Q & A: All About Plant Based Diets

by Jessie Funchion, MS, RD, LDN

1)    What’s the difference between vegan, vegetarian and plant based?
Vegan diets – eliminate all animal products from the diet including meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy. Strict vegans also avoid honey as well as avoid leather and other animal byproducts.
Vegetarian diets – include eggs and dairy but avoid meat, poultry and seafood.
Whole Foods Plant Based – Similar to vegan but more emphasis on whole foods rather than processed. For example, French fries and soy-rizo are technically vegan, but because they are highly processed, they would not be encouraged on a plant-based diet. This term definitely emphasizes the health aspects of food rather than sheer avoidance of animal products.

2)    Why would someone eat this way? Vegan and vegetarian diets historically were for animal rights or environmental concerns. Recently, there’s been a push for plant-based diets as an effective health tool for the prevention of chronic disease.

3)    It seems too restrictive! Plant based diets, by definition, cut out a lot of major foods that we eat here in the U.S. Rather than focusing on what a plant based diet doesn’t include, think about all the foods it does include – all fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes! When compared to the MyPlate recommendations, a plant-based diet actually isn’t that different.

4)    Will I get enough protein? If eating adequate calories, it’s almost impossible to be protein deficient on a plant-based diet. Just like on a regular diet, try to include a source of protein at each meal (i.e. soy milk at breakfast, lentils at lunch and tofu at dinner). Remember that there are small amounts of protein in all vegetables and whole grains, so protein doesn’t only have to come from the Legumes group.

5)    How about calcium? Iron? B12?
Most vegans do not reach the DRI for calcium. Luckily, almost all plant-based milks are fortified with calcium and Vitamin D. Some plant based foods like kale and collard greens actually have very high bioavailability of calcium.  Aim to have 3 servings of high calcium foods a day (fortified plant based milk, tofu, fortified OJ, kale, soy beans).
Believe it or not, vegetarians actually consume as much iron, or slightly more than, omnivores. In western cultures, vegetarians and non-vegetarians have similar hemoglobin values and other measures of iron status. When consuming large amounts of non-heme iron, the body adapts and absorbs more of it, which helps overall iron status. There is less research on iron status of vegans vs. vegetarians, so this might be something to keep an eye on for those who are strict vegans. Include sources of non-heme iron and be sure to ask your doctor to test iron levels annually rather than jumping straight to a supplement.
A lot of vegan foods are fortified with B12 (cereals, milks), but it’s recommended for strict vegans to take a B12 supplement. The DRI is 2.4mcg/day for adults, and as usual, look for the USP label for high quality vitamins. I usually recommend a high dose of B12 once or twice a week (i.e. 1000mcg twice a week).

6)    My loved one needs help meal planning. I don’t eat this way and am at a loss! Have no fear – refer to the following resources. Better yet, challenge yourself to a 100% plant-based week of eating! There’s no better way to learn about a diet than to follow it yourself. Here are some great recipe pages to get started.
Forksoverknives.com, Minimalistbaker.com, http://vegangela.com/

1)    AND Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets
2)    Top 50 Vegan Blogs
3)    Protecting Bone Health Among Vegans
4)    Counseling Vegan Clients