What Exactly Is a Plant-Based Diet?

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Nicole Franzen)

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” It’s hard to imagine the prevailing ideas of what healthy eating means without this famous pronouncement from Michael Pollan, which in its reductive simplicity carries a kind of relief from the fluctuations of modern nutritional science. So simple, so memorable — nothing to avoid, but everything to gain from a renewed focus on plants. It could even be seen as the unspoken mantra of plant-based eating.

What is plant-based eating? Just vegetarianism, no? Veganism? No. While many practitioners do avoid meat, plant-based eating is a diverse and fascinating approach to food, nutrition, and feeding oneself well that comes in many inspiring different forms.

What Is Plant-Based Eating?

“Plant-based eating” may summon a certain kind of imagery: rustic grains and bountiful kale, golden turmeric tinctures, earthenware bowls overflowing with farmers market roughage.

But beyond the romance, what does this kind of eating actually entail? For some, it mimics a vegan diet. Others continue to work animal products, like honey or cheese, into the repertoire. While the term has surged in popularity in recent years, it lacks a clear-cut definition.

All of the cooks I spoke with seem to agree that “plant-based” connotes more of a holistic lifestyle, rather than an ironclad set of dos and don’ts.

(Image credit: Laura Wright)

Vegetarianism in Abundance

In plant-based eating, the focus is on adding to your plate, not on eliminating foods, says blogger and author Laura Wright of The First Mess. “It’s a preference to fill out your plate with more produce and plant products,” Wright tells me. “It’s a focus on abundance and what you want out of life in terms of your food, not on the denial of certain things.”

That sense of abundance is what Hetty McKinnon of Arthur Street Kitchen says defines her style of cooking and eating, with a focus on what’s on the plate — not what isn’t. “I’m constantly trying to approach it as if it’s a full meal … look how inclusive this dish is, not what it’s missing,” McKinnon says.

Like Wright, McKinnon does avoid meat, but you’d be hard-pressed to find the word vegetarian prominently attached to their work; they both tend to market their recipes and themselves with words that emphasize this sense of abundance rather than a strict category.

(Image credit: Nicole Franzen)

A More Inclusive Focus on Vegetables

Inclusivity is key to Jessica Murnane (above) whose work with One Part Plant, a community and cookbook, is all about reaching a wider audience with accessible recipes, widely available ingredients, and simple, gradual shifts made one meal at a time.

While Murnane’s recipes are vegetarian, she doesn’t advocate for a wholly vegetarian diet. Rather than defining eating in strict black-and-white terms, she encourages her audience to eat one plant-based meal a day, and thinks of plant-based as “whole foods that are as close to the original source as possible.”

Murnane adds that she also looks to the definition developed by T. Colin Campbell, author of the China Study: “A plant-based diet is composed of minimally processed or not processed at all fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains, legumes.”

(Image credit: Deborah Madison)

Classic Vegetarianism

Deborah Madison, the James Beard award-winning cookbook author who’s been described as the Julia Child of vegetarian cooking, wrote the pioneering Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone in 1997 — but initially, she says, “I actually toyed with the idea of calling it ‘Plant-Based Cooking for Everyone.'” She opted for the more self-explanatory title because “plant-based,” at that point, sounded awkward and foreign.

These days? Not so much. “The term is much more common and accepted today than it was 20 years ago,” she tells me.

(Image credit: Hetty McKinnon)

From Vegetarian (and Vegan) to Plant-Based

In recent years, the term has seen an uptick in use (although some journals have used the term in peer-reviewed articles, like this one from 1999, for many years prior to it entering the broader vernacular).

Murnane says that, for all the social media chatter emerging around the terminology in recent years, the diet itself is really quite ancient. “It seems like this is a new concept, but it’s not — there are cultures all over the world that eat primarily plant-based,” she says. “It’s not really that new; we’re just packaging it up like it is.”

Wright recalls “plant-based” initially gaining a mainstream foothold around 2012 or 2013, and McKinnon equates it with the rise of food in social media, saying that people nowadays are more keen to give themselves labels.

Interestingly, McKinnon adds that the term seems to be particularly prominent in North America: “when I write my books for Australia, they take out every reference to plant-based,” she says. “It’s not a label at all there.”

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

A Seasonal, Regional Approach to Vegetables

While some plant-based dieters consider themselves vegan and others follow a slightly looser framework, most tend to prioritize eating with the seasons and making use of what’s regionally available, too. “You can be vegan and not care about what season it is, and buy tomatoes in January,” says Wright. “But plant-based takes into account what is happening in your region that’s in season to eat right now. It takes into consideration the community at large, where you’re sourcing stuff from.”

Madison, too, says her definition of plant-based prioritizes freshness, seasonality, provenance, and ingredient integrity. “For me, it has to do with eating vegetables that grow where I live,” she says. “It means growing what I can or shopping at the farmers market for lively and delicious produce, avoiding big organic and GMO foods as much as possible, seeking out grains and beans that are also well-grown, and eating plants whose life didn’t endanger farm workers and others.”

(Image credit: Nicole Franzen)

For Murnane, that sense of openness is crucial in order for the plant-based movement to move forward and ultimately reach a wider audience outside of wellness circles and Instagram feeds. “I love the idea of wanting to make sure we do it ‘the right way,’ but I also think that’s dependent on the person, their budget, where they live, and their overall circumstances,” she says. “I think sometimes when we [add] all these rules, that can make people feel like they’re doing it wrong, or maybe not even want to start to begin with.”

Heirloom tomatoes and locally farmed radishes are great, Murnane says, but perhaps a single, working parent in a small town doesn’t have access to those ingredients. Or perhaps a busy, pressed-for-time home cook doesn’t have the time for big, grandiose projects like making almond milk or brown rice pasta from scratch. In Murnane’s eyes, that’s perfectly okay.

Speaking to those readers, she says, is essential not just to One Part Plant, but to this way of eating in general. “I want everyone to feel better, not just people who can afford cacao,” Murnane says. “It’s important to me for everyone to feel included in this, to feel like they can do it, because scrolling through Instagram or looking through a cookbook, it doesn’t always resonate, but they have every right to also feel amazing.”

(Image credit: Nicole Franzen)

What Does Plant-Based Eating Look Like Every Day?

So, how do these principles translate into real life on a day-to-day basis? For Wright, a typical day of eating might entail a warm whole-grain porridge with fruit or a smoothie loaded with greens and healthy fats; grains and greens drizzled in a homemade sauce or dressing for lunch; and big salads loaded with grilled veggies, or perhaps a lentil-based pasta tossed with produce for dinner.

“It’s very vegetable-forward,” she says. “The whole day, I’m trying to work fruits or vegetables into every meal, while grains and nuts are the supporting role.”

While the phrase, and how it manifests, may look slightly different to everyone, the consensus seems to be that “plant-based” isn’t just about not eating meat or trying to consume a predetermined amount of produce per day — it’s about celebrating plants, rather than relegating them to a side dish or augmenting them with meat substitutes, and doing so with integrity.

For some cooks, that means an opportunity to challenge yourself, too. McKinnon says that, for her, working from a more limited span of ingredients ultimately yields more creative results. “You have to work harder to create certain flavors and textures, but the rewards, I think, are far greater.”