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A Beginner's Guide to a Plant-Centric Diet

January 18, 2022

We spoke to experts who helped us define the four main plant-centric diets — veganism, vegetarianism, pescatarianism and flexitarianism — and gave us simple tips on how to create balanced, nutritious meals.

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Understanding a Plant-Centric Diet

When I made the decision to follow a pescatarian diet seven years ago, it had nothing to do with my health or the environment and everything to do with the fact that I didn’t care for chicken or beef. I wasn’t aware of the environmental benefits of going vegetarian or the negative effect consuming animal products can have on our health. Now, it's pretty universally known. “Studies show if we move in the direction of plant-based — more fish and vegetables and nuts and seeds — the healthier our bodies and our planet will be,” says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital and registered dietitian. Seems simple, right? Not exactly. There's an overwhelming amount of (sometimes conflicting) information about the different plant-based diets on social media and the internet, which makes pinpointing the distinctions between them difficult.

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Deciphering the Differences

There’s veganism, vegetarianism and other -isms we'll get into soon. I can personally attest to the confusion surrounding these diets. My mom consistently tells people I’m vegan, a false statement that, admittedly, doesn’t sound all that false if you have no prior knowledge of non-meat diets. “What do you eat for dinner?” my grandparents often ask, as though choosing to forgo red meat and chicken is an unimaginable feat. And for some, at first, it might be. Luckily, we have some easy tips and tricks. First, we’ll break it all down for you, then help you determine which diet might best fit into your lifestyle.

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The Health Benefits

Kathy lists a plethora of plant-based diet health benefits, including lower BMI and blood pressure and reduced risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But moving toward a plant-centric diet doesn't necessarily mean cutting out animal products altogether. According to a 2017 Journal of the American Medical Assocation (JAMA) study, the highest proportion of deaths related to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and hypertension in 2012, “were estimated to be related to excess sodium intake, insufficient intake of nuts and seeds, high intake of processed meats and low intake of seafood omega-3 fats.” So, increasing our consumption of seafood and nuts while decreasing our consumption of sodium, refined carbs, sugar and processed foods, can positively affect our health in big ways.

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The Environmental Benefits

Consuming mostly plant-based foods has also proven to positively affect our planet, which is why many people choose to become vegan or vegetarian. The EAT-Lancet Commission cites three factors that heavily shape the health of humans and our planet: how food is produced, what is consumed and how much is lost or wasted. Some of these macro factors are out of our control, but there are positive practices we can adopt at home. Specifically, the commission recommends we eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains and less animal products — though animal products don't have to be totally taboo.

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