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The difference between a vegan and a plant-based diet

Is a plant-based diet the same thing as a vegan diet? Both meal plans have made headlines for their health benefits in recent years and while they are similar, there are some key differences: Vegan diets eliminate all animal products, while plant-based diets do not necessarily eliminate animal products, but focus on eating mostly plants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

What is a vegan diet?

“With a vegan diet, you eliminate all animal products, including dairy, meat, poultry, fish, eggs and honey,” says Christine Kirlew, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Piedmont.

Some people choose to follow a vegan diet for ethical, environmental or health reasons. While going vegan can have health benefits, there are some pitfalls to avoid.

“Just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy,” she says. “If you’re vegan, you can still technically eat vegan cookies, potato chips and other vegan junk food, which can be high in calories and low in nutrients. I recommend sticking to whole foods as much as possible.”

What is a plant-based diet?

“With a plant-based diet, you can decide whether or not you want to consume animal products, and the focus is on eating mostly foods that come from plant sources,” says Dr. Kirlew.

Plant-based diets also emphasize eating whole foods, meaning the food has undergone little – if any – processing and is as close to its natural state as possible.

Plant-based foods include:

What is the right meal plan for you?

“Regardless of what meal plan you choose, everyone’s diet should ideally consist of 50 percent vegetables,” says Dr. Kirlew. “Fruit is healthy too, but I like to focus on vegetables because they have less sugar.”

When building your plate, aim for:

  • 50 percent vegetables

  • 25 percent whole grains

  • 25 percent lean protein

“If you are not eating meat or other animal proteins like eggs, try beans or quinoa for plant-based protein,” she says. “And if you want to have meat occasionally, stick to lean meat, fish or poultry.”

Adding healthy fats – such as avocado oil when roasting veggies, a sprinkle of slivered almonds on your oatmeal or sliced avocado on your salad – will help you feel full for longer. And healthy fats have numerous other health benefits.

When to talk to your doctor about your diet

“It’s a good idea to see your primary care doctor to get a basic framework for what a healthy diet should look like for you, particularly if you have an underlying health condition or have had weight loss surgery, which can affect how your body processes nutrients,” says Dr. Kirlew. “For example, if you have diabetes and want to eat healthily, you wouldn’t necessarily want to eat a lot of fruit.”

Also, if you are vegan, vegetarian or don’t eat many animal products, she recommends asking your doctor to check your B vitamin levels.

“B12 deficiency is common in vegans because it’s a nutrient found mostly in animal products,” she explains. “If you don’t consume many animal products, talk to your doctor about taking a supplement.”

Calcium is another important nutrient that can be hard to get when you don’t eat dairy products. Dr. Kirlew recommends trying calcium-fortified plant-based milk (like almond milk) or other calcium-fortified foods.

“If you’re not getting three servings of calcium-rich foods each day, ask your doctor about adding a supplement,” she says. “Try to get at least some calcium from your diet because taking too many calcium supplements can cause adverse side effects.”

Is a vegan or plant-based diet healthy?

If you eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats and whole grains, you should still get a good chunk of your daily vitamins and minerals because plant-based foods are high in many nutrients.

“If you’re going to follow a vegan or plant-based diet, think through it carefully and plan out your meals,” says Dr. Kirlew. “You don’t necessarily have to go vegan to be healthy – plant-based is a good option for people who struggle with consistency and planning. If you are going to commit to a vegan diet, make a plan and be consistent about incorporating all the healthy food groups, including plant-based protein, so you don’t miss out on nutrients.”

Dr. Kirlew practices at Piedmont Physicians Buckhead, located at 35 Collier Road Northwest, Suite 775, Atlanta, GA 30309. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Kirlew or another primary care physician online. Save time, book online.

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