Plant curious? How to find a plant-based diet to suit you

Reducetarian, flexitarian, pegan – there are so many plant-based diets sprouting up it’s hard to keep track. Here’s what you need to know about getting on the green bandwagon.

If you’re concerned about your health – or the health of animals and the planet – chances are you’ve considered a plant-based diet.

But while scientific evidence for the benefits of going meat-free may be piling up, not everybody has the stomach to go “full vegan”.

Enter the “plant curious” – a growing number of people who reserve the right to eat the occasional steak while they explore their plant-based options.

What’s driving the plant-based diet boom?

Monash University dietitian Merran Blair says while in the past people predominantly adopted a plant-based diet for health reasons, the focus was beginning to shift.

“We are now more aware of the added reasons of planetary health and the welfare of animals,” Merran says.

“I think this movement will continue to grow and it will benefit all of us, not just as individuals but as a planet.”

What are the health benefits of plant-based eating?

There’s a wealth of evidence to suggest eating fewer animal products can reduce your risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, overall mortality rates and improve cognition.

Dietitian and nutritionist Mark Surdut says a diet rich in plants is definitely a healthy choice.

“We should all strive to at least ensure that the bulk of what we eat is real and plant-based,” Mark says.

“The benefits include more or adequate fibre to support the integrity of a healthy gut, more antioxidant nutrients, and less fat.”

Is there a downside to plant-based diets?

Holistic nutritionist Elly McLean says while plant-based diets are very healthy, it’s important to ensure a balanced diet rich in nutrients.

“Some nutrients just can’t be obtained on a plant-based diet,” Elly says.

“The American Dietetic Association has highlighted 7 key nutrients requirements to consider on a plant-based diet including iron, vitamin D, B12, zinc, iodine, calcium and EPA and DHA.”

Elly says deficiencies can be avoided by focusing on real food, avoiding packaged and processed food, and through a tailored supplement regime.

Mark recommends consulting with a dietitian to ensure your diet remains balanced and unlikely to aggravate any macro or micronutrient deficiency.

How to start your plant-based journey

If you’re keen to give a plant-based diet a go, you’re in good company.

In 2019, research by Roy Morgan found nearly 2.5 million Australians (12.1 per cent of the population) have diets of which the food is all, or almost all, vegetarian – up from under 2.2 million (11.2 per cent) in 2014.

Mark says if you are plant curious, the best way to begin is by taking “small steps”.

“Start by reducing the frequency of red meat, and experimenting with more or different vegetables,” he says.

Merran says there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to plant-based eating.

“It’s about reducing meat intake and making vegetables the hero in our meals while allowing for flexibility and making the change less confronting,” she says.

What are the main plant-based diets?

Reducetarian: The Reducetarian Foundation says reducetarians are committed to eating less meat, dairy and eggs, while “following their own hearts and individual motivations.”

Flexitarian: a semi-vegetarian style of eating that encourages mostly plant-based foods, but allows meat or animal products in moderation.

House of Wellness co-host Luke Hines cooks up a delicious flexitarian meal – arguably the “world’s most nutritious dish” – with a combination of plants, seeds, nuts, animal fat and fish.

Lacto-ovo vegetarian: includes dairy, eggs and honey, but all animal flesh is out.

Mediterranean: based on plants and seafood, with limited processed and red meat, sugar, poultry, eggs, and dairy products.

Pescatarian: meat and poultry are excluded, but fish and occasionally eggs are permitted.

Pegan: a combination of paleo and vegan, pegans eat whole grains, vegetables, and beans while avoiding added sugar and processed foods.

Whole food, plant-based: emphasises plants in their whole form while minimising animal products and all processed food.

Written by Dimity Barber.