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What Does "Plant-Based" Even Mean?

Eating “plant-based“ is a trend that has reached a very high (and very sudden) peak recently.

Whether people do it for health, moral or environmental reasons, this way of eating isn’t going to go away. Billionaires are already investing in companies that specialize in plant-based meat substitutes like Beyond Meat in anticipation that plant-based eating is going to take the world by storm very soon.

However, what the hell does “plant-based” even mean? Documentaries like Netflix’s Game Changers use the term interchangeably to mean anything ranging from fully vegan to mostly plants.

(The Serena sisters are plant-based as the documentary states, but they aren’t fully vegan as the film would like you to imply.)

So then...what’s the difference between being plant-based, vegetarian or vegan? How do I, a registered dietitian, weigh in on these eating patterns?

Vegans and vegetarians are relatively straightforward. Vegans do not consume any animal products whereas vegetarians may consume products produced by animals rather than eating the animal itself. Some products like this would include things like eggs, milk, honey or cheese.

When it comes to “plant-based” eaters, however, the fact is there is no official definition of the term, which is where the confusion comes from. From my perspective, I am not a vegetarian or vegan, but I consider myself to follow a plant-based diet.

Let me explain.

The composition of my plate is generally 50% (or more) fruits and vegetables, 25% whole grains and 25% animal protein. Since about 75% of my plate (and therefore my diet) comes from plants, you could say that I’m a plant-based eater. Therefore, my definition of “plant-based” would be still consuming animal products, but most of your diet comes from fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

This is the type of diet is something I fully endorse. It’s a super nutritious way to get in all of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants plants have to offer while also getting all of the nutrients you need from animal products like high quality protein, more bioavailable iron, calcium from dairy and Vitamin B12.

By the way, these are all nutrients of concern for people who do not eat animal products.

On the flip side, when one’s diet is dominated by meat to the point that it displaces fruits and vegetables in the diet, that’s when you may start to see risk of disease. Eating meat isn’t bad, but eating so much that you can’t get in your fruits, veggies and whole grains, can be.

This is why the all-or-nothing approach when it comes to diets isn’t healthful.

According to a study conducted by the CDC, despite the fact that plant-based diets prevent disease and improve health, which is a scientifically proven fact, only 1 in 10 Americans eat enough fruits and vegetables every day. An even more alarming statistic is that 20,000 cases of cancer could be prevented if only half of all Americans simply increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables by 1 serving every day, regardless of if they are organic or not. There’s not one clear reason as to why Americans seem to have such a difficult time meeting the recommendations of fruits and vegetables.

A big part of that reason, though, could be that our diets tend to be dominated by highly processed foods, refined sugars and too much saturated fat from excessive meat consumption.

This does NOT MEAN that meat is the enemy to our health. But TOO MUCH meat, absolutely is.

Because listen to this: Another barrier Americans are running into is activists like the dirty dozen using scare tactics to convince people the only produce they should be eating is organic. However, the biggest population of people who are unable to get fruits and vegetables in their diet are people who can’t afford them. By scaring these people into thinking they need to be eating organic produce or none at all, organic activists are part of the problem.

Remember what I said about all or nothing? Still applies!


The bottom line?

As Americans we all need to increase our fruits and vegetables no matter what diet we choose to follow. We need to be sure we are getting in 9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day and making at least half of our grains whole grains.

If you do choose to eat meat, try to choose lean meats most of the time and make sure you are pairing them with generous portions of fruits and vegetables. If this style of plant-based eating becomes the trend we are anticipating it will be, we can drastically improve our health as a country.


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