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

How to Talk About Dietary Choices

  • A diet that includes no animal products whatsoever is a vegan diet. (A vegan lifestyle goes one step further by avoiding the use of animal products for clothes, cosmetics, and other goods.)
  • A diet that avoids meat, poultry, and seafood but allows eggs and dairy is properly known as an ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet, but is usually described as vegetarian.
  • A diet that avoids processed foods is a whole foods diet.
  • A diet that avoids cooked foods is a raw foods diet.
  • A diet that avoids fats and oils is a low fat diet.
  • A diet that avoids grains, fruit, starchy vegetables, and legumes is a low carb diet.

We can use the words “mostly” or “primarily” if we are not absolute in our adherence or avoidance. So, for example, I could describe my diet as being a mostly vegetarian, whole-foods diet.

If it’s important to pin it down further, we can also use percentages to describe the degree or adherence or avoidance, as in a diet that’s 90% vegetarian, or 80% whole foods, or 50% vegetables. If we’re going to throw around terms like low-fat or low-carb, I think it’s best to put a percentage on that as well, because the words “low” and “high” can be extremely relative. One diet doctor defines a low carb diet as being less than 10% carbs; another researcher publishes a study in which the “low carb diet” contained 50% carbs. It happens all the time.

When It Matters

Around the water cooler, in a forum or group where everyone’s following the same program, or in the privacy of our own thoughts, it may not matter whether we all mean the same thing by the term “plant-based” or whether we have the same definition of “mostly” or “high.” But when we’re designing scientific studies, discussing research results, or dispensing dietary advice via books, blogs, consensus statements, documentaries, or government guidelines, I think it’s important to define our terms more carefully.

As trendy and appealing as it is, I think the term “plant-based diet” has acquired too many contradictory meanings and unrelated assumptions to be very useful. What do you think? Weigh in on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.


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.