Adding more plants and whole foods to your meals can help keep you healthy. Here's why you should consider a plant-based diet-and how to get started.
You're used to eating some veggies, fruits, and grains every day. But a growing number of people are gravitating toward a diet that is mostly or entirely made up of foods from plants, not animals.
Plant-based diets are gaining popularity for various reasons, including health concerns, rising food costs, and environment sustainability. And it's never been easier to go big on plants. Most restaurants and supermarkets offer a variety of plant-based options.
These diets can require some extra planning, but their health benefits are worth it for many individuals, including older adults.
“There are benefits for older people in eating a healthful, well-planned plant-based diet, so it’s not too late to get started,” says Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., aka The Plant-Powered Dietitian and author of The Plant-Powered Diet.
Use this guide to better understand the pros and cons of a plant-based diet and how to make it work for you.
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What is a plant-based diet?
This diet choice is often misunderstood. That's because there is currently no official definition of the term "plant-based," even though it is now part of the American vernacular.
While plant-based eating does involve making it a point to eat plants, it doesn't necessarily mean you have to cut out all animal-based foods from your diet. Plant-based diets can look very different for different people. Here are some of the most popular plant-based eating plans.
Vegetarian. Those who follow this eating style do not eat meat. This includes red meat, poultry, and seafood. Certain animal-based products, such as eggs and dairy, can be consumed.
There are sub-categories of vegetarians, including:
- Lacto-vegetarian: excludes meat, fish, poultry, and eggs, but allows for dairy such as yogurt and cheese
- Ovo-vegetarian: excludes meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy products, but permit a person to eat eggs
- Lacto-ovo vegetarian: excludes meat, fish, and poultry, but includes dairy products and eggs
Vegan. A vegan diet removes all animal-based foods from the menu. This includes obvious items like red meat, poultry, and fish, in addition to eggs and dairy. Some vegans may also steer clear of other ingredients derived from animal sources, including honey and gelatine.
In the end, this leaves foods from plants as the only source of nutrition. Any supplements including vitamin D and vitamin B12 also need to be derived from plants.
Pescetarian. This eating style allows eating fish but is otherwise similar to a vegetarian diet. And like vegetarians, pescatarians may differ on whether they will eat eggs or dairy products.
Flexitarian. Flexitarian (also referred to as semi-vegetarian) is a term coined to describe individuals who eat a plant-first diet with the occasional meat or dairy added in.
Simply put, a flexitarian will eat a varied diet, but there is an increased focus on consuming vegetables, whole grains, and fruits. Think of it as pro-plant, not anti-meat. There are no forbidden foods.
It's perfect for people who enjoy tofu and lentils but are not ready to commit 100 percent to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Many find the flexitarian diet easier to keep long-term than other more restrictive diets.
Is a plant-based diet healthy for older adults?
When it comes to health promotion, there is a lot to celebrate about going plant based. A 2022 study in the journal PLOS Medicine found that if people changed their diet at age 60 to include less meat and more legumes, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, their lifespan could increase by eight to nine years.
A 2022 study published in Nutritional Neuroscience followed 3,039 older adults who ate a mostly plant-based diet. The participants performed better on several measures of cognitive functioning, including memory and attention, compared to those who did not follow a plant-forward eating plan.
Data published in 2022 in BMC Medicine revealed that people who followed a vegan or vegetarian eating plan had a 14 percent decreased cancer risk — particularly prostate and breast cancer — compared to people who ate meat more than five times per week.
Plant-based diets have also been found to improve blood sugar control in those with type 2 diabetes compared to conventional diets. And eating a diet rich in nuts, vegetables, and fruit appears to help some people achieve a healthier body weight, according to a 2021 study in the British Journal of Nutrition.
“All the health benefits of a plant-based diet are likely due to the high volume of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds found in plant foods, as well as fiber, healthy fats, and various nutrients,” Palmer says.
One 2019 study in the Journal of Nutrition suggests that vegans and vegetarians may have higher blood levels of several types of health-benefiting antioxidants.
The higher levels of fiber intake often associated with plant-based diets can also result in improvements in the gut microbiome, Palmer says. Your microbiome includes microorganisms that live in your digestive tract that can have a positive impact on digestion, your immune system, and other health measures.
"Diets high in red and processed meats have been linked with higher risk of chronic diseases, due to increased intakes of saturated fats, sodium, heme iron, and compounds in the processing of meat," Palmer says. "Reducing these in the diet by eating more proteins from plants, such as legumes, is also behind the beneficial health effects of plant-based diets."
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What are the best plant-based foods?
Healthy plant-based products are whole, unprocessed foods. These include whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, fruits, colorful vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and olive oil. These provide the most nutritional bang for your buck.
But in a well-balanced, plant-forward diet anchored by whole foods, there is still room for less nutritious options, such as refined grains, baked goods and plant-based burgers, chicken, and sausages.
Recommended reading: Top 5 Plant-Based Sources of Protein for Older Adults
Are there any risks for older adults with following a plant-based diet?
While research shows this is an overall healthy dietary pattern as we age, there can be a few areas of concern.
For instance, a 2022 study in BMC Medicine suggests that older women who adhere to a meat- and fish-free diet can be at an increased risk for hip fractures. The study authors speculate that a contributing factor is a lower intake of a few key nutrients for bone health, including protein, vitamin B12, and vitamin D, which are more easily obtained from animal-based foods.
Vegan diets that supply insufficient amounts of protein have been linked to age-related muscle loss.
Diet surveys do suggest that the intake of vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, and choline is generally lower in plant-based eaters compared to meat-eaters. Over time, these shortfalls can contribute to health issues such as muscle loss and weakened bones.
When transitioning to a plant-heavy diet there can also be some uncomfortable digestive symptoms. A 2020 study in the journal Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology found bloating was a common complaint in people who were eating a high-fiber diet rich in plant proteins.
"Often this occurs because people are increasing their fiber dramatically compared to what they are used to," Palmer says. "So it's better to gradually increase your intake of high-fiber plant foods like whole grains and legumes to reduce digestive side effects."
How can older adults meet all their nutrition needs on a plant-based diet?
It's true that it may be easier to meet your recommended daily intake of protein and vitamin B12 by eating meat and animal products. But with some planning, it's completely possible to obtain these nutrients from a plant-based diet alone.
"It's possible to get adequate nutrition on a plant-only diet with careful planning and eating a wide variety of plant-based foods," Palmer says. "But it is a good idea to meet with a registered dietitian knowledgeable on plant-based nutrition to plan out a healthful meal pattern."
This is especially true for older adults, who are more prone to certain vitamin deficiencies, including vitamin B12 and vitamin D.
To make sure you are meeting all your nutritional goals, look to include a number of these foods that supply essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
- Protein: Beans, lentils, tofu, tempeh, seeds, peanut butter, soy milk, plant-based protein powders
- Iron: Beans, lentils, leafy greens, seeds, potatoes whole grains (Consuming plant-based iron with a source of vitamin C, such as citrus fruit or bell peppers, increases absorption.)
- Vitamin B12: Nutritional yeast, fortified foods and drinks including cereals and some plant-based milks
- Calcium: Almonds, black beans, edamame, leafy greens, seeds, tofu (made with calcium sulphate), fortified foods and drinks
- Vitamin D: Fortified foods and drinks, UV-exposed mushrooms
- Iodine: Seaweed, iodized table salt, prunes
Should I supplement a plant-based diet?
In some cases, Palmer says the use of supplements like vitamin D and vitamin B12 can help fill in any nutritional gaps. She stresses that older individuals who do not include any animal-based foods in their diet need to supplement with vitamin B12. The use of plant-based protein powders such as pea protein can help some people get enough of this important macronutrient.
Research from Loma Linda University involving 34,542 older participants found that a combination of calcium and vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of hip fractures in vegan women. Your physician or a registered dietitian can help you figure out if your diet could benefit from certain supplements.
Recommended reading: Why It’s So Important to Consult Your Doctor Before Taking Supplements
Can a plant-based diet be unhealthy?
As with any eating style, it's certainly possible to eat a less-than-ideal diet when serving mostly plants. And this can largely cancel out the health benefits of a plant-based diet.
A 2017 research paper in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology followed more than 200,000 adults eating plant-based diets. Those who consumed mostly healthy plant-based foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, oils, tea, and coffee) had a lower risk for coronary heart disease.
But those who ate high amounts of unhealthy plant-based foods (juices/sweetened beverages, refined grains, fries, baked goods) experienced an increased risk for heart problems.
A 2020 study in the British Journal of Nutrition using data from nearly 39,000 adults suggests that a plant-based diet high in heavily processed foods was not nearly as protective against premature death as a plant-heavy diet focused on whole foods.
And if you are ordering one of the blossoming variety of vegetarian offerings at fast-food restaurants, be aware that they can come with high amounts of refined grains, sodium, and added sugars.
When it comes to plant-based diets, the key to success is to make whole foods the foundation of your diet, while minimizing your consumption of heavily processed plant foods.
Recommended reading: 8 Rules for Clean Eating
Is a healthy plant-based diet expensive?
Actually, it's the opposite. Grocery shopping on a plant-based diet can help keep more money in your bank account.
A 2021 study in The Lancet Planetary Health focuses on eating patterns from 150 countries. Researchers found in wealthier countries like America, eating a diet higher in plant-based foods may be 22 to 34 percent cheaper when compared with other types of diets.
Meat, fish, and poultry tend to be among the most expensive items on a grocery list, so buying more plant-based foods like lentils and tofu can help trim a grocery bill. It's an even bigger cost-saver if you prepare more of your plant-based meals from scratch instead of relying on more costly packaged meat alternatives.
Is it true that a plant-based diet is good for the planet?
Eating less meat and dairy in favor of more plants can be a big win for the environment. A 2019 study, published in the journal Sustainability, found that meatless meals have more than a 40 percent reduction in environmental impacts including water use, resource consumption, and ecosystem quality.
Greenhouse emissions from dietary sources would drop by about 35 percent if Americans replaced half of the animal-based products in their diet with plant-based foods, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.
Picking more plant-based meals appears to be a big win for Mother Nature.
How can I get started on a plant-based diet?
It can seem overwhelming to make the switch to plant-based eating. But there are ways to ease into it. A plant-based diet for beginners might be simply trying to eat two meatless lunches or dinners each week and then working up from there.
With the rising popularity of plant-based eating, there are nearly countless food blogs and cookbooks that can provide meal inspiration and help you learn what to do with everything from tofu to nutritional yeast.
Another fun way to get started? Choose a new ingredient each week and learn how to prepare it. Maybe you'll try tempeh or adzuki beans. And swap out meats for plants in dishes you are already making.
For instance, try making a pasta Bolognese sauce with mushrooms and lentils instead of ground beef. When you eat at restaurants, see if you can find dishes that don't include meat. And bring plant-based dishes to potlucks and family gatherings.
See our sources:
Overview of plant-based diets: MedlinePlus
What a semi-vegetarian diet looks like: Cleveland Clinic
Benefits to going plant-based after 60: PLOS Medicine
Cognitive health and plant-based eating: Nutritional Neuroscience
How plant-based eating impacts cancer risk: BMC Medicine
Risk of hip fracture with plant-based diet: BMC Medicine
How plant-based diets can help manage body weight: Nutrients
Supplementing a plant-based diet: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
Saving money on a plant-based diet: The Lancet Planetary Health
Environmental benefits to going meatless: Sustainability
Greenhouse emissions from dietary sources: University of Michigan
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