What is a plant-based diet? AICR’s take

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You’ve committed to eat healthier and reduce cancer risk by following a plant-based diet – congrats! But if you’ve been looking for a good plan and are confused about what a plant-based diet looks like, you’re not alone. Vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, flexitarian – what exactly is a plant-based diet?

Plant-based diet is a pretty generic term, interpreted many different ways. In it’s broadest definition, a plant-based diet is a diet built around a plate filled with mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. However it is defined, researchers, dietitians and other health care professionals widely agree that a plant-based diet offers powerful health benefits, including lower risk for cancer and many other chronic diseases. AICR evidence shows that eating whole grains, vegetables and other plant foods contribute to cancer protection. Choosing a diet that puts plant foods first also helps support a healthy weight – the most important lifestyle factor for reducing cancer risk, other than not smoking.

Defining Plant-Based Diets

Here’s a few of the more common plant-based diets you may have come across. All can be cancer protective

  • Flexitarian: mostly plant foods, but can include dairy, eggs, fish and occasionally meat
  • Pescatarian: mostly plant foods but can include dairy, eggs and fish
  • Vegetarian: mostly plant foods but can include dairy and/or eggs
  • Vegan: only plant foods; no dairy, eggs, fish, seafood, poultry, meat or other animal-derived foods
  •  AICR’s Cancer-Protective Diet: mostly plant foods, can include dairy, eggs, fish, poultry and moderate amounts of meat.

AICR’s Flexible, Colorful Plant-Based Diet

Almost 20 years ago, AICR defined and began promoting a plant-based diet for cancer prevention. At that time, the center of the plate typically contained a substantial portion of meat, so our New American Plate – filled with at least 2/3 plant foods, 1/3 or less animal foods – embodied a new, healthy, cancer-protective way to balance plant and animal foods.

One important principle to keep in mind for all these options – choose whole foods and foods with minimal processing and little added sugar and fat. A plate that regularly contains fried foods, sweets and other highly processed foods with added sugar and fat – even if all plant foods – isn’t healthy.

You can achieve a cancer-protective plate by following any of these healthful plant-based diets, from vegan to pescatarian to AICR’s New American Plate. One important principle to keep in mind for all these options – choose foods with minimal processing and little added sugar and fat. Think frozen fruit, vegetables or cooked whole grains, canned beans, bags of shredded or chopped fresh vegetables, and fruit and nut snacks. A plate that regularly contains fried foods, sweets and other highly processed foods with added sugar and fat – even if all plant foods – isn’t healthy.

As you embark on your new healthy eating adventure by using the New American Plate principles, choose what healthy plant-based diet works best for you. What matters most is to center your meals around plant foods and choose modest portions of animal foods.

For weekly guidance on starting – or continuing – a plant-based diet, join our next New American Plate Challenge, a 12-week online program for weight loss and cancer prevention.

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    Author: Alice RD

    Alice G. Bender, MS, RDN, is the Director of Nutrition Programs at AICR. She helps put the science of cancer prevention by providing tips and tools to choose nutritious and delicious foods. Alice has guided thousands of individuals to healthier lives through diet changes and choices.

    3 thoughts on “What is a plant-based diet? AICR’s take”

    1. This is such an informative blog – thank you! One question I have is where/how mixed nuts (low salt) fit into a plant based diet as a source of protein and alternative to meat.

      1. Thanks! All varieties of nuts provide protein and fit nicely into a plant based diet. On average, about 1/4 cup of nuts is a serving and provides anywhere from 3-7 grams of protein. (By comparison, one ounce of meat has about 7 grams of protein.) So a handful as a snack, sprinkled over oatmeal or yogurt, added to soups, stews and salads can help boost protein, fiber and healthy fats.

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