricks for living well.
This post is the first in a three-part series about living a plant-based lifestyle. It covers the various types of plant-based diets - it doesn't have to be all or nothing! - as well as who might benefit from going plant positive.
My grandma was bed-ridden the last 10 years of her life after she had a stroke and lost the function of half of her body (hemiplegia). My uncle - who suffered from diabetes and many other chronic conditions - told me that he had to take a cocktail of pills every morning, and that he had no more appetite to eat breakfast after swallowing all those pills.
After learning that I have a family history of diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, breast cancer, and endometriosis, I was very overwhelmed. To cope, instead of focusing on things that I cannot change, such as my genetics, I focus on things that I can control, such as my diet, my exercise routine and my lifestyle. I decided to study nutrition and fitness so that I can help myself, my family, and anyone who is interested in taking control of their health.
Types and Benefits of Plant-Based Diets
A plant-based diet, when well-balanced and properly planned, can offer a wide range of health benefits. For example, it can improve heart health, digestive health, and bone health. It can help with weight and diabetes management, and can also reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as hypertension, stroke, certain neurodegenerative conditions, and certain types of cancers, including colon, breast, and prostate cancer.
Plant-based diets are characterized by the exclusion of meat - and sometimes other animal products - from one's diet. There are several types of plant-based diets, however, each with varying degrees of restrictiveness. Here are some common types:
Flexitarian or Semi-Vegetarian
While not a strictly vegetarian diet, flexitarians mainly eat plant-based foods but occasionally include small amounts of meat, poultry, or fish.
This diet primarily consists of plant-based foods along with seafood. Individuals who follow a pescatarian diet abstain from consuming meat from land animals, such as beef, poultry, and pork, but they do include fish and other forms of seafood in their diet.
This is the most common type of vegetarian diet. It excludes meat, poultry, and fish, but allows for the consumption of dairy products (lacto) and eggs (ovo).
Similar to the lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, this type excludes meat, poultry, and fish, but includes dairy products while excluding eggs.
In this diet, eggs are consumed, but meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products are excluded.
Vegans exclude all animal products from their diet, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, as well as animal-derived ingredients such as honey. Many vegans also avoid non-dietary animal products, such as leather, wool, and cosmetics tested on animals.
This type of diet includes only raw and unprocessed plant-based foods. It excludes all cooked and processed foods, as well as animal products.
Who Can Benefit From a Plant-Based Diet
People choose to adopt a plant-based diet for a variety of reasons, including health, ethical and environmental concerns, as well as personal preferences. Here are some of the common reasons why someone might decide to transition to a plant-based diet:
Many people want to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet for its potential health benefits. Plant-based diets are generally rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants while being low in saturated fats and cholesterol. They have been associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
Individuals with Ethical Concerns
Those who have concerns about animal welfare and the ethical treatment of animals may choose a vegetarian or vegan diet as a way to align their dietary choices with their values. By avoiding the consumption of animal products, they want to reduce harm to animals and promote compassion.
Adopting a vegetarian or vegan diet can be an effective way to reduce the environmental impact of food choices. Animal agriculture is a significant contributor to deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and water pollution. Choosing plant-based foods can help conserve resources, decrease your carbon footprint, and promote sustainability.
Individuals with Lactose Intolerance or Dairy Allergies
Vegetarian or vegan diets that exclude dairy can be beneficial for individuals who are lactose intolerant or have allergies to dairy products. Plant-based alternatives such as fortified soy milk, pea milk, and oat milk can be great sources of calcium and vitamin D.
People Seeking Weight Management
Plant-based diets, when balanced and calorie-controlled, can support weight management and weight loss. The emphasis on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and plant-based proteins can provide satiety while reducing calorie intake and promoting a healthy weight.
Those with Certain Health Conditions
Plant-based diets may offer benefits for individuals with specific health conditions. For example, a vegetarian or vegan diet can be beneficial for managing and preventing cardiovascular disease, improving blood sugar management in diabetes, and reducing cholesterol and symptoms in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease. However, it's important to work with a healthcare professional or Registered Dietitian to ensure that nutritional needs are met and potential nutrient deficiencies are addressed.
Plant-based diets can offer multiple benefits, in terms of both health and the environment. And multiple variations means you can pick the option that most aligns with your lifestyle. Do you think a plant-based diet might be for you? Then check out the next blog in this series: Tips for Transitioning to a Balanced Plant-Based Diet.