Plant-based meals: How healthy are they really?

These days, it seems that everyone is more aware that what they are eating impacts the planet – and that’s a good thing! But while plant-based meals are becoming more common at restaurants and supermarkets, are they actually good for us? Here, we explore the healthy truth behind plant-based meals so you can make the right decisions for you.

What kind of plant-based diets are there?

Plant-based meals are simply foods that are derived from plants (i.e. there are no animal sources or artificial ingredients within the food). People have been following plant-based diets for decades, but it’s only recently that plant-based meals have become the centre of attention. You can’t visit a grocery store these days without seeing food labelled with ‘made from plants’ or ‘vegan’.

The popularity of plant-based diets has grown increasingly over the last few years – according to Roy Morgan research, around 2.5 million Australians (12.1% of the population) have diets that are entirely, or almost entirely, vegetarian. Some of the most common ones include:

  • Vegetarian: A diet that abstains from eating any meat, poultry or fish products. Some vegetarians still eat foods with animal by-products, such as milk, cheese and eggs (lacto-ovo vegetarians). People who eat fish but otherwise follow a vegetarian diet are called pescatarians.
  • Vegan: A much stricter vegetarian diet that abstains from eating any animal product, including eggs and dairy. Many vegans also won’t use everyday products (e.g. soap) that includes animal by-products or has been tested on them.
  • Raw vegan: A vegan diet that only includes foods that are plant-based, raw and unprocessed.
  • Flexitarian: As the name suggests, a flexitarian is more flexible in their diet – they usually follow a vegetarian diet but also consume meat and fish occasionally.

Top benefits of following a plant-based diet

As with any diet, some people will tell you it can help with everything from lowering your body weight to curing cancer – but the truth is a bit more boring than that. The good news is that science backs plant-based foods as contributing to a healthy diet. Here are some of the top benefits:

What to look out for when switching to plant-based

Following this type of diet means you could be missing out on vital micronutrients that are naturally present in meat and dairy. Although much of the time you can take supplements to balance out your gut health.

While it can be extremely beneficial to your health to follow a plant-based diet, mass-produced meals can sometimes be just as unhealthy as some junk foods. Buying the fruit and vegetables and creating your own meals, rather than sticking to the store-bought plant meals, can be an alternative if you have the time, but it’s not necessarily achievable for everyone. Instead, be sure to read the nutrition chart on all store-bought meals to ensure you are still consuming a balanced diet.

How to make sure the plant-based foods you’re eating are good for you

Whether you’re looking to start a vegetarian diet or you’re a by-the-book carnivore, the rules of healthy eating are exactly the same: everything in moderation, and always read food labels to understand what you are eating. You might think being totally plant-based is healthy, but if you don’t read the labels then you could be consuming much more sodium than regular meat eaters – which can put your health at risk over time.

One way you might like to start being a bit healthier with plant-based foods is to slowly incorporate them into your weekly routine. Is Monday usually lasagne night? Why not swap it out with an eggplant-based vegetarian lasagne? Or if you’re looking forward to a Friday night in front of the footy with a juicy burger, why not make your own veggie-based patty that is just as delicious – but much better for your body?

As with every diet, it’s important to consult your doctor before making any significant changes to your lifestyle. Also, don’t rush yourself. Health isn’t a race – it’s about the journey of living well while achieving long-term wellness.