What is a plant-based diet?

By Mary Du Heaume

3 minutes

10 August 2020

Person holding a bucket of vegetables

You may have heard about plant-based eating or noticed the variety of meat substitutes hitting the shelves at your local supermarket. Our first thought might be "rabbit food", but there is a lot more to plant-based eating then lettuce and carrots.

What is a plant-based diet?

Plant-based eating is about featuring more plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes) and fewer animal foods in your diet.

It also involves a focus on the whole, unrefined (or minimally refined) ingredients like whole fruits and vegetables or minimally processed like cooked brown rice, tinned vegetables (without added salt/sugar), roasted nuts, pre-cut vegetables. It also means avoiding foods that are heavily processed like chips, crackers, deli meats, some breakfast cereals, packaged sausage rolls, cakes and biscuits (this list could go on for days).

Some animal-derived foods can be included, but; they are not the stars of this way of eating. You can choose to eat small amounts of lean meat, poultry, fish, seafood and dairy (also known as semi-vegetarian, flexitarian or pescatarian).

Why is it beneficial

There is building evidence that plant foods – especially wholegrain cereals, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables can be protective for our health. 

  • Emphasis on mostly whole plant-based foods helps to ensure we consume more nutrient-rich meals. 
  • These less processed plant foods are full of fibre, high in vitamins and minerals, and low in salt and saturated fat. This makes them great for filling our bellies, helping to satisfy hunger without an abundance of energy, making managing our weight easier.  
  • Diets that are higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal foods have been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Adequate consumption of fruit and vegetables is also linked with a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes and some cancers
  • There is also building evidence that plant-based eating can be beneficial environmentally as well. 

Eating plants is trending

There is a growing global interest in embracing a more plant-based way of eating. A recent study identified that the most searched diet information was for plant-based diets (veganism and vegetarianism). Just a quick look on the supermarket shelves will confirm this trend is being supported by the increasing variety of plant-based meat alternatives and products. And if you're looking for a new cookbook, it is likely you'll come across several versions dedicated to vegetarian or vegan cooking (making use of plant-based ingredients). 

This is an encouraging trend as previous reports have shown that most Australians do not eat enough plant-based foods, especially fruit and vegetables. In FY 17/18, only 5.4% of Australian adults were meeting the recommended 5 and 2 (5 servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit per day). 

Tips for eating a more plant-based diet

You may be thinking just adding some more vegetables to your meals will take you to a plant-based diet, and while adding more vegetables is always a good move, it may not be enough to transform your diet to a truly beneficial plant-based diet. It may require a more substantial shift to the overall balance of your diet.

While that might sound daunting adopting this way of eating can be done with some simple changes and/or additions; here are some tips for achieving a more plant-based diet:

  • Try some meat-free meals each week – include alternatives such as eggs, beans and tofu.
  • Replace a proportion of the meat in a recipe with legumes - for example, half the beef mince in a bolognese and add the equivalent in lentils – or replace the meat entirely.
  • Plan your meals around plants and make them the star of every meal – Stuffed capsicum, whole roasted cauliflower, eggplant parmigiana.   
  • Adopt a variety of cooking methods for your vegetables – like roasted, stir-fried, grilled. 
  • Enhance your plants with herbs and spices and exciting flavours. 

Choose wholegrain cereals more often than white varieties - such as wholemeal bread and pasta, brown rice, oats. And introduce some maybe unfamiliar grains like farro, barley, wholemeal couscous, bulgar, buckwheat. 

Eat a variety of colours of fresh vegetables and fruits. Be adventurous try less familiar produce; go to a farmer's market and ask the growers what is in season and maybe how to cook it. 

Remember, it is not just one type of food that will lead to good health, but rather a combination of nutritious foods eaten over months and years. Aiming for a combination of mostly whole foods predominately coming from plants can help create a protective dietary pattern.  

 
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Disclaimer

This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.