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Dissecting 'plant-based'.... (the impact of words)

A magazine this week has declared itself a ‘meat-free issue’.


And I have recently seen a number of Facebook declarations where friends are switching to ‘plant-based eating’.


So it got me wondering: when did we stop using the terms vegetarian and vegan in these contexts? ... And then I was wondering what plant-based even means -

and what influence does this new term have on our decision-making around food?


Note: this is not a case for or against a certain way of eating – it’s more about the terms we use and the marketing we see, and whether it hinders or helps us in our quest for a healthy lifestyle.



Can you remember when you first heard the term ‘plant-based’ eating? I can’t. I just know that it seems to be used in almost every article about nutrition, many social media posts, a bunch of podcasts and documentaries, and that many people are now switching to ‘a plant-based diet’.


The first question for me is: what does plant-based mean?


My initial interpretation was ‘a diet that is based on a foundation of plants; that plants make up the majority of one's nutrition’. But the more I see the term, the more it seems to me that it is being used by many as a replacement for ‘vegan’ or in some cases, ‘vegetarian’.


It’s unclear, and that in itself is a problem for me. When we’re having conversations, when we’re reading articles, or when we’re making purchases, how do we make informed decisions if we don’t know the basis on which we are deciding.


Even in The GameChanger, the much lauded Netflix doco, the term plant-based is used throughout which, I believe, many have interpreted as vegan (I have to admit to not watching it yet) – yet, one review of the documentary claims the studies and sources quoted in the doco are related to vegetarianism and not veganism. The review was posted on Dr Paul Saladino’s website (1) , a proponent of the carnivore diet, so make of that what you will; but the review itself was written by nutritionist Tim Rees – I found it very interesting and entertainingly written.


There are plant-based food trucks, plant-based supplements, plant-based diet plans……even plant-based meat!


So why is it that this - and yes I am going to call it ‘trendy’ – word has taken off and is currently one of the latest nutrition hypes?


If you look back over the decades, there are changing recommendations from the health boards, new diets that have taken storm, fads that have been quickly adopted and just as quickly forgotten.


What is driving the new plant-based craze? For some people it’s for environmental reasons, for others it’s health. And I think it’s likely that for some people, it’s also a case of having tried everything else, why not give this a go. If this is a decision you’ve made recently or many years ago, then good for you. I'm not critical of how anyone eats. I believe it's important to do what feels right for you, your body and your lifestyle.


But if we take ‘plant-based’ to mean ‘the exclusion of all animal products’, isn’t this just straight forward veganism??? And if it is, then did we really need another word for it?


A purist vegan will not only not consume animal-derived ingredients, but will also not purchase anything sourced from animals eg leather shoes, some cosmetics and so on. Is this the same if you are a plant-based eater? I don’t know. Maybe that’s the differentiator. Maybe veganism is more concerned with animal rights and the environment and is more a lifestyle choice, and maybe plant-based is focused on nutrition and health?


Does the word ‘vegan’ have connotations that are not fashionable? Was it felt by the marketers that a new term was needed that was more inclusive, didn’t conjure up a picture of skinny, tree-hugging hippies (2) ?


Certainly vegan author Ellen Jaffe Jones thought so, as she stated in a 2015 interview:


“I taught cooking classes for the national non-profit, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, and during that time, the phrase "plant-based diet" came to be used as a euphemism for vegan eating, or "the 'v' word." It was developed to take the emphasis off the word vegan, because some associated it with being too extreme a position, sometimes based exclusively in animal rights versus a health rationale.”(1)


Vegan has a clear-cut definition and is understood worldwide. In my opinion, plant-based doesn’t and isn’t. It’s flexible. It’s eating lots of plant-derived foods or it’s eating no meat or it’s consuming no animal products, as defined by the individual.


So when we purchase something, how do we know what we’re getting? When we’re following a prototcol or when we’re watching documentaries, how can we be sure of their definitions? Wouldn't it just be easier to stick to a word we already know?


So, the next question is: should we all be following a plant-based diet now?


I’m not going to go into the ins and out of the nutritional benefits of meat-eating v those of veganism. As I mentioned, there is plenty of info out there about the pros and cons and I am not a dietician or clinical nutritionist.


From a personal perspective: I am not a vegan or a vegetarian. I enjoy eating meat, I believe there are health benefits. However, I do think reviewing the quantity and quality of meat is worth considering.


From a coaching perspective: I work with clients whether they eat meat or not, and no matter what their reason. You all know how much I believe that there is not a single health approach for everyone. For some people, animal protein can be hugely beneficial healthwise, for others ensuring they have enough carbohydrates is critical, and for others a focus on fruit and vegetables can make the difference. And we can determine much of this through understanding our healthtype through some epigenetic profiling – how the genes express themselves through our lifestyle choices.


However, maybe the popularity and widening reach of the term ‘plant-based’ actually helps to raise awareness of the benefits of eating non-animal based nutrients. And that’s a good thing. Suffice to say that we have known for eons that eating fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds is good for us (although, yes, I know there are people out there who will disagree). And I expect most of you will admit that we could all do better in that area.

In my view, working towards a 'plant-rich' diet would be a great start towards a healthier lifestyle.


Of course, that’s assuming that plant-based eating equals wholefoods. But there is a growing number of ‘plant-based’ foods out there that you could argue are just as processed (maybe more so?) as non plant-based foods. I get that vegans are just as busy as everyone else and may want the convenience of packaged foods. But if you’re going down the plant-based (aka vegan) route, particularly for health reasons, please remember to check ingredients on the products you’re buying.


The thing is, even the nutrition PhDs, biochemists, dieticians, public health experts and athletes can’t agree on whether a meat-based or plant-based diet is ‘best’ for us. Pretty much every point of view can be supported or refuted with scientific studies.


You can watch one documentary and believe that all top athletes are vegan, listen to podcasts that explain why a meat-only (yes that’s right: meat only, no plants) diet is better for performance. And everything inbetween.


And I’d argue that ‘inbetween’ is likely to be the best route for most of us. Medical conditions aside, most of us would benefit from a diet with a high degree of variety across the main food groups, and then diversity within each food group too.


In the face of these trends and fads – of which there are many and will no doubt continue to be, it’s important not to lose sight of reality….to continue to get back to basics and the fundamentals of health…and to remember that what works for one person is different from what will work for the next. Get to grips with what makes your own body tick, and let it, and not the media hype, define which path you take.



(1) Rees, T. (Undated) Retrieved from: https://carnivoremd.com/debunking-the-game-changers/

(2) Thomas, M. (undated) Crazy vegan stereotypes smashed Retrieved from: https://vegnews.com/2016/7/5-crazy-vegan-stereotypessmashed

(3) Stark, M. (2015) Wellness experts weigh in on the vegan diet. Retrieved from: https://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/food/cooking/wellness-experts-weigh-in-on-the-vegan-diet/2231007/