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What does it really mean to eat a plant-based diet?

The plant-based eating movement is sweeping the nation as a trendy, yet health-conscious, eating pattern. While dietitians certainly give a plant-forward diet the seal of approval, we frequently see “plant-based” used as a buzzword and marketing tactic to entice consumers into viewing that particular product as being healthier. I recently saw a peanut butter product advertised as “plant-based,” when peanut butter is inherently made from a plant and therefore, plant-based. Many consumers are fast to equate anything related to a plant — greens, leaves, earth, you name it — to health.

On the other end of the spectrum, some consumers are skeptical of eating more plant-based and perceive this eating pattern as the complete elimination of meat and seafood and becoming exclusively vegan, which is more appealing to some than others. Following a vegan diet can be a wonderful way to incorporate more plant-based, nutrient-dense foods into your daily routine. However, not all plant-sourced foods equate to better nutrition, which can be confusing.

For example, french fries are technically a plant-based food. As a result of deep frying or flash frying, traditional fries are high in unhealthy fats like saturated and even trans fats, which are associated with poor cardiovascular and metabolic health. Similarly, fruit juices are also plant-based. While fruit juice can be a way to increase intake of certain vitamins and minerals, such beverages are often packed with extra sugars. If you struggle with blood sugar management, drinking fruit juice frequently can make it even harder.

Because there is not a clear or universal definition of what plant-based means, consumers are either all in, or all out. The good news is that plant-based eating is not black and white. There is a gray area that allows you to determine what works best for you, your health goals, your values and your routine. By definition, eating plant-based means that the majority of foods you eat come from plants. This is a simple definition with a lot of room for interpretation.

Despite robust research on the benefits of following a more plant-forward eating pattern, national and global consumption of fruits and vegetables continues to fall short of recommended amounts. Eating plant-based can be an excellent way to increase your intake of healthy, whole-plant foods that are minimally processed, such as colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, plant-based oils and even tea and coffee. People often associate eating plant-based with the complete elimination of meats and meat products. But it is absolutely possible to eat plant-based without eliminating lean, animal-based proteins. To find the most enticing plant-based eating pattern for you, here is a list of various eating patterns that are all classified as plant-based:

Semi-vegetarian: Eating semi-vegetarian is also known as eating a flexitarian diet. The basis of this eating pattern focuses on whole, minimally processed plant-based foods and plant-based proteins, such as beans, legumes, quinoa, nuts, seeds, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Flexitarians also consume eggs and low-fat dairy on a regular basis, with the majority of meat consumption coming from seafood and fish. Poultry and other types of meat are consumed less often. A flexitarian diet is viewed as a less strict version of plant-based eating; a good example of this pattern is the Mediterranean diet.

Pescatarian: Pescatarians eat all plant-based foods, eggs, dairy foods, fish and seafood. Pescatarians do not eat poultry or other types of meat.

Vegetarian: A vegetarian is often formally referred to as a lacto-ovo vegetarian. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet includes all plant-based foods, eggs, dairy foods but no seafood, fish, poultry or other meats.