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The food we eat can make it easier or harder to hit our fitness goals. Diet also plays an important role in health overall. In an effort to advance both, many people are turning to a plant-based diet. Here we explain what this type of diet is, as well as its pros and cons.
A plant-based diet is a diet that consists mainly (or entirely) of plant foods. This means eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, seeds, and nuts.
Some people choose to avoid animal-based food completely when following a plant-based eating plan. They cut out meat, eggs, and dairy foods. Others consume some animal food items, but only sparingly.
Like with any eating plan, there are pros and cons of this approach. Understanding both can help you decide if plant-based eating is the right diet for you.
Most of the pros surrounding plant foods involve their many health benefits. Research published in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology shares that plant-based diets can help prevent and treat chronic disease (1). It has this effect, in part, because plant food is high in nutrients.
For instance, dark leafy greens contain several vitamins (vitamin C along with vitamins A, E, and K). One 2019 review connects eating a lot of dark leafy greens with lower levels of C-reactive protein (2). Since C-reactive protein signals inflammation in the body, this review suggests that consuming higher amounts of these plants may reduce the risk of chronic inflammatory diseases.
Plant-based diets have also been linked to greater heart health. A 2018 review explains several mechanisms by which it works (3). Among them are that plant foods are often low in calories and saturated fat while being high in fiber. This helps with weight loss and maintenance.
A 2018 study found that people following a plant-based diet have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (4). The risk of all-cause mortality is reduced as well. This is critical since heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (5). Cardiovascular disease specifically kills one person every 34 seconds. Finding ways to reduce this number, such as by following a plant-based diet, can save a lot of lives.
Cancer research published in 2022 also reports an inverse relationship between plant-based diets and cancer risk (6). Put another way, as plant-based food consumption increases, the risk of cancer decreases. Other studies indicate that eating primarily plants can help prevent and treat type 2 diabetes (7).
What are the cons of eating primarily plants? One concern some people have is whether they can build muscle on a plant-based diet. The reason for this is that many plant foods, like fruits and vegetables, are low in protein. So, if these foods make up a majority of your diet, will you get the protein your body needs to support muscle growth?
There’s also concern that plant protein sources don’t contain the essential amino acids found in animal products. Essential amino acids are amino acids that the body doesn’t produce on its own. A food that contains all nine essential amino acids is called a complete protein. Fish, poultry, beef, pork, eggs, and dairy are all complete proteins. What do these foods have in common? Each one is an animal product.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t get all essential amino acids if following a plant-based diet. It just means that you might have to be a little more creative.
By eating a mixture of plant-based foods, which generally fall into the incomplete protein category, you can ensure that your body gets all the nutrients it needs. You might put both sunflower seeds and chickpeas on your salad, for instance. Or you could have peanut butter on a slice of whole-wheat toast. Each food on its own is incomplete. But put them together and you get all the essential amino acids.
There are also a few plant foods that are complete proteins. Plant-based protein sources that contain each of the essential amino acids include:
soy products, such as tofu and tempeh
There are several different ways to follow a plant-based diet. Three to consider are vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian eating plans.
If you are vegan, it means that you don’t eat any animal products. A vegan consumes no meat, fish, eggs, or dairy. They also avoid other food products derived from animal sources, such as honey.
Some people follow a vegan eating plan because of the health risks associated with a diet that includes animal foods. This includes an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and more (Am J Clin Nutr, 2020) (8).
A vegan might also choose a plant-based diet out of their concern for animals. In this case, they may stay away from non-food items made with animal products. This includes dietary supplements that contain gelatin, for instance. Or they may not purchase makeup or hygiene products that have been tested on animals.
A vegetarian is different from a vegan in that, instead of avoiding all animal products, they only avoid meat. Some may eliminate other foods as well, but a vegetarian eating plan is typically less restrictive than a vegan eating plan.
If an animal had to be slaughtered to get the food or food byproduct, a vegetarian won’t eat it. This includes meat like beef and pork, but also seafood and poultry. This enables them to eat other animal products such as eggs, dairy, and honey.
Maybe you like the idea of a plant-based diet but you’re not ready to be vegan or vegetarian. Another option is flexitarian.
The word flexitarian is a mixture of flexible and vegetarian. Thus, a flexitarian diet allows you to eat animal products now and then, but the bulk of the foods consumed are plant-based. The benefit of this approach is that you get to enjoy your favorite meat foods from time to time, yet you also enjoy the health benefits of a plant-based diet.
The flexitarian diet ties the DASH diet for the number two spot in best diets according to U.S. News & World Report (9). Its overall score is 4.4 out of 5 stars. It also scores 4.2 stars for weight loss and 4.3 stars for healthiness.
If you don’t currently eat a lot of plant-based food, the idea of starting this type of eating plan may feel a bit overwhelming. But it doesn’t have to be. The best approach is to make one small change at a time versus trying to overall your entire diet.
For example, instead of eating dairy made from cow’s milk, switch to plant-based dairy products. Or try meat substitutes in your favorite recipes. This helps reduce your meat consumption without feeling as if you’re depriving yourself.
You could also incorporate a plant-based meal into your eating plan several times per week. For breakfast, enjoy sweet potato hashbrowns topped with cooked spinach or oatmeal with peanut butter. At lunchtime, make a salad with a variety of greens and top it with seeds and nuts. Skip meat at dinner by sautéing a thick slice of cauliflower in place of a steak or swapping a portobello cap for a hamburger patty.
Once you get used to cutting meat out of a meal, aim to go a full day without consuming any animal products. Declare the first day of the week meatless Monday, for example. You can then add other days if you decide to. The good thing about a plant-based diet is that you can work it any way you’d like.
Remember that just because a food may be plant-based doesn’t automatically make it healthy. French fries and potato chips are plant-based, for instance, but they’re also high in saturated fat. Refined grains such as white bread and white rice are also less healthy than their whole wheat counterparts.
The key to keeping a plant-based diet healthy is to stay away from processed foods as much as possible. This limits your exposure to unhealthy substances, which include not just saturated fat but also sodium and added sugar.
Instead, stick primarily with plant foods in their natural state. You can always jazz them up with herbs and spices. Sauté them in a bit of extra virgin olive oil to add healthy fats to your diet.
Prescribing a personalized diet plan is outside a personal trainer’s scope of practice. If you want to provide this service to your training clients, you can do so by earning your Nutritionist Certification. When combining diet and exercise advice, you’ll be in a better position to help your clients reach all their health and fitness goals.
By becoming an ISSA Nutritionist, you'll learn the foundations of how food fuels the body, plus step by step methods for implementing a healthy eating plan into clients' lifestyles.
Hever, J., & Cronise, R. J. (2017). Plant-based nutrition for healthcare professionals: implementing diet as a primary modality in the prevention and treatment of chronic disease. Journal of Geriatric Cardiology : JGC, 14(5), 355–368. https://doi.org/10.11909/j.issn.1671-5411.2017.05.012
Schultz, H., Ying, G.-S., Dunaief, J. L., & Dunaief, D. M. (2019). Rising plasma beta-carotene is associated with diminishing C-reactive protein in patients consuming a dark green leafy vegetable–rich, low inflammatory foods everyday (life) diet. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 15(6), 634–643. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827619894954
Satija, A., & Hu, F. B. (2018). Plant-based diets and Cardiovascular Health. Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine, 28(7), 437–441. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tcm.2018.02.004
Kim, H., Caulfield, L. E., Garcia‐Larsen, V., Steffen, L. M., Coresh, J., & Rebholz, C. M. (2019). Plant‐based diets are associated with a lower risk of incident cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular disease mortality, and all‐cause mortality in a general population of middle‐aged adults. Journal of the American Heart Association, 8(16). https://doi.org/10.1161/jaha.119.012865
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, October 14). Heart disease facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 21, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm
DeClercq, V., Nearing, J. T., & Sweeney, E. (2022). Plant-based diets and cancer risk: What is the evidence? Current Nutrition Reports, 11(2), 354–369. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-022-00409-0
McMacken, M., & Shah, S. (2017). A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. Journal of Geriatric Cardiology : JGC, 14(5), 342–354. https://doi.org/10.11909/j.issn.1671-5411.2017.05.009
Barnard, N. D., & Leroy, F. (2020). Children and adults should avoid consuming animal products to reduce risk for chronic disease: YES. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 112(4), 926–930. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa235
Best diets overall 2023. US News Health. (2023, January 3). Retrieved April 21, 2023, from https://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-diets-overall