Are plant-based diets natural for us? How healthy are vegetarians and vegans, really? Those that prescribe abstaining from animal foods often play the ethics card, and that may be why they have the most passionate and zealous following. But how do these kinds of diets fare from the nutritional point of view?

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What does Plant based mean?

There is a huge variety of plant-based diets out there. Most people from the western world have probably heard about vegetarianism, veganism and other ovo-lacto variations. Some might even recognize the names behind popular plant based programs like John McDougall, Dean Ornish and others. It is hard to summarize because of the diversity among these diets, but most of the good ones would probably intersect here:

  • Unprocessed starches (potatoes, whole grains, squash)
  • Non-starchy vegetables and fruits
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and seeds

Animal products should be avoided, as the title suggests, and most plant-based diets also discourage refined grains and processed foods in general.

There is a huge variety of plant-based diets out there. Most people from the western world have probably heard about vegetarianism, veganism and other ovo-lacto variations.

Why should you choose a plant-based diet?

Plant based diets are especially successful when it comes to treating disease. Clinical studies suggest that they are useful when it comes to heart disease, diabetes, and possibly other chronic conditions. Ornish even managed to reverse heart disease in patients, but the strict program he used consisted of more than just dietary changes. Some studies also showed that plant-based cuisines can have beneficial effects on rheumatoid arthritis, but the tested diets were also gluten-free and involved fasting, which can be confounding factors.

What is wrong with plant based diets?

Compared to a standard western diet, whole-food, plant-based diets certainly appear promising for treating chronic diseases, but there is a big but. Diets that partially or completely ban animal products can only be considered experiments right now. No known human population has ever lived and thrived exclusively on plant foods. When going for such a diet you are basically making an assumption that we know about every nutrient necessary for our bodies, understand how they interact and also that we are able to replace those derived from animals with alternatives from the plant kingdom. And this is a huge assumption to make considering new discoveries in human health and nutrition are made every year. We need to study the long-term effects of these diets on bone development, fertility, and other areas where fat-soluble vitamins play an important role. We also need to realize that problems caused by nutrient deficiencies can appear decades later or even in the next generation.

Compared to a standard western diet, whole-food, plant-based diets certainly appear promising for treating chronic diseases, but there is a big but.

From a nutritional stand point it is still a safer option to include some animal products, and when done right (pasture raised animals, gentle cooking, eating the whole animal, not just muscle), most potential problems can be prevented. So, how did the plant-based diet do? Are its benefits enough to make it competitive? Let’s compare all top three contenders.

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