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If you’ve not heard the term plant-based bandied around yet, then you’ve not been following celebrity culture. It’s the new buzz-word circulating around the diet and health community. But is it new? And more importantly, is it just for hipsters or should we all be leaping onto this bandwagon?
OK, you don’t need to have to been following the celebs to have come across the term plant-based.
It’s become such a trendy buzzword, and I was mildly amused to hear someone say “my friend can’t eat that, he’s plant-based”.
So why did this amuse me?
What is Plant-Based?
The term plant-based isn’t new, it’s been around a while now and was simply a term used to distinguish diets from mostly animal-based (eats a lot of meat, eggs and dairy compared to vegetables, grains, fruits and seeds) from mostly plant-based, where the opposite is true.
In fact, the British Dietetic Association describe plant-based diets as:
A plant-based diet is based on foods derived from plants, including vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruits, with few or no animal products
The important phrase here is: with few or no animal products
It suggests that plant-based may contain meat and/or dairy. In fact, it goes on to suggest that:
variations of plant-based diets include:
• Pescetarian – eat fish and/or shellfish.
• Semi-vegetarian (or flexitarian) – occasionally eat meat or poultry.
However, plant-based as a term is more often than not used interchangeably with vegan. Suggesting that the diet can only contain plants and nothing else.
So is Plant-Based Vegan or Not?
When you hear that someone has adopted a plant-based diet, he or she is much more likely to have adopted a vegan diet and thus abandoned consumption of any animal-derived product.
When you look at the growing number of plant-based resources, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that this is a vegan diet due to the vegan bias in the content:
Although plant-based includes vegan diets, it’s not exclusive. You could argue that the qualifier based tells you that plants form the basic structure of the diet, but other things may also supplement it.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines base as:
(Verb) base something on Use (something specified) as the foundation or starting point for something.
And so plant-based, where based is used as a verb, simply means a diet in which we start with plants and build around that – ergo, it’s not necessarily vegan.
Let’s face it, going plant-based is going to be a giant step for most people who want to eat less meat, but not ready yet for 100% vegan living.
So how did veganism and plant-based become used so interchangeably?
It’s possible that the popularity of the China Study has done this, as the book written by T. Colin Campbell is a worldwide best seller.
The website dedicated to all things T. Colin Campbell is based on whole food plant-based (WFPB) diets. It excludes ALL animal-based products, and prolifically uses the term “plant-based” rather than “vegan”, so it’s probably just caught on.
There is a halfway house for most people, and unless very motivated and know a lot about nutrition – I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a whole-food plant-based diet the T Colin Campbell way.
I do, however, believe that it’s a great goal to aim for, but I don’t think most people could adopt such a restrictive diet straight off.
If you are motivated to go full-on WFPB, then please think about getting a good nutritionist or dietitian to help get you started on a daily nutrition plan to ensure you don’t miss out on essential nutrients.
Top Reasons to Change
There are a number of environmental reasons for changing to a plant-based diet if you are an eco-conscious person.
A report by the European Commission highlighted that vegetarian diets are much more ecological in terms of water use than any other diet (saving up to 50%!).
In June 2018, the British newspapers went crazy with headlines suggesting that veganism is the single biggest way to reduce our environmental impact. In August 2019 – it was headline news on the BBC.
This came after a study report published by Oxford University showing that plant-based diets could reduce carbon emissions by over 70% and a 2016 report suggesting that plant-based is both life-saving and environmentally protective.
The animal farming industry hit back suggesting that these studies are flawed, not least because they are geographically biased.
But looking solely at health, the following reasons to change our habits and be more vegan (but not 100% vegan) are as follows:
This is not all meat, however – fish and poultry are not included.
But inflammation is important because it alerts our immune system that something is wrong, so why do we need an anti-inflammatory diet?
Inflammation is a critical function, but it also can serve against us. Inflammation is implicated in a host of disease states.
If you already suffer from diseases where inflammation can make symptoms worse, then this is where things can go wrong. There are a number of common inflammatory diseases ranging from asthma to arthritis, colitis and most things with “itis” on the end.
There is some evidence that a plant-based diet can improve inflammatory diseases to such an extent, that harsh drugs used to control the condition can often be reduced or stopped over time (6,7,8,9,10).
- Vegetarians are less likely to have diabetes (13)
- Vegetarians with diabetes had better blood glucose control (14,15,16)
- Vegetarians and vegans have better blood pressure (17,18,19)
- Vegetarians have better blood cholesterol (17,20)
- Vegetarians are less likely to have heart failure (21)
There is so much evidence for the protective benefits of a plant-based diet that if you do a search in any of the scientific research paper databases, you will find a lot studies that have positive outcomes.
We know that diets that lack vegetables place us in greater danger of bowel cancer. A recent study (22) showed how a certain chemical in brassica vegetables (kale, cabbage, broccoli among others) can help modify cells in the gut to ensure it remains healthy.
In 2015, the news headlines were full of stories regarding the World Health Organisation’s announcement that processed meat is a Group 1 carcinogen, which places it in the same category as cigarettes.
This sparked a huge debate around whether eating processed meat really was as bad as smoking, which the WHO later addressed in an FAQ on meat and cancer.
This report was based on a review of the available studies by experts, which showed convincingly that eating processed meat regularly was a risk factor for bowel cancer.
Prostate cancer and hormone-related cancers in women such as breast and ovarian have also been linked to processed meat (23).
Dairy products consumed by men could lead to prostate cancer later in life, according to a systematic review in 2017 (24). Dairy influences insulin-like growth factor (IGF), which in turn is implicated in prostate cancer.
4) Less obesogenic
There are a number of studies that show how people who follow plant-based diets (particularly vegetarian and vegan) tend to carry less weight (25).
When dieting, following a plant-based diet may have better outcomes than following an animal-based one (28).
There are a number of reviews now, such as the one written by McCarty, that look at the existing evidence of lifespan, diet and populations. Many countries or regions around the world that boast the oldest populations subsist on plant-based (non-vegan) diets.
For example, if you look at the Japanese island of Okinowa – the diet largely includes root vegetables (principally Japanese sweet potato), leafy greens and only a little fish or lean meat. They enjoy very long lives with low levels of age-related disease (29).
To sum up
These are only five reasons for following a plant-based diet – and flexitarianism is absolutely fine! I personally follow a vegan diet, and have done for sometime – having been at least vegetarian since childhood.
But this is not a health choice for me, it’s an ethical one.
There is no research evidence that a completely vegan diet is the perfect diet – certainly there are some obstacles to overcome if that diet is chosen.
In fact, there is no evidence showing that a vegan (or 100% plant-based) diet offers any long term health benefits over a healthy, well-balanced flexitarian diet.
So why not think vegan 70% of the time, enjoy dairy and eggs now and then, choose fish over meat for at least two meals a week, and have your sausages and bacon as an occasional treat.
If you fall at the holiday hurdle and over-indulge on prosciutto and steaks, don’t come back thinking you’ve undone all your work – just pick up where you left.
Clem Onojeghuo – Pexels.com
Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat. He writes for www.veggieandspice.com and www.itsaboutnutrition.com