By Kellen Cantrell, MSNS Student
Plant based, vegetarian, flexitarian, or balanced diet?
Many individuals are considering diet and lifestyle changes to prevent disease, lose weight, and improve overall health. It is known that increasing vegetable consumption is associated with improved health,1 but does that mean that we should all be vegetarian or vegan? Should we follow a pescatarian diet, a vegetarian diet, a “plant-based “diet, or perhaps a flexitarian diet? And what do those terms even mean anyway? What does the research say… let’s digest it!
Let’s define some of these terms!
A vegetarian is someone who does not eat meat, but may include dairy, eggs, honey and some may include fish in the diet. If someone is vegan they consume a diet with no animal products. The term “plant-based” describes ingredients or foods that are made from plants, while “plant-forward” refers to a style of cooking that emphasizes plant foods, but is not limited to plants alone.2 A flexitarian is someone who occasionally eats meat, although the frequency in which they eat meat is not clearly defined.3
What does research say about fruits, vegetables, and meat in the diet?
Studies show that a vegetarian diet has protective effects on heart disease and total cancer risk.4 Long-term intake of a high protein/ meat diet above the recommended intake is associated with negative effects on health such as kidney disorders, liver disorders, increased risk for cancer, and progression of coronary heart disease.5Those are some pretty serious consequences, but before you decide to go vegan cold turkey, let’s talk about a few more studies. Research shows that including fatty fish in the diet like salmon provides a great source of high quality protein and essential omega 3 fatty acids that can improve weight control and risk for cardiovascular disease.6 Other research shows that a low carbohydrate, high protein diet is an effective means of weight loss and weight maintenance likely because of an increased diet adherence due to increased satiety and slowed gastric emptying, which can lead to a reduced risk for many chronic diseases.7
So, what does the research say we should eat?
The research findings may seem to contradict each other, but we should recognize that nutrition research is complicated because people and their diets cannot truly be isolated and studied in a controlled setting. There are many lifestyle, cultural, taste-specific, and genetic factors that influence our diet and its affect on our long-term health. So what can we learn from all of these findings? We can learn that there are benefits associated with many different food groups and diets.8 The American Society for Nutrition stated that a primarily plant-based diet is associated with health benefits, but being vegetarian is not enough; the quality of the food matters!9 Meat quality in the diet matters too! Perhaps it is diet quality that is the most important factor!
Balance is best
For the general population nutritionists and dietitians recommend a high quality, balanced diet with a variety of foods. Increasing your fruit and vegetable consumption with a variety of produce sources and choosing high quality sources of lean protein with appropriate portions ensures that you are receiving the variety of nutrients and health benefits that all of these foods offer. When considering the diet choices you can make to improve your overall heath, Michael Pollan states it best: eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much.10 The flexitarian diet recognizes meat as a protein packed, nutrient dense food source11 and promotes variety and inclusion of meat consumption3 while promoting an increase in fruit and vegetable intake. Being mindful of different foods and their role in health is the best practice for achieving a balanced, healthy diet.
Kellen Cantrell is a Master of Science in Nutritional Sciences student at the University of Texas at Austin. Submit a Request for Information to learn more about the program.
- Conrad, Z., Thomson, J., & Jahns, L. (2018). Prospective Analysis of Vegetable Amount and Variety on the Risk of All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality among US Adults, 1999–2011. Nutrients, 10(10), 1377. doi: 10.3390/nu10101377
- (2018). Retrieved from http://www.menusofchange.org/images/uploads/pdf/Defining_Plant-Forward_Menus_of_Change.pdf
- Derbyshire, E. (2017). Flexitarian Diets and Health: A Review of the Evidence-Based Literature. Frontiers In Nutrition, 3. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2016.00055
- Dinu, M., Abbate, R., Gensini, G., Casini, A., & Sofi, F. (2016). Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Critical Reviews In Food Science And Nutrition, 57(17), 3640-3649. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447
- Delimaris, I. (2013). Adverse Effects Associated with Protein Intake above the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Adults. ISRN Nutrition, 2013, 1-6. doi: 10.5402/2013/126929
- Raatz, S., Rosenberger, T., Johnson, L., Wolters, W., Burr, G., & Picklo, M. (2013). Dose-Dependent Consumption of Farmed Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar) Increases Plasma Phospholipid n-3 Fatty Acids Differentially. Journal Of The Academy Of Nutrition And Dietetics, 113(2), 282-287. doi: 10.1016/j.jand.2012.09.022
- Paoli A, Rubini A, Volek J, Grimaldi K. Beyond weight loss: a review of the therapeutic uses of very-low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diets. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014;68(5):641-641. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2014.47.
- Sandouk Z, Lansang M. Diabetes with obesity—Is there an ideal diet?. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 2017;84(7 suppl 1):S4-S14. doi:10.3949/ccjm.84.s1.02.
- New research reveals benefits of a vegetarian diet. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-06/n2-nrr053118.php
- Pollan, M., & Brick, S. (2008). In defense of food. New York: Penguin Audio.
- Pighin, D., Pazos, A., Chamorro, V., Paschetta, F., Cunzolo, S., & Godoy, F. et al. (2016). A Contribution of Beef to Human Health: A Review of the Role of the Animal Production Systems. The Scientific World Journal, 2016, 1-10. doi: 10.1155/2016/8681491