All Plant-Based Diets Are Not Created Equal

I was recently interviewed about the hierarchy of plant-based diets. I wanted to post my full response here…

*All plant-based diets are not created equal. What is the healthiest of plant-based diets? I know above you state Most healthful dietary patterns a) get people thinking about daily food choices; b) emphasize the consumption of more minimally processed foods; and c) ensure a greater nutrient intake. Together, this often leads to a healthier body size, more energy, improved sleep, a better mood, and so forth. What do healthy plant-based diets have in common? Or would you still stick by that quote?

Healthy plant-based diets fall under those same general criteria. 

The interesting thing right now with plant-based diets (and this is happening with paleo diets too) is that the food industry has started to get involved. This has been positive and negative. It's now possible to get lentil pasta, sprouted spelt bread, and almond butter at most grocery stores. This is probably a positive thing for our collective health in the U.S.! 

At the same time, it's also much easier to get vegan mac & cheese, vegan ice cream, and vegan chips. If someone switches from eating "regular" mac & cheese, ice cream, and chips to the vegan versions, and that's the only change they make in their diet, I wouldn't anticipate any noticeable health improvements. Now, if someone is eating mostly minimally processed vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts/seeds, and then they include vegan mac & cheese, vegan ice cream, and vegan chips about 10% of the time (give or take), it would still be very health promoting diet! There's no need to completely eliminate all highly processed foods. 

Another important point here is that not everyone makes dietary changes for personal health reasons. Some people want to eat a diet that doesn't support over-reliance on livestock, has a lighter environmental footprint, and promotes more tolerable working conditions for farm laborers. So, while eating vegan mac & cheese, vegan ice cream, and vegan chips might not support personal health goals, in some cases, it could still be supporting these other "bigger-than-self" goals.

(Practical personal example: I buy Fair Trade chocolate bars and non-dairy ice cream. I don't do this because I think it's going to improve my personal health. But I do believe it's a step in the right direction for farm laborers and animal welfare) :) 

When personal health is your main focus, the big question to ask when making any type of dietary switch is: What would I be eating instead? This can clue you in to whether or not it's a positive or negative decision for your health. 

*Do you ever find that people who eat plant-based diets have unhealthier behaviors or sort of hide behind their plant-based diet and eat other stuff that is seemingly healthy but really isn’t? Please explain.

Sure. This is possible under any dietary label. Some people might be craving strict rules and regulations around their eating. This can often happen when they are disconnected from body cues and preferences. They use a dietary label to grant themselves permission to overeat certain foods, while overly restricting others. This would be disordered eating territory, and can lead to all sorts of physical, emotional, and social problems. If someone suspects they have some disordered eating going on, I would encourage them to get this sorted out first, before trying to abide by any dietary labels. 

*What are some signs that your plant-based diet isn't working for you?

Well, it's hard to say for certain, as so many factors influence our overall health. No matter if someone is feeling crummy or fantastic, it might have a lot to do with their diet, or it might have very little to do with their diet.

Generally speaking, I would suggest 2 things here:

1. Keep an eye on health markers during your annual physical exam. If anything seems out of whack (e.g., lab values, blood pressure, weight, etc) talk with a doc or dietitian about if it could be diet related.

2. Keep tuned into your body. Intuition is often underrated when it comes to personal health. If you've made some dietary changes, and coinciding with those dietary changes is a general feeling of crumminess, major weight fluctuations, digestive problems, and so forth, it might be a sign to make some adjustments to your food/beverage intake, preferably with professional assistance. 

*What should you look for / focus in on when sticking to a plant-based diet? Why is this so important

What you're eating, not on what you're avoiding. Great, so you avoid meat, fish, dairy, and/or eggs. What are you actually eating every day? Hopefully plenty of minimally processed vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and nuts/seeds!

And avoid the all-or-none trap. It's common in the U.S. to give ourselves 2 options when it comes to plant-based eating: Option 1) Vegan/vegetarian. Option 2) The status quo (which is often animal products at every meal, or at least every day). There's a lot of middle ground to explore here. And if the middle ground allows you to feel better and consistently eat more plant-based in the long run, it might be your best option.