White saucer filled with vegetable soup that has various fruits and veggies encircling the plate
Illustration by Skylar Owenby, Western Carolina University
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White saucer filled with vegetable soup that has various fruits and veggies encircling the plate
Illustration by Skylar Owenby, Western Carolina University

The world of animal-product-free diets is extensive yet surprisingly easy (and beneficial) for those needing or desiring a dietary change.

Finding an effective, long-term diet can be a difficult task. Recent trends like the ketogenic and paleolithic diets have received equal amounts of support and criticism from consumers and nutritionists alike. This mixed reception to many popular diets can make changing your lifestyle seem like an intimidating task. However, plant-based diets provide a simple yet healthy way to meet all of your body’s nutritional requirements. This article will share the lessons I’ve learned from researching and guiding multiple family members through the process of switching to a plant-based diet.

Reasons To Start a Plant-Based Diet

Switching to a plant-based diet can alleviate or prevent multiple common health issues. An article published in The Permanente Journal noted numerous studies that found plant-based diets lower the chances of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. This is primarily attributed to the body burning more calories consumed from plants than meat, the latter of which is more often stored as body fat. Furthermore, the reduced likelihood of these medical conditions meant people on a plant-based diet were expected to live longer. A similar study by Julieanna Hever corroborates these findings, citing the low amount of saturated fats, dietary cholesterol and added chemicals in plant-based meals as further explanation of its ability to prevent chronic diseases.

My research into plant-based diets started nearly three years ago when I learned a family member was diagnosed with cancer. Soon after receiving the news, he suffered from significant bouts of fatigue, nausea and swollen lymph nodes. After learning about the various plant-based diets from documentaries like “What the Health” and “Forks Over Knives,” he stopped eating animal products to improve his condition. After only a few months of following a strict plant-based regimen, his symptoms quickly faded, and he experienced both weight loss and increased stamina. While simply eating plant-based foods isn’t guaranteed to help the body, following a carefully planned diet can bring about positive results.

Types of Plant-Based Diets

One of the most confusing aspects of starting a plant-based diet is understanding the requirements for each of the different forms. Fortunately, most of these diets can be separated into vegetarianism, veganism and wholefood plant-based.

Vegetarianism disallows meat and seafood, but some variations of the diet permit egg, dairy or both. Although many vegetarians begin this diet as an ethical choice to avoid eating animals, it can still produce the health benefits of other plant-based diets. Vegetarianism is the easiest plant-based diet to adopt, though it can still be a challenge for former meat-lovers.

Veganism forbids all animal products, including eggs and dairy ingredients. In contrast to vegetarianism, this is a health-centric diet and can be much more restrictive. While the loss of eggs and dairy sounds like a minor stipulation, many baked recipes rely on these animal products. However, veganism permits processed foods and ingredients, creating some leniency for those seeking to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Furthermore, plant-based alternatives to pizza, donuts and different meats provide vegans with a surprising variety of meals.

The wholefood plant-based diet presents the most dietary restrictions, disallowing all animal products and processed foods. Instead, the diet only permits homemade or farm-grown ingredients, resulting in the most limited selection of meals. Although this approach may seem intimidating, many modern adopters of the wholefood plant-based diet have altered it to allow some processed foods, such as oils and canned goods. For those looking for a hardcore, health-oriented diet that reduces sugars, fats and carbohydrates, the wholefood plant-based diet is one of the most effective options.

Each of these diets serves as a basis that can be customized according to your needs. It’s possible to adopt a wholefood plant-based diet but make occasional exceptions for natural sugars and oils. You can also follow a vegan diet while excluding tofu and other soy-based products. Regardless, these three categories can be altered to accommodate different circumstances and conditions. However, because significant dietary changes can produce various effects on the body, consulting a doctor or nutritionist is essential for learning what to prioritize when planning a plant-based diet.

Important Foods and Substitutes

Plant-based diets can fulfill nearly all nutritional requirements by incorporating various plants and vegetables into daily meals. Even an uncommon nutrient like iodine can be found in seaweeds such as dulse and wakame. For more information on the nutrients found in different foods, Hever’s study provides a graph that details which plant-based sources provide essential nutrients.

However, the lack of meats creates an increased risk for calcium deficiency. When your body lacks the necessary calcium needed for the nervous system to function, it begins extracting calcium from the bones. This weakens the bones, making them far more prone to injury than before. Because plant-based foods provide less calcium than meats, practitioners of the diet are more likely to suffer from fractured or broken bones than other people. Fortunately, plant-based diets still provide calcium-rich foods such as beans, sweet potatoes and most leafy greens. Vegans and vegetarians can also rely on plant milk, almond butter and tofu as alternative sources of calcium.

Another hurdle for plant-based diets is finding reliable sources for vitamin B12, which is needed to produce blood. Unlike calcium, vitamin B12 is almost nonexistent in plants because it is synthesized by bacteria and other microorganisms consumed by animals. While this makes meats an excellent source of this nutrient, it makes deficiency a common problem for plant-based dieters.

When the body lacks vitamin B12, it will suffer from megaloblastic anemia and neurological disorders. Fortunately, a study published in Nutrients cited nori seaweed as an excellent source of vitamin B12. Plant-based milk alternatives and nutritional yeast also provide the vitamin, albeit in smaller amounts. While these are valuable sources, the best way to fulfill daily dietary requirements for vitamin B12 is through supplements.

Should You Switch to a Plant-Based Diet?

Although no diet is universally applicable, the plant-based options help maintain a nutritional balance while offering plenty of variety in meals. Their few nutritional faults have been addressed through the years of research into food alternatives and the creation of vitamin supplements, preventing vitamin deficiency and the adverse health effects common in meat-centric diets. While an omnivore diet can still work for some, many people can improve their lifestyle and prevent future ailments by switching to a plant-based diet.

Writer Profile

Maximilian Padilla-Rodriguez

Florida Atlantic University
English

Maximilian Padilla-Rodriguez is an English major currently working toward completing his senior year at Florida Atlantic University. When not busy with course work, he spends his free time reading both fiction and nonfiction.

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