To V or Not to V? Is A Vegan or Vegetarian Diet Right for You?
By now, we have all heard of different, good and bad diets, and have even heard of family or friends who have gone “vegan,” or have adopted a “plant-based diet.” Others may even know people on a “whole-food, plant-based diet“, too. While some of this terminology is relatively new, some of it has a longer history. And adding to the confusion is how these terms are quickly evolving, and how they often mean different things to different people.
In 1980, T. Colin Campbell, PhD, was at the National Institutes of Health researching the potential therapeutic impact that a low-fat, high-fiber, vegetable-based diet could have on cancer. Campbell sought a simple term that defined this eating pattern without raising ethical considerations. He introduced the term “plant-based” into the world of nutritional science. Years later, however, after testifying against the supplement industry, Campbell added the “whole-food” modifier to clarify that it was whole plant-foods rather than isolated nutrients that had health-promoting effects.
Vegan vs. Plant-Based Diet: What’s the Difference?
A plant-based diet predominantly comprises plants. Most people use the term to refer to a 100 percent plant diet, but some people include small amounts of animal products. A vegan diet totally eliminates all animal products.
Donald Watson introduced the term “vegan” in 1944 to describe eating behaviors that would fully avoid all animal products for ethical reasons. Back then, the definition implied that a vegan diet completely eliminated animal-derived foods of all kinds. Over time, however, people continued to adopt the vegan way of eating for reasons other than animal welfare (such as for better health and for the environment), and today a “vegan diet” is commonly used to describe a diet that excludes animal products, regardless of motivation.
Unlike in veganism, in a plant-based diet, most of the food comes from plants. The term originated in the health science community, where it was more appropriate than “vegetarian” or “vegan,” as it is not synonymous with “never eating meat” or “never eating animal products.” Consumption of very small amounts of animal foods can be insignificant when speaking of the health benefits of a diet, an important nuance for science that is not captured by the term “vegan” or “vegetarian.”
What Is a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet?
A whole-food, plant-based diet is centered on whole, unrefined or minimally refined plant foods and excludes or minimizes meat, dairy products, eggs, and highly refined foods such as bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil. A person eating this way will eat mainly fruits, vegetables (including tubers and starchy vegetables), whole grains and legumes.
The “whole-food” modifier has become increasingly relevant, as highly processed vegan foods have become more widely available. This has made it possible to carry a vegan diet while eating very few whole plant foods. Simultaneously, for marketing purposes, many manufacturers have begun labeling these highly processed vegan foods as “plant-based,” which has made “plant-based” and “vegan” synonyms in food labeling. Today, however, foods sporting the “plant-based” label are generally vegan, whether or not they’re healthy.
Can You Be Vegan and Whole-Food Plant-Based?
Yes! It’s not just possible but common to be both vegan and whole-food, plant-based! Many people adopt a whole-food, plant-based diet and, after experiencing significant health benefits, become interested in other reasons for avoiding animal products such as environmental impact and ethical issues. We’ve also heard from vegans who gave up animal products for ethical reasons and, after some time, decided to adopt a whole-food, plant-based diet for their health.
Is a Plant Based Diet Healthier?
A plant-based diet isn’t automatically healthy. Too much saturated fat, sugar and salt from any source isn’t good for your health. But there are plenty of processed plant-based meals and snacks like sweet potato fries, vegetarian nuggets and fruit bars, too. Some of these meals and snacks are marketed as being healthier, although some ingredients may increase your intake of saturated fat, salt and sugars, which could negatively affect your health, especially if you eat them regularly.
It is still important to choose whole, less processed, foods that are as close to how they are found in nature as possible (e.g. whole vegetables and fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds). When you do choose packaged foods, read food labels to help you make better choices and understand what you are eating.
If you do opt for a vegan or vegetarian diet, just be mindful that it can take more planning to get all of the essential nutrients you need. You especially need to consider protein, iron, zinc, and calcium if you are excluding dairy, and vitamin B12 if you are excluding all animal products. You may also need to consider fortified foods, or supplements, particularly B12 for vegans.
Meatless Monday Campaign
Meatless Monday is a global movement that encourages people to reduce meat in their diet for their health and the health of the planet. The campaign was started in 2003 by Sid Lerner, the Founder of The Monday Campaigns, in association with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
Meatless Monday’s simple message to skip meat once a week works because it provides a regular cue to take actions on Monday, which research shows is the day people are most open to making positive changes for the remainder of the week.
Looking to add Meatless Monday to your meal plan? It’s a good idea; eating a lot of red or processed meats is linked to a higher risk of developing certain cancers. Limiting the amount of meat you consume may reduce your chance of chronic conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. It will also encourage you to eat other foods that are good for your health, especially plant-based foods that include veggies, fruits, grains, beans, and nuts, which have high content of fiber, vitamins, and nutrients.
Say Cheese . . . and Make it Dairy Free
While it is difficult to start a new eating lifestyle with limited meat consumption, many new “plant-based” dieters identify dairy as a popular alternative to start the transition. Healthy consumption of dairy products will bring your body many of the nutrients beef and other meats provide while lowering the health risks they include.
Starting the “Plant-Based” transition with Halloumi could make it easier for you and your body. While naturally high in fats, Halloumi is known to have high contents of protein, calcium, zinc, selenium, magnesium, vitamin A and many of the B vitamins, all of which, when consumed moderately, can make this cheese an excellent option for vegetarians to continue their daily intake of such nutrients!
Pasta with Halloumi, Broccolini and Cherry Tomatoes
About Our Nutritionist, Shelly Xu
Shelly Xu manages Poppy Life Care’s Nutrition Program, which offers general nutrition information, instructional tips and recipes for healthy foods to improve behavioral health. Shelly has a background in traditional Chinese medicine and combined modern and traditional Chinese medical therapy in the treatment of neuro-system diseases and psychiatric diseases while serving as a Resident Doctor in the Nanjing Brain Hospital in China. She conducted nutrition analyses for CKE Restaurants Holdings in California, and received her Master’s degree from the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Chapman University.
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The information presented is offered for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as personal medical advice. Please consult with your family’s personal physician/caregiver regarding your own medical care.
Poppy Life Care, 307 Placentia Avenue, Suite 203, Newport Beach, California 92663, United States, (949) 393-2240
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