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What Is a Plant-Based Diet? Facts and Myths You Should Know

Originally published March 17, 2022

Last updated October 23, 2023

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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Brittany Gurney, RD, a registered dietitian who specializes in clinical nutrition at Keck Medicine of USC, explains what’s true and what’s not about plant-based diets.

Diet patterns across the world are diverse and can be unique to every individual and community. Some diets, like plant-based options, can also be misunderstood. If you’ve ever considered switching to a plant-based diet, here are some key facts to know and a few myths to debunk. 

Myth 1: Plant-based eating means becoming a vegan or vegetarian.

In plant-based eating, much of your food and liquid intake comes from plant-derived sources, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and oils. But following a plant-based diet does not necessarily mean that a person is vegan or vegetarian. A plant-based diet may still include meats, seafood and dairy. However, the majority of what you eat will be made up of plant-based food sources.

Myth 2: Plant-based diets don’t provide enough protein.

It’s possible to meet all your protein needs from a plant-based diet. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently recommends a daily allowance of 0.8 grams (per kilogram of body weight) of protein per day. It’s important to note that protein needs do vary widely from one person to the next — some individuals will need more protein than the daily recommendation set by the USDA.

Plant-based foods that are rich in protein include nuts, seeds, peas, legumes and beans. For more information on the amount of protein found in common foods — both plant-based and animal-derived sources — this USDA guide may help.

If you’re interested in eating a plant-based diet, consider the importance of shopping smart and integrating your own individual preferences into your diet.

Brittany Gurney, MS, RD, CNSC

Myth 3: Plant-based eating is more expensive.

Plant-based diets can be perceived as being more expensive because of their high intake of fruits and vegetables. But making the switch to a plant-based diet menu doesn’t always mean a higher cost. A study that compared plant-based meal plans to those that included more meat found that plant-based options could potentially offer up to $750 a year in savings.

Keep in mind that a plant-based diet can creep up in cost, if you’re purchasing more packaged plant-based products and processed plant-derived meat substitutes. Choosing more expensive brands can also increase spending.

The potential health benefits of a plant-based diet are also worth considering. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, adding more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to your diet may reduce your risk of heart disease and other conditions. In the long run, a plant-based diet may help reduce the cost of future medical bills.

Fact 1: Not all plant-based diets are healthy.

If your plant-based diet relies heavily on products like processed meat substitutes, packaged goods, plant-based baked goods, juices and refined grains, you may be stripping away the healthy properties that you would be receiving from whole plants.

Instead, consider options like whole and less-processed vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains that are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These nutrients, included regularly in your diet, are important for a healthy lifestyle.

Fact 2: Plant-based diets are more sustainable than meat-based diets.

The Food and Agriculture Organization defines sustainable diets as those which have a low impact on the environment and help with food and nutrition security.

Some research suggests that more plant-based diet patterns may contribute toward minimizing climate change. Choosing a plant-based way of eating can be a healthy choice for you and, potentially, your environment too.

If you’re interested in eating a plant-based diet, consider the importance of shopping smart and integrating your own individual preferences into your diet. Working with a registered dietitian may also help you adopt a plant-based diet that’s right for you and set long-term wellness goals.

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Brittany Gurney, MS, RD, CNSC
Brittany Gurney, MS, RD, CNSC, is an outpatient dietitian at Keck Medicine of USC.

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