You may hear the phrase "plant-based diet" more and more lately and for good reason as research shows that it plays an important role in cardiovascular disease risk reduction.

Buzzword: Plant-Based Diet

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You may hear the phrase "plant-based diet" more and more lately and for good reason as research shows that it plays an important role in cardiovascular disease risk reduction.

What is a plant-based diet?

It is typically defined as a "whole-foods, low-fat, plant-based diet" that includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts (in small amounts) with the total absence of meat and dairy.1 Foods included in the plant-based diet are nutrient dense and low in calories which allows for no restrictions on portion sizes of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. However, it does restrict nuts, seeds and avocados to small portions, defining the diet at low-fat. Omega-3 fatty acid rich foods such as ground flax seed and chia seeds are unlimited. Overall, plant-based diet guidelines recommend consuming 10% of calories from fat, 15-20% of calories from protein, and 70-75% from carbohydrates.2

How is this different than a vegan diet?

The vegan diet excludes all animal products such as meat, seafood, and dairy with no specific guidelines on avoiding or limiting processed foods with excess sugar or fat (for example Oreo's are vegan).

Why should we consider plant-based eating?

Heart disease is the number one killer in America. Take a look at other countries around the world with low rates of cardiovascular disease, they are consuming mostly plant-based diets. A study from the Lifestyle Heart Trial showed that 82% of the patients diagnosed with heart disease who followed a plant-based diet had some level of regression of atherosclerosis.2

If it is proven to reduce risk of heart disease, what about diabetes? In a study comparing a low-fat vegan diet with the American Diabetes Association diet guidelines, 43% of the participants following the vegan diet reduced their diabetes medications compared to only 26% of the ADA participants. The vegan diet participants also saw a greater decrease in their HbA1C (an average measure of blood glucose over a 3 month period).3

How do I take step towards plant-based eating?

Maybe you are not ready to jump into total plant-based fanfare, but you would like to incorporate more plant based meals into your diet. First, think about the meatless meals you are already making, like a lentil soup or vegetarian lasagna and make adjustments to include whole grains.

If you plan to go full speed ahead with plant based eating one health care system recommends the following:

  • Start your meal with a soup or salad
  • Fill half of your plate with legumes/whole grains/starchy vegetables + half with non-starchy vegetables
  • Finish the meal with a piece of fresh fruit1

The Bottom Line:

Increasing plant foods and substituting plant protein for animal protein is associated with improved cardiovascular risk factors and beneficial to your overall health.

As always, talk to a medical professional before making changes to your diet if you have a chronic disease and/or medical condition. If eating a strict plant-based diet, you may need to supplement vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D and iron as these are predominantly found in animal products.


  1. Tuso PJ, Ismail MH, Ha BP, et al. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets. Perm J Spring; 17(2): 61-66. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7812/TPP/12-085
  2. Ornish D, Brown SE, Scherwitz LW, et al. Can lifestyle changes reverse coronary heart disease? The Lifestyle Heart Trial. Lancet 1990 July 21; 336(8708):129-33. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0140-6736(90)91656-U
  3. Barnard ND, Cohen J, Jenkins DJ, et al. A low-fat vegan diet improves glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in a randomized clinical trial in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 2006 Aug; 29(8):1777-83. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.2337/dc06-0606

Jessica Shickel is a Registered Dietitian, a graduate of James Madison University, and an inpatient clinical dietitian at Sentara RMH Medical Center in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Jessica is passionate about educating patients on vital nutrition changes that can benefit all aspects of health and wellness.