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The Value of a Plant-Based Diet: Cynthia Sass Explains

The Value of a Plant-Based Diet: Cynthia Sass Explains

In the second in our series of conversations with Cynthia Sass (MPH, MA, RD, CSSD), UPGRAID's nutrition consultant weighs in on why plant-based diets are growing in popularity and how they differ from the public's understanding of vegan and vegetarian diets.

UPGRAID: What's the difference between a vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based diet?

Cynthia Sass: Veganism excludes all animal products, meaning no meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, or any ingredients derived from animal sources, including honey and gelatin. Veganism also generally extends to a lifestyle that involves not using any materials derived from animals. These include leather, fur, wool, and silk, as well as household products or cosmetics made with or tested on animals.      

Vegetarianism generally means that no meat, poultry, or seafood is consumed. Eggs and/or dairy are typically included in a vegetarian diet. People who eat eggs as the only animal protein are called ovo-vegetarians. Those who eat dairy only are lacto-vegetarians, and people who eat both are deemed lacto-ovo-vegetarians. Pescatarian is a title for people who do eat fish and seafood but no meat or poultry.

While there is no one universally accepted definition of a plant-based diet, most experts agree that it means primarily eating plants, although small or occasional amounts of any type of animal protein many be included.

UPGRAID: Plant-based diets are growing in popularity. Why do you think that’s happening?

Cynthia Sass: There are three core issues that attract people to plant-based eating: better health, environmental protection, and animal welfare. Many adopt a plant-based diet for its numerous health benefits. There is also a strong connection between plant-based eating and the health of the planet. A recent Harvard report, the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, states, “food is the single strongest lever to optimize human health and environmental sustainability,” and calls for a primarily plant-based diet. And many consumers have concerns about the ethics of eating animals, or the treatment of animals for food production.  

UPGRAID: What are the health benefits of adopting a plant-based diet?

Cynthia Sass: When done properly, plant-based eating offer numerous health benefits. Whole food plant-based diets are associated with lower body weight and a reduced risk of several chronic conditions, including heart disease and cancer - the nation’s top two killers - as well as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cognitive decline.

UPGRAID: Nutritionally speaking, what kinds of mistakes do people make, when they go with a plant-based diet?

Cynthia Sass: One common mistake is eating plant-based “junk.” Foods like donuts, cookies, candy, and chips can be made from entirely plant-derived ingredients, but highly processed plant products don’t offer the vital nutrients found in whole plant foods. Another common misstep is not eating a wide enough variety of plant foods to obtain a broad spectrum of nutrients and amino acids. Also, some new plant-based eaters don’t know how to properly balance meals. For example, if you simply remove meat but don’t replace it with a plant-based protein source you can fall short on total protein, as well as key minerals. Another common blunder is not knowing which plant foods supply important nutrients that were previously obtained from animal sources, such as calcium and iron. Reaping the benefits of a plant-based diet requires some knowledge and planning.  

UPGRAID: Plant-based diets are becoming popular among athletes. Can an athlete meet all of her or her nutrient needs on a fully plant-based diet?

Cynthia Sass: Yes. It is possible to obtain all of the necessary nutrients on an entirely plant-based diet, including protein, even if you are a competitive or professional athlete. The key is learning about which plant foods contain key nutrients, and becoming thoughtful and strategic about meal planning.   

UPGRAID: What are some nutrition resources that may be helpful to someone who is interested in going plant-based?  

Cynthia Sass: In my opinion the very best resource is a consultation with a registered dietitian who specializes in plant-based diets. He or she can answer questions, tailor a plan based on personalized needs, and advise about how to supplement properly if needed. If you can’t consult with a dietitian, look for books about plant-based eating written by dietitians, or visit the consumer-focused website of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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