August 2, 2021

The term “plant-based” has become a buzzword in the food industry in recent years. Whereas in the past, the idea of a strictly vegan or vegetarian diet seemed inaccessible or too difficult for many, thanks to plant-based meat substitutes, countless consumers now feel more confident in eliminating meat or reducing animal products in favor of plant-based diets.

But what does “plant-based” truly mean? Does it require going vegan or vegetarian? And is this type of diet right for you? Here’s an overview, plus some tips for getting started on your plant-based diet journey.

Defining “Plant-Based” and Various Diet Options

The good news about plant-based eating is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Based on your individual needs and preferences, you can incorporate variations of a plant-based diet into your lifestyle.

Veganism and Vegetarianism

Those who eat plant-based diets might choose to be strictly vegan, meaning that they consume no animal products whatsoever — including meat, fish, eggs, dairy, or even honey. Generally, people who identify as vegans also make efforts to eliminate other animal products in their lives, like abstaining from wearing leather and using items that include animal by-products or have been tested on animals.

A vegetarian diet can also be considered plant-based, as it incorporates fruits and veggies as primary staples. But whereas vegetarians eliminate meat from their diets, they might include some animal by-products, like eggs, milk, or honey.

Plant-Heavy Diets

The “plant-based” label can also refer to diets that seek to reduce animal products without eliminating them altogether. For example, the whole foods diet and its variations include many of the elements of a vegan or vegetarian diet, with a focus on “clean” or minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, but also allows limited amounts of lean meats, seafood, and eggs.

Healthy salad with nuts, craisins, and bowl of onions

The Mediterranean diet has a strong emphasis on fruits and vegetables, but includes animal products like fish and cheeses a few times a week. Typically, dairy should be fermented and consumed in smaller amounts. Eggs and poultry might be included from time to time, but they’re not a regular part of the Mediterranean diet.

The bottom line is that you can choose to reduce your animal product consumption or start learning plant-based culinary techniques without necessarily giving up meat or dairy.

The Many Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet

When it comes to plant-based eating, there are countless benefits for the individual, the environment, and the world at large.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, plant-based diets (including vegan and vegetarian diets) are nutritionally sound and appropriate for all stages of life, including childhood, adolescence, pregnancy, and older adulthood. Not only do plant-based diets reduce risk of issues like heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes, but they prevent obesity as well.

Escoffier Lead Chef Instructor Stephanie Michalak“Sustainability was a big part of why I was vegan. It was about understanding where our food comes from, understanding the vibrancy of our food when it is in season, and also understanding that food isn’t always sustainable.”
Stephanie Michalak, Escoffier Lead Chef Instructor for Plant-Based Culinary Arts Programs

Environmentally, plant-based diets are a more sustainable option than diets that include animal products. The move to more plant-based eating has resulted in reduced greenhouse gas emissions and widespread water conservation. And since prioritizing sustainability is on the rise, it’s smart to consider ways you can go green with the foods you eat and those you prepare for others.

Ethically speaking, diets that drastically reduce or completely eliminate animal products contribute to decreasing animal exploitation and cruelty in the agricultural industry — from caging and slaughtering to factory farming.

Plant-Based Diets and Their Positive Impacts

  • Studies from the Journal of the American Heart Association concluded that diets high in plant-based foods are associated with a 32% decrease in risks of fatal heart attack, stroke, and heart failure.
  • According to a 2019 study published in The Lancet, a global transition to plant-based eating could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food production by 70% by 2050.
  • During the 2012-2017 Humane Society of the U.S.’s Meatless Monday Campaign in 263 school districts, 399 million meals that would have included meat became vegetarian. 10.3 million animals were saved from this effort alone.

Busting Plant-Based Diet Myths and Misconceptions

Often, people think incorporating a plant-based diet means going strictly vegan or vegetarian. But you can alter your diet to include more plant-based options without giving up animal products altogether. Besides the whole food and Mediterranean diets we discussed above, choices like the semi-vegetarian, pescatarian, or flexitarian diets can keep your options more open.

Farmer holding tomatoes.

There are plenty of horror stories about vitamin deficiencies with a plant-based diet, but there are ways to avoid these issues. The primary nutritional elements to be aware of are vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and zinc. Not getting enough of these can lead to issues like anemia, osteoporosis, and even blindness. Taking supplements and finding plant-based sources of these, if possible, will ensure you keep your body properly fueled with all necessary nutrients.

An equally untrue misconception is that vegan or vegetarian diets are inherently healthy. There are plenty of foods that are technically labeled vegan or vegetarian friendly, and yet are loaded with ingredients like sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. It’s always best to avoid copious amounts of processed foods and unnecessary additives, regardless of whether you’re following a plant-based lifestyle or not.

Shane Witters Hicks, Escoffier Boulder Graduate“One of the ideas that I champion with vegetarian and plant-based cooking is that you should never be stuck in a rut. So many people think that when shifting to a vegetarian diet, you’re confining yourself within these culinary walls. And it feels kind of restrictive to them. But I think by adopting a more plant-centric diet, you actually expand and become more creative. You’re going to be forced to investigate ingredients that you never thought you’d cook with. As a result, it’s actually an expansion of your culinary capacities to cook plant-based dishes.”
Shane Witters Hicks, Escoffier Culinary Arts Graduate, Plant-Based Enthusiast & Private Chef/Educator, The Soulful Spread

And if you’re concerned that a plant-based diet means you’ll use the same ingredients over and over and get bored quickly, don’t worry. Finding and trying various substitutes for animal products is a creative, exploratory process that allows you to broaden your horizons with cooking.

Tips for Starting and Sustaining a Plant-Based Lifestyle

When embarking on the journey of plant-based eating, you can start by making gradual changes to your existing diet. Many people choose to have one day a week (Meatless Mondays, for example) that’s dedicated to eating 100% plant-based meals, or starting to use plant-based ingredient substitutes in their recipes. If you’re currently consuming a lot of animal products, gradual introductions to plant-based dishes also help prepare your body for this transition.

Student cutting an onion in a home cook class

If you’re attempting to go vegetarian or vegan, it’s important to identify meatless protein sources, like lentils and chickpeas, tofu and seitan, and nuts and seeds. Find ways to sprinkle these proteins into your meals, so that you can ensure you’re getting the necessary macronutrients your body needs.

Just as important, be sure to get plenty of healthy fats and carbohydrates in your diet to avoid energy crashes. Fruits and veggies are great carbohydrate sources, but whole grains like oats, barley, and buckwheat are beneficial, too. Nut butters and plant-based oils (like avocado, coconut, or olive oil) are healthy sources of fat.

Monitor how you feel along the way. Keep a food journal and notice how different meals affect your body. For instance, some who go plant-based find that certain foods make them bloat, while other foods give them lots of mental clarity. Keep an eye on your sleep, energy levels, moods, and changes in any medical conditions you may have.

plant based dish with rolls in a tray covered with sauce

Educational Opportunities for Aspiring Plant-Based Chefs

If you’re interested in learning to prepare plant-based meals for the many, you might consider formal training from experts. Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts offers online or in-person programs dedicated to plant-based culinary arts and cuisines.

Shane Witters Hicks, Escoffier Boulder Graduate“The world needs to know how good plant-based is,” Shane says. “We need more people who understand where the carnivores are coming from, and welcome them into the world of a ‘Meatless Monday.’”
Shane Witters Hicks, Escoffier Culinary Arts Graduate, Plant-Based Enthusiast & Private Chef/Educator, The Soulful Spread

Contact us today to learn about our plant-based course offerings and how you can build your knowledge of industry best practices in a flexible, interactive learning environment. Escoffier’s courses on plant-based cuisines are taught by knowledgeable and credentialed Chef Instructors with extensive industry experience.

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