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The health benefits of plant-based diets

As plant-based diets become more popular there is growing interest in vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian lifestyles. What’s the difference?

Let’s start with what these vegetable-based diets have in common: All are good for your health.

Studies show eating more fruits and vegetables and other plant-derived foods help lower the risk of heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions.

Eating a mostly plant-based diet was associated with a 42 percent reduced risk of developing heart failure for people with no history of heart disease, according to a recent study cited by the American Heart Association.

A plant-focused diet is also an excellent way to lose weight and keep it off. “It is the mainstay of losing weight,” says Dolly Doctor, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Encinitas.

“No matter which plant-based diet you adopt, eating more fruits, vegetables and whole foods improves your health,” Dr. Doctor says. “A plant-based diet is one way to prolong your life and boost your quality of life.”

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based eating pattern means you’re consuming more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds and limiting or cutting out animal-based foods. The Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets are among the most popular plant-derived diets.

Following a plant-based diet also means eating the right plant-based foods. Potato chips and white rice are technically plant-derived but they do not provide the nutritional value of unprocessed foods.

What are vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian diets?

Vegan diet

People following this diet avoid eating all animal products, including eggs and dairy. “Nothing that isn’t grown from the ground is consumed,” Dr. Doctor says. “With this diet, you eat things like legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices, seeds and nuts,” she says.

Vegetarian diet

A vegetarian is someone who does not eat meat or fish and whose diet consists of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and sometimes eggs or dairy products.

A lacto-vegetarian eats dairy products but avoids eggs. An ovo-vegetarian eats eggs but not dairy products.

Flexitarian diet

Also called semi-vegetarian, this diet means you follow a mainly vegetarian diet but occasionally eat meat. U.S. News and World Report ranks this the third best overall diet.

What are examples of plant-based meals?

Healthy vegetarian meals may be prepared for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“For breakfast, you can eat whole grain toast or plain oatmeal soaked in almond milk with sliced fruit and some nuts,” Dr. Doctor says.

“For lunch, you can make a healthy burrito with whole grain tortilla filled with black beans and pico de gallo or tomatoes, onions and a salad on the side,” she says. “For dinner, you can serve lentils or brown rice and flavor them up with herbs and spices.”

Are there any risks?

Animal meat contains all the essential amino acids that the body needs to make protein. If you totally cut out animal products, you may need to take a supplement or look for plant-based foods fortified with vitamin B12.

Why are plant-based diet becoming so popular?

In order to follow a plant-focused diet, you have to be receptive to the idea and get used to preparing plant-based meals. Many who make the switch to this way of eating do so for health reasons. They may for example be obese or have high-blood pressure. Others embrace it as they learn more about the health benefits.

Plant-based diets are worth learning more about and embracing, says Dr. Doctor, adding that Southern California is ripe for becoming a hub for vegetarian lifestyles.

“I see a lot of restaurants that cater to people who follow plant-based eating patterns,” she says.

“If more people followed vegetarian diets, we would see fewer heart attacks, strokes, and cases of diabetes and high blood pressure, which also affect young people. We should not be having these diseases before age 65 or so.”

Healthy Life is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps Health. For more information, or for a physician referral, visit or call 1-800-Scripps.

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