What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

You may think you know exactly what a plant-based diet is. But it depends who you ask.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
3-minute read
Episode #365

Plant-based diet is a trendy new term, but there seems to be a lot of confusion about what the term actually means. I recently asked my Facebook followers how they would define a plant-based diet. About 70% responded that a plant-based diet consists mostly of plants but may include some animal products. The other 30% believed that a plant-based diet should include no animal products whatsoever. That’s a pretty big discordance—but the confusion went far deeper than that.

Some people defined the word “plant” the way I would, as referring to all foods of non-animal origin: fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and so on. But others thought of “plants” as referring only to vegetables.

A lot of people attached additional meanings to the phrase that had nothing to do with whether a food came from a plant or an animal. For example, some defined a plant-based diet as one that avoids processed foods. Others use it to describe a vegan diet that also avoids fats and oils from all sources.

How Much Meat Can a Plant-Based Diet Include?

Among those that defined a plant-based diet as one that could include some amount of meat or other animal products, there was also a wide range of opinion on how much meat a plant-based diet might include. Some drew the line at one serving a week, others at one serving per month. One thought a plant-based diet could reasonably include an ounce of meat per meal, another suggested that a diet could be defined as a plant-based diet if meat took up less than a quarter of the plate.

Obviously, this was not a scientific survey but the range of conflicting responses I got was perfectly representative of the contradictory ways I see this term being used by various nutrition experts, authors, groups, and in the wider media.

There is no single right answer here. But the fact that people are using the same term to describe very different dietary approaches opens the door for a lot of confusion and miscommunication.

How Would You Describe My Diet?

I eat vegetables with almost every meal. I eat eggs, dairy, legumes, grains, nuts, and fruit almost every day. I eat fish about once a week and meat about once a month. And, to be fully upfront with you, I also eat some processed foods, such as crackers, snack bars, French bread, and even the occasional Swedish fish.

Some might call that a “flexitarian” diet, or a Mediterranean-style diet. My colleague Ashley Koff coined the cute term “qualitarian” diet, but my diet would probably be disqualified for the Swedish fish. I can live with that. Many people (including me) might consider my diet to be a plant-based diet—but not everyone would agree.

This confusion is completely unnecessary. We have much more precise ways of describing what we eat.


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.