At the risk of stating the obvious, a plant-based diet is a pattern of eating that features foods solely from the plant kingdom. Humans are omnivores, meaning we evolved to eat pretty much any and all types of foods. In that context, a strictly plant-based diet may sound somewhat limited. But given the remarkable diversity of plant foods, nothing could be further from the truth.
For instance, plant foods include everything from seaweed to roots, tubers, legumes, leaves, vegetables, seeds, nuts, fruits, flowers, and edible stalks. Although technically they are fungi, mushrooms are also highly diverse—and healthful—foods enjoyed by most vegetarians. That covers a lot of diversity. It’s little wonder that many people are perfectly happy consuming plant foods and nothing else.
Of course, to be nutritionally sound, any diet must include the essentials. This is not a marketing term. To nutritionists, “essential” means any dietary component that the body must have, but cannot manufacture on its own. There are eight essential amino acids, for example. When a food features all eight of these, it’s called a “complete” protein. Without complete protein the body’s need for protein to repair and build muscle and other tissues goes unmet. Every cell in the body contains protein, so we must consume a steady supply of this essential nutrient.
Carnivores get plenty of protein from their diets, because meat is exceptionally rich in complete protein. But vegetarians must take care to get adequate complete protein from plant sources. For this, most rely on beans, legumes, nuts, and soy products, such as tofu. And, of course, some vegetarians supplement their diets with eggs and/or fish. In fact, a recent large clinical trial concluded that pesco-vegetarians, who supplement their plant-based diet with fish, enjoy some of the most robust health benefits of all, compared to vegans, strict vegetarians, or omnivores. Fish supplies complete protein, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are another example of essential nutrients. These lipids (fats) are primarily obtained from certain types of cold-water fatty fish. Vegetable sources of omega-3s, including flaxseed, walnuts, and a few other foods, can supply one form of omega-3, called ALA. But it must be converted in the body to the two other forms (already present in fish) that the body must have for everything from proper immune system function, to optimal brain and nerve function.
The conversion from ALA to the two forms the body requires (DHA and EPA) is a highly inefficient process. For this reason, strict vegetarians and vegans must pay careful attention to their intake of ALA (or supplement their diet with fish) in order to get an adequate supply of these nutrients. It should be noted that despite the skepticism vegetarians occasionally encounter from meat lovers, vegetarianism is considered by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to be perfectly appropriate for all ages and stages of life, including lactation, pregnancy, and childhood.
Vegetarians and vegans (and, especially pesco-vegetarians) enjoy reduced risks of a whole slate of common, serious “lifestyle” diseases. Examples include heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and obesity.
Of course, most people are aware that we all need certain vitamins and minerals to thrive. These essential nutrients are generally abundant in plant foods, and include everything from calcium for good bone health and nerve function, to antioxidant vitamins such as A and E. Vegans may need to take supplemental B vitamins, because they occasionally struggle to obtain enough vitamin B12 from the diet. This is especially important among older people, as low vitamin B12 has been linked to an increased risk of dementia and other neuropsychiatric disorders.
Phytonutrients are simply nutritional components, such as antioxidants and inflammation-fighting compounds, that are present in many of the plants we consume. They’re generally under-appreciated sources of rich health benefits. Pigment compounds, for example, from colorful fruits and vegetables, tend to be exceptionally potent antioxidants that are linked to reduced oxidative stress in the body. Given that oxidative stress is believed to underlie many disease processes—and even aging itself—people who eat a plant-based diet tend to enjoy better health than people who eat fewer plant foods.
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