Published 19th July 2022

What is a plant-based diet and what are the benefits?

“Plant-based diets” is an umbrella term for diets that focus on plant foods. They generally include little to no animal products. 

The terms vegan and vegetarian are often used interchangeably with plant-based, but they refer to different types of plant-based diets. 

In general, a plant-based diet prioritizes whole foods. This includes fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and plant-based oils.

Many diets fall under the plant-based umbrella, including:

  • Vegan: Avoids all animal products, including meat, eggs, dairy, and honey.

  • Vegetarian: Avoids meat and fish only.

  • Pescatarian: Avoids meat only but allows fish.

  • Flexitarian: Mainly consists of plant foods but includes small amounts of meat in the diet.

  • Mediterranean: Focuses on plant oils, vegetables, fruit, fish, dairy, and small amounts of meat.

At its core, a plant-based diet emphasizes eating foods from all food groups in their most natural form. While reducing your meat and dairy intake is part of a plant-based diet, there are no strict rules. 

Studies show that prioritizing plant-based foods comes with several health benefits. Research has linked plant-based diets to a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, some cancers, and obesity.

Beyond health outcomes, plant-based eating helps to avoid contributing to animal mistreatment and environmental harms sometimes associated with meat production.

At ZOE, we know that understanding how your body responds to food is vital in choosing the best foods for your health.

With the ZOE at-home test, you can learn how your blood sugar and blood fat levels change based on the foods you eat. We'll also give you a breakdown of the “good” and “bad” bacteria in your gut so you can choose the best foods for your body.

The general breakdown of a plant-based diet 

If you want to try eating a plant-based diet, here are some foods to focus on, to eat in moderation, and to limit. 

Focus on these foods: 

  • Vegetables (such as spinach, carrots, broccoli, bell peppers, cauliflower, asparagus, kale)

  • Fruits (such as strawberries, blueberries, apples, pears, oranges, avocado, raspberries, kiwi fruit, peaches)

  • Whole grains (such as brown rice, quinoa, barley, oats, buckwheat, bulgur)

  • Legumes (such as chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans, peas, lentils, and fava beans)

  • Nuts (such as almonds, cashews, macadamia, pecans, pistachios)

  • Seeds (such as pumpkin, flax, sunflower, hemp, chia)

  • Spices and herbs (such as turmeric, black pepper, oregano, basil, rosemary)

  • Plant-based proteins (such as tofu, tempeh, and soybeans)

  • Unsweetened plant-based milk (such as oat milk, almond milk, and soy milk) 

  • Plant oils (such as extra-virgin olive oil)

Eat these foods in moderation: 

  • Meat (such as beef, chicken, and pork)

  • Fish and seafood

  • Eggs

  • Dairy (such as milk, cheese, and yogurt)

  • Dark chocolate

  • Condiments (such as mustard, ketchup, plant-based mayo, soy sauce, and salsa)

Foods to limit:

  • Processed animal products (such as bacon, lunch meats, and sausage)

  • Refined grains (such as white pasta, white bread, bagels, and white rice)

  • Processed vegan foods (such as vegan burgers, faux cheeses, and vegan butter)

  • Fast food (such as french fries, hot dogs, and chicken nuggets)

  • Added sugar and sweets (such as doughnuts, cookies, pastries, candy, and fizzy soda)

A plant-based diet emphasizes whole foods, meaning natural foods that are either unprocessed or minimally processed. Primarily eating whole foods can help maximize the health benefits of a plant-based diet.

What are the benefits? 

Studies have suggested that plant-based eating can help protect against several chronic health conditions. 

Promotes heart health

Animal fats typically contain higher levels of saturated fats, which raise low-density lipoproteins (LDL) levels. Commonly known as “bad” cholesterol, it can collect in the walls of blood vessels and increase your chances of heart disease. 

On the other hand, research suggests that plant-based diets are linked with lower cholesterol levels. Plant-based foods also contain plenty of nutrients beneficial to blood pressure. These include potassium, omega-3s, plant sterols (which help lower cholesterol), and antioxidants.

In a long-term study of more than 48,000 people, researchers found that people following a pescetarian and vegetarian diet had lower rates of heart disease than people regularly eating meat.

The results showed a 22% lower risk of ischemic heart disease in vegetarians and a 13% risk reduction in pescetarians compared with those who regularly ate meat.

Lower inflammation

Plant-based diets are linked to lower inflammation in your body, reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases. 

In one study, researchers saw lower levels of the inflammatory marker interleukin-6 when people with overweight or obesity followed a plant-based diet for 4 weeks. 

Other scientists found that a vegan diet was associated with lower levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein compared with omnivores. 

This could be because animal products contain high levels of saturated fatty acids that can trigger inflammation in the body.

Diabetes prevention

Evidence suggests that eating plant-based foods may help lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

One study of over 45,000 people found that a low-meat or meat-free diet was associated with a lower risk of diabetes. Similarly, another study found that the prevalence of type 2 diabetes was 2.9% in vegans, compared with 7.6% in those who regularly ate meat. 

Better digestive health

Research also shows that following a plant-based diet is linked with an increased frequency of bowel movements. Scientists suggest that this is because a plant-based diet involves plenty of fiber

High-fiber diets can help improve bowel movements by adding bulk to your poop, which means softer, healthier bowel movements.

Join our mailing list

Sign up for fresh insights into our scientific discoveries and the latest nutrition updates. No spam, just science.

Less taxing on the environment

Experts believe that plant-based diets are more sustainable because they require less energy to produce than meat. In fact, meat production accounts for nearly 60% of all greenhouse gasses.

According to researchers at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, adopting a plant-based diet could cut your carbon footprint by up to 73%

The EAT-Lancet Commission recently designed a universal flexitarian “planetary health diet” designed to be a sustainable way to feed the growing global population.

Less expensive

As an added bonus, a plant-based diet can also reduce your expenses. According to research, a plant-based diet could cut your food expenses by up to 33%.

Plant-based diets and the gut microbiome

We know that the food you eat has a significant impact on your gut microbiome.  

Eating a variety of different plants has been shown to promote the growth of beneficial microbial species in your gut.

A healthy gut microbiome provides benefits across the body. These include improving the immune system and digestive health, as well as reducing inflammation.

According to Prof. Tim Spector, one of the world's leading gut microbiome researchers and ZOE’s scientific co-founder, one key to a healthy gut microbiome is eating 30 different plants each week. 

Research from The American Gut Project shows that people who eat 30 different types of plants per week have a more diverse gut microbiome than those who eat 10 or fewer plants per week. 

This is because plants provide prebiotics and polyphenols that serve as food for beneficial gut bugs. 

Different species of microbes prefer certain types of prebiotics and polyphenols over others, so a wider variety of plants can encourage more “good” gut bugs.  

On the other hand, a lower bacterial diversity can lead to an imbalance of gut bacteria. People who have a lower diversity of gut bugs are more likely to develop chronic health conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, type 2 diabetes, and psoriatic arthritis. 

How to get started

Adopting a plant-based diet doesn’t necessarily mean cutting out the meat and animal products you enjoy. It simply means including an array of plants in your diet. Luckily, there are many ways to introduce more plants into your diet.    

Making small adjustments by experimenting with new plants is a good place to start. Instead of changing your entire diet, pick a few plant-based swaps to implement each week. 

Mushrooms are a great alternative to meaty burgers, and you can swap in lentils for ground beef. 

Remember, it’s all about embracing the plant-forward journey. You can make small, yet mighty changes by taking part in Meatless Mondays and eventually work your way up to finding the right balance of plants and animal products for you. 

Plus, moving slowly gives your taste buds a chance to adjust.

Plant-based foods offer an impressive range of nutrients that benefit your health. Depending on where you fall on the plant-based spectrum, there may be some nutrients that you should pay more attention to — particularly if you go vegan. 

Research shows that vegans are more likely to be low in certain micronutrients. This includes vitamin B12, iron, and vitamin D.

Appropriate meal planning can help avoid some deficiencies. However, plant-based foods rarely naturally contain vitamin B12, so this may require a supplement. 

Plant-based meal ideas

There are simple swaps you can make in meals to follow a plant-based diet. Some of these include:

  • Adding chickpeas to salads

  • Making stews with lentils and beans

  • Swapping beef mince for lentils in bolognese sauces or in shepherd’s pie

  • Using soy yogurt at breakfast

  • Swapping eggs with tofu in a scramble

Some simple breakfast ideas include vegan pancakes with frozen or fresh berries on top, turmeric tofu scramble, or creamy oatmeal.  

When it comes to lunch, you could make yourself vegan pizza, an easy pasta salad, or a Greek salad wrap. 

Dinner ideas include quinoa stuffed bell peppers with a bean salad, or spicy sesame noodles with tofu. 

There are plenty of plant-based snack options, such as carrots and hummus, a handful of walnuts, homemade granola bars, or even avocado-topped rice cakes.  

Summary

A plant-based diet puts plants at the center of the plate, rather than animal products. It emphasizes nourishing plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. 

Plant-based diets are associated with many potential health benefits, including reducing the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It may also help dial down inflammation and promote digestive health.

In addition to the health benefits, eating a more plant-forward diet can have a positive impact on the environment and your wallet. 

Best of all, you can personalize your plant-based diet in a way that works for you. 

At ZOE, we know that understanding how your body responds to food is important for your health. By analyzing your blood sugar and blood fat responses, as well as your gut microbiome breakdown, we can provide you with personally tailored nutrition advice. 

Sources

Affordability of the EAT–Lancet reference diet: a global analysis. The Lancet. (2019). https://www.thelancet.com/journals/langlo/article/PIIS2214-109X(19)30447-4/fulltext

American gut: an open platform for citizen science microbiome research. mSystems. (2018). https://journals.asm.org/doi/10.1128/mSystems.00031-18

Chickpea flour pancakes. (2021). https://runningonrealfood.com/vegan-chickpea-flour-pancakes/

Consumption of a defined, plant‐based diet reduces lipoprotein(a), inflammation, and other atherogenic lipoproteins and particles within 4 weeks. Clinical Cardiology. (2018). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30014498/

Effects of lipids’ composition and structure in meat and dairy foods on digestibility and low-grade inflammation in cells, animals and humans (LipidInflammaGenes). Lipids. (2020). https://www.nmbu.no/en/projects/node/34902

Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. The Lancet. (2019). https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(18)31788-4/fulltext

Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods. Nat Food. (2021). https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00358-x

Health, environmental, and animal rights motives for vegetarian eating. PLOS One. (2020). https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0230609

Homemade vegan granola bars. (2021). https://ourplantbasedworld.com/homemade-vegan-granola-bars/

Meatless mondays. (n.d.). https://www.mondaycampaigns.org/meatless-monday

Mexican quinoa stuffed peppers. (n.d.) https://minimalistbaker.com/spanish-quinoa-stuffed-peppers/

Mung bean and coconut curry. (2018). https://www.heynutritionlady.com/mung-bean-and-coconut-curry/

New study finds vegan meals cost 40% less than meat/fish. (n.d.). https://veganuary.com/en-us/new-study-finds-vegan-meals-cost-40-less-than-meat-fish/

Nutrition and lifestyle in relation to bowel movement frequency: a cross-sectional study of 20 630 men and women in EPIC–Oxford. Public Health Nutrition. (2007). https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/nutrition-and-lifestyle-in-relation-to-bowel-movement-frequency-a-crosssectional-study-of-20-630-men-and-women-in-epicoxford/87A11E320889658F58685A64961A9CE8

Plant-based dietary patterns and incidence of type 2 diabetes in US men and women: results from three prospective cohort studies. PLOS Medicine. (2016).  https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1002039

Plant-based diets and cardiovascular health. Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine. (2018). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6089671/

Portobello mushroom pizza. (2021). https://www.acouplecooks.com/portobello-mushroom-pizza/

Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: vegetarian diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (2016).  https://www.jandonline.org/article/S2212-2672(16)31192-3/fulltext

Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science 360. (2018). https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aaq0216

Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford study. The BMJ. (2019). https://www.bmj.com/content/366/bmj.l4897

Role of the gut microbiota in nutrition and health. The BMJ. (2018).  https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179

Saturated fat. American Heart Association. (n.d). https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats

Sustainability of plant-based diets: back to the future. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2014). https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/100/suppl_1/476S/4576675

Systematic review and meta-analysis of the associations of vegan and vegetarian diets with inflammatory biomarkers. Scientific Reports. (2020).  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78426-8#citeas

The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: a systematic review. Translational Psychiatry. (2019). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6742661/

The effects of vegetarian and vegan diets on gut microbiota. Frontiers in Nutrition. (2019). https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnut.2019.00047/full

The global and regional costs of healthy and sustainable dietary patterns: a modelling study. The Lancet Planetary Health. (2021). https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(21)00251-5/fulltext

The role of specific components of a plant-based diet in management of dyslipidemia and the impact on cardiovascular risk. Nutrients. (2020). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7551487/

Turmeric Tofu Scramble. (2020). https://www.freshoffthegrid.com/tofu-scramble/

Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. (2009). https://diabetesjournals.org/care/article/32/5/791/29593/Type-of-Vegetarian-Diet-Body-Weight-and-Prevalence

Vegetarian diets and risk of hospitalisation or death with diabetes in British adults: results from the EPIC-Oxford study. Nutrition & Diabetes. (2019).  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41387-019-0074-0#citeas

Join our mailing list

Get occasional updates on our latest developments and scientific discoveries. No spam. We promise.