Is going vegan right for me? Learn the differences between popular plant-based diets here.
More people are questioning the typical American diet, which often includes consuming large amounts of animal foods and moving to a life with more plant foods. This is why the plant-based food industry is growing like never before.
There's no perfect one-size-fits-all diet plan. If there were, we would all be on it. Rather than asking, "is going vegan the healthiest diet," a better question is, "is going vegan right for me?"
Let's start with the most common question: what are the differences between vegan, vegetarian, and plant-based diets? While all three are making headlines for their health benefits over the past five years, there are some key differences you should know.
Plant-based diet: Also known as plant-forward, this diet focuses primarily on eating plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. While most people use the term to refer to a 100% plant diet, some people choose to include small amounts of animal products in their diet.
For instance, the Mediterranean diet has a foundation of plant-based foods. However, it also includes fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt up to a few times a week. It may also include small amount of meats and sweets. This is the most commonly recommended diet for heart health by the American Heart Association.
Vegetarian diet: Vegetarians are people who choose not to eat any meat, poultry, or seafood. People may go vegetarian for many reasons, such as health, religion, animal welfare concerns, to avoid antibiotics and hormones in livestock, or to follow a diet that avoids excessive use of environmental resources.
There are several forms of vegetarianism, including veganism. Here are some of the most popular vegetarian diets:
Lacto-ovo vegetarian: These vegetarians follow a diet that does not include any meat, poultry, or fish. These vegetarians typically eat eggs and dairy products.
Lacto-vegetarian: This group doesn't eat any meat, poultry, fish, or eggs. However, they do consume dairy products.
Ovo vegetarian: These vegetarians avoid all meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products. They do eat eggs.
Vegan diet: A vegan diet is a form of vegetarianism where you only eat plant-based foods. Vegans eliminate all animal products from their diet. Unlike typical vegetarians, this also includes eggs, honey, and gelatin. Donald Watson created the term "vegan" in 1944 to describe someone who abstains from all animal products for various ethical reasons. While this term didn't exist until 70 years ago, we can trace evidence of people opting to avoid animal products back 2,000 years.
Let's take a look at last year's data from the Plant-Based Food Association:
The plant-based food industry has grown 54% in the last three years alone.
Plant-based food sales grew three times faster than total food retail sales. This translates to 7.4 billion dollars in plant-based food sales.
Plant-based milks are the most prominent growth driver for the entire milk industry. Plant-based milk contributed $105 million in growth.Meanwhile, animal-based milk declined, equalling a $264 million loss in the milk industry.
One 2017 study looked at the effectiveness of a plant-based diet in 49 overweight and obese adults who had at least one of the following:
Type 2 diabetes
High blood pressure
At both 6-month and 12-month follow-ups, study participants in the plant-based diet group significantly reduced their body mass index (BMI). This group also experienced reduced cholesterol levels.
A 2019 study also notes that people following a healthy plant-based diet experienced a lower risk of developing chronic kidney disease.
Choosing the right plant-based diet depends entirely on your existing health conditions, nutritional deficiencies, and lifestyle. For this reason, we recommend consulting with your doctor before adopting a new diet.
For instance, unlike vegans, Lacto-vegetarians can get their calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin D from dairy products. On the other hand, avoiding dairy and eggs can help vegans keep cholesterol levels low.
Vegans also experience a higher risk for an essential omega-3 fatty acid deficiency, especially EPA and DHA, even if they consume plant sources of these nutrients. DHA, in particular, is vital for proper brain function and cognition. Without these omega-3 fatty acids, you may experience brain fog and memory issues. Vegetarians and pescatarians can consume omega-3 fatty acids more easily via eggs and seafood.
It's important to note that many of these nutritional deficiencies can be resolved through thoughtful care. For instance, the Vegan Society recommends that people following this diet get their vitamin B12 through fortified foods and supplements, as these are the most reliable sources of B12 for vegans.
One 2019 study of 1,454 adults in South America showed that participants identifying as vegan had healthier diets and lifestyle patterns than other vegetarians. This group was more likely to exercise regularly, drink enough water, and get regular exposure to sunlight. The proportion of household income spent on food was also drastically lower among vegans than in participants with other dietary patterns.
If you're not sure if going vegan is right for you, start by talking with your doctor.
Here are some quick tips to help you get started with any plant-based diet:
Fill half your plate with vegetables. You can also eat vegetables as a snack with hummus, salsa, or guacamole.
The fats in olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados are healthier than those in butter. This quick and easy swap can help with your cholesterol levels.
Start your day with whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa, or buckwheat. To sweeten your meal, you can top these grains with fresh or diet fruit.