Is a Plant-Based Diet Good for All of Us?

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Over the last few years, I’ve felt an increasing unrest at something I’ve observed in real food communities and groups…. Mainly the idea that there is one specific diet that is great for everyone, and that each group seems to have found this holy grail of protocols.

The research continually points to personalization and diet variation as keys for overall health, yet in the online world, it often seems like we’re all trying to evangelize our own method as the best. There are two major problems with this:

  1. In general, we all largely agree on about 90% yet we spend 90% of our time debating the 10% we disagree about;
  2. Those of us who have “figured out what worked” have figured out what works for us. That doesn’t mean it will work for everyone but I do think there is value and something to learn in every approach.

In general, experts seem to agree on a few main points like the importance of sleep and the need for a variety of vegetables in our diets. I’m tackling that second point today.

What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

A plant-based diet is just what it sounds like — a diet based mostly in plants. Many vegans and vegetarians have touted the health benefits of a plant-based diet for decades. But other types of diets can also be plant-based when done correctly. And for the most part, all of us can benefit from more plants in our diets from a variety of sources like herbs, greens, and other vegetables.

You may be surprised to learn that I eat a plant-based diet. Though, my definition isn’t a full vegetarian or vegan diet at all! When I say “plant based” I mean that the majority of foods I eat in a given meal come from plants (plants are the basis of my diet) but that I also get protein from a variety of sources including animal sources.

Harvard Health defines a plant-based diet similarly and includes the Mediterranean diet as an example of a diet with a foundation of plant-based foods.

The Mediterranean diet has a foundation of plant-based foods; it also includes fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt a few times a week, with meats and sweets less often.

The Mediterranean diet has been shown in both large population studies and randomized clinical trials to reduce risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, certain cancers (specifically colon, breast, and prostate cancer), depression, and in older adults, a decreased risk of frailty, along with better mental and physical function.

If you’ve been a Wellness Mama reader for a while now you know that I’m a huge fan of “real food” (not processed food!). But a real food diet must include lots of fresh vegetables to be truly healthy. That’s where plant-based eating comes in!

Disagreement in Nutrition Research

There’s a lot of discussion in the healthy living community about which diet is best. You have your vegans on one side, your paleo eaters on the other side, and there are lots of variations in between.

There may be a lot of contention between groups (trust me, I have seen it), but the reality is that there are a lot of thoughtful people on either side who have found research to support their eating style.

So why all the fuss?

As Dr. Mark Hyman says in this blog post and this podcast interview, there is a big problem with nutrition research. Studies that examine the effects of diets (like vegan or paleo) don’t necessarily use a control group with a healthy diet. Dr. Hyman explains: “Comparing a vegan diet of chips and Coke, bagels and pasta to a paleo diet of healthy veggies and grass fed meat won’t be very helpful, nor would comparing a paleo diet of feedlot meat, bologna and no fresh veggies to a whole foods, low glycemic vegan diet.”

Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens in many cases.

What the Research Really Says

When you take a look at all the nutritional research out there, there is one thing that they almost all agree on. Can you guess?

Lots and lots of fresh produce (especially vegetables)!

I’ve met very few doctors, health experts, or researchers who advise people not to eat veggies. (Though there are now approaches like the Carnivore Diet that shun anything besides meat, but that is a topic for another day!)

Research shows that the healthfulness of the entire diet matters more than how much (or how little) animal products are included. We can see this is true when we take a look at Blue Zones (communities where people live the longest, disease-free lives). Many Blue Zone communities eat meat, but sourced from healthy animals (not feedlots). Their diet also includes lots of fresh vegetables.

In fact, a 2017 study published in Harvard Health found that that reducing animal foods didn’t necessarily lead to a healthier diet or greater heart protection. It was only beneficial if the plant foods that were eaten were healthy (like vegetable and fruits). If the resulting diet is based on less healthy plant foods (like processed grains, juice, and sugary foods), removing animal products did nothing to improve health.

In other words, eating more plants (veggies, herbs, fruits, etc) is the beneficial aspect, not just avoiding meat. Of course, most of us can also agree that feedlots are terrible and that any animal protein should come from humane and ethical sources.

I also think it’s safe to assume that if there was a study comparing a healthy paleo diet (pastured meats, lots of veggies, and enough healthy fats) to a lazy paleo diet (bacon and red meat at every meal, very few vegetables) you would find a similar conclusion: that a diet without a large amount of vegetables can’t be healthy.

Bottom Line: A healthy plant-based diet should be vegetable-based (not just plant-based which could still include many processed foods).

Listen to my podcast interview with Dr. Mark Hyman on his take on the Pegan Diet. (Yes, you read that right with a “P.”)

Figuring Out Our Own Best Diets

While research shows that a healthy plant-based diet rich in variety is the best place to start, we are all different and need slightly different nutrients. This is why it’s so important to follow what our bodies are telling us when it comes to food. I know there are many times when I’m just not in the mood for meat and am completely satisfied with a vegetable meal or an entire bowl of cilantro pesto. Other times I can’t seem to get enough meat. These are clues to what our bodies need at any given moment.

Additionally, it’s always good to take an individualized approach to any diet. If you are sensitive to something, don’t eat it just because it’s paleo or vegan or any other criteria. Especially don’t eat it just because you read somewhere online that it is a superfood! Choose foods that are proven healthy and don’t cause you any issues. I personally found Nutrition Genome testing really helpful in practical advice which foods best support my genes. (I explain more in this podcast.)

Some people can’t eat nightshades because they cause inflammation. Others can’t have FODMAPS (a kind of carbohydrate in many healthy foods) due to digestive issues. Find what works for you and your needs (consulting your doctor is a great idea!). I’ve personally found that a short elimination diet and a food log were really helpful tools in listening to my own body.

Learn more about How to Know When a Diet Is No Longer Right for You: Understanding Intuitive Eating & Your Body’s Needs.

NOTE: We do have to separate cravings from our body’s feedback about what it really needs. Sometimes our cravings are off because underlying health and they aren’t the best guides. For example, many of us crave sugar not because we truly need it but because we were designed to crave sweet food (breastmilk is incredibly sweet!). We may also crave sugar because of blood sugar issues, candida overgrowth, etc. Or we may crave chocolate because we actually need magnesium.

Epigenetics and a Plant-Based Diet

Following your body is all well and good, but there is another way to personalize our diets. Food has a profound effect on gene expression. According to this Science Daily article, a 2011 Norwegian study found that a diet with more than 1/3 of total calories coming from carbohydrates can “turn on” genes that cause lifestyle diseases like obesity and heart disease and can also cause metabolic inflammation.

There have been countless other studies showing certain kinds of foods can prevent, and even reverse, many chronic diseases (like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer). All of these studies show that food can “turn on” or “turn off” the genes that cause these diseases. That’s why a healthy plant-based diet is beneficial to almost everyone.

But each of us is different with different genes. We have individual nutritional needs too. That’s why a genetic test from Nutrition Genome can be helpful. This kind of epigenetics test can help you pinpoint your genetic weaknesses and learn to eat to improve them.

Can a Healthy Plant-Based Diet Include Meat and Animal Products?

A diet based on healthy plants (specifically, lots of vegetables) has many benefits, but this doesn’t mean we need to exclude meat and other animal products. Animal products should come from healthy animals raised sustainably and not feedlot animals.

In fact, animal products (at least meat) should be a part of a healthy diet since there are some nutrients that can’t be found in plant sources or are much easier to absorb from meat.

  • Vitamin B12 – This essential vitamin plays a part in brain function, synthesis of red blood cells, neurological function among other things. To get B12 you must eat meat or take a supplement. (Contrary to some belief, spirulina isn’t a source of B12 according to a 1982 study.)
  • Conjugated Linoleic Acid – CLA is a family of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA). They are primarily produced by bacteria in the stomach of ruminants, like cows, goats, and sheep. CLA is essential for healthy weight, metabolism and blood sugar. It may even help reduce cancer cells in the body. Grass-fed dairy and meat are both good sources of CLA.

Other nutrients can be found in plants but are much more bioavailable coming from animals.

  • Iron – You can get iron from plants but it is much less easily absorbed. It makes more sense to get iron from meat (grass-fed beef is an especially good source).
  • Vitamin A – Plants are high in pro-vitamin A (like beta-carotene) which the body can then convert to true vitamin A (retinol). This conversion isn’t very efficient though, especially for those with gut health issues. Liver and eggs are excellent sources of true vitamin A.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids – You can technically get these from plants, but they come in the form of Alpha-linoleic acid (ALA). This has to then be converted to DHA or EPA. This conversion is also very inefficient and highly dependent on other nutrients in body/diet. It makes more sense to get these from oily fish like salmon and anchovies.

Meat and fish are also considered complete proteins, meaning they contain an adequate amount of the nine essential amino acids. Highly respected researchers like Ari Whitten explain that many of us are not getting enough protein, and it can be even more difficult to get enough from only plant sources. (Check out his book Fat Loss Forever to learn more.)

Clearly, meat and other animal products are important for a healthy diet, but what the plant-based diet research shows us is that they don’t need to (and shouldn’t) be the main source of dietary calories. Animal products should be eaten as a side dish rather than the main course as Blue Zones have taught us.

What About Dairy?

Dairy is one of the most hotly debated foods among healthy living advocates. Both vegan and paleo diets eliminate dairy, while primal and keto diets include it. The reason that some healthy living experts eat dairy and others don’t may be because the research is a bit uncertain. Mark Sisson, one of my food idols, explains in this blog post that we just don’t know enough about dairy to say one way or the other whether it’s healthy for everyone.

However, we do know that a lot of people have problems with dairy. For some, it can cause eczema, digestive issues, inflammation, type 2 diabetes and other metabolic issues (because of the high sugar content). Some people can eat dairy without any noticeable issues.

If you’re going to eat dairy, we recommend raw dairy and to stick with high-fat or fermented like butter or yogurt. In my house we eat moderate amounts of raw, aged cheeses and high-fat dairy like butter, heavy cream (raw), and ghee. We don’t drink milk or eat processed dairy foods (like store-bought ice cream).

Can a Healthy Plant-Based Diet Include Grains and Legumes?

Grains and legumes are plant-based foods, so they technically fit into the plant-based diet.

But there are a number of reasons that grains and wheat (even whole grains) can be problematic for some people. They are:

  • low nutrient/high carb
  • processed and cultivated in suspicious ways
  • sprayed with glyphosate

Again, it goes back to personalization. Some people can tolerate certain grains (especially ancient grains like einkorn) or white rice (brown rice is high in phytic acid) without a problem. Others react to even small amounts.

Legumes contain lectins that can also be problematic for some people, but they form the cornerstone of diets for others. One option is to soak beans and legumes before consuming them to increase digestibility.

How I Follow a Healthy Plant-Based Diet (That Can Include Meat)

Based on the research, here are some guidelines I use to follow a healthy plant-based diet (that does include meat and animal products).

  • Lots of vegetables (and some fruit) – Vegetables and fruit contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and cofactors that are indispensable to the body. A small portion of vegetables at dinner time isn’t going to cut it. Vegetables should make up ½ to ¾ of our plates at every meal. Fruit is also great, but I view it as a treat rather than a whole food group and keep my main focus on vegetables and herbs. If you have a hard time eating vegetables, try sneaking them into a green smoothie.
  • Low sugar – For a long time fat was the enemy of a healthy diet. Research has debunked the idea that fat is unhealthy and is now showing the real culprit in creating disease — sugar. Personally, I stay away from processed sugar completely and get healthy carbs in moderation from starchy vegetables.
  • Low to moderate carbohydrates – But it’s not just added sugar that’s a problem. Carbs like bread, rice, and other grain-based foods can be a significant source of sugar. Too much sugar and carbs, in general, can be harmful. A 2015 review published in the Lancet found that lower carb diets were more more helpful than low fat diets. It also found that the highest fat/lowest carb diet was best for weight loss. Note: For some people (like those with low thyroid function), dropping carbs too low for a long time can stress the thyroid. Make sure you get carbs from starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, fruit, winter squash, etc. if this is you.
  • Real food – Another thing almost all of us can agree on… food should actually be food! Ideally it should not be processed and contain no added chemicals, additives, preservatives, GMOs, pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones. If you’re unsure how to switch to a real food diet, a Whole 30 program is a great place to start. I also give my tips for stocking a real food kitchen here.
  • Healthy protein – Protein intake should be adequate enough to satisfy the appetite and build or maintain muscle. It’s hard to say exactly how much protein every person needs. The best thing to do is to go by what your body is telling you. When choosing animal protein, choose organic and pasture-raised products and low-mercury fish. Plant protein should be low glycemic like vegetables, nuts, and seeds. I also like this plant-based protein from Organifi to add to smoothies for an extra protein boost.

Plant-Based Diet (That Can Include Meat): Bottom Line

At the end of the day it’s fairly simple to know what to eat to have the healthiest diet:

  • Healthy proteins (but not as much as we think we need!)
  • Lots and lots (and lots) of fresh vegetables (and some fruit too!)
  • Nutrients that your individual biochemistry needs
  • Minimal sugar and processed carbs
  • Adequate healthy fats from quality sources

That’s it!

Of course, with the huge range of options in front of us every day (for better or worse), living a healthy lifestyle takes commitment and planning. The good news is that baby steps are usually the best way to make lasting diet and health changes!

For ideas on how to get started (or fire up the motivation to keep going), check out these resources:

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Shani Muhammad, MD, board certified in family medicine and has been practicing for over ten years. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.

Do you consider your diet “plant-based”? How has it changed your health?

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


20 responses to “Is a Plant-Based Diet Good for All of Us?”

  1. Jonathan Avatar

    We were created omnivores….we all need to get over it and get on with life! Maybe our health(or lack of) is more related to worrying about what we should eat than what we are actually eating. Quality, quantity and variety will trump strictly vegetarian or carnivorous diets every time. It is time, boys and girls, to put our big boy/girl pants on and move on…….Yes, even in the twenty-first century, common sense and moderation win every time!

  2. Jeff Avatar

    Thank you for speaking up. Couldn’t agree more. Vegan is the most conscious and kind choice for our bodies, the animals and the planet. When we support cruelty and harm to other sentient beings by eating meat and dairy it eventually catches up with us — in the form of sickness, disease and suffering. Plant-based is the path of least harm and best choice. It’s only conditioning and conscience that gets triggered when it faces the truth. Choose vegan — for your body, the animals and the planet.

  3. Jilly Avatar

    There is a wealth of information here to help with my lifelong journey to eat healthier. Do you happen to know of any naturopaths in southern California that look at gut health? Or do you know of any doctors that would lead me in the right direction? I need something better than the throw a pill at your ailments type doctors.
    Thank you.

  4. Lauren Avatar

    Hi Katie, could you recommend a ome websites or cookbooks for good vegetarian dinner recipes? My husband and I are doing a meatless March but other than Real Plans (which I love but not a huge fan of some of their recipes.) I’m not sure where to find good vegetarians recipes.


    1. Kathy Avatar

      Tearing down rainforests to grow gm soybeans for your fake meat is far worse for the environment. Humans have been eating meat since the beginning. The problem is the current method for both sides.

  5. Sofiya Avatar

    Dear Katie, thank you for providing accurate structured information and being the voice of reason in this mad world. It’s a delight to read your posts as usual 🙂

  6. Jenna Avatar

    Thanks for this article, I really enjoyed reading it. I have a question, though. I’m trying very hard to figure out what is healthy for my body. I’m currently a vegetarian primarily for animal cruelty/environmental reasons. I’m in college so I’m not sourcing a lot of my own food and don’t want to consume meats that I don’t know where they’re sourced from. For the food that I do source for myself, I’m on a limited budget. Do you have any additional tips for making sure I’m eating a well rounded diet without the meat? I’ve also been recently diagnosed with a thyroid condition as well so I really want to continue on a healthy track.

  7. Jessica Avatar

    Thanks for putting all the “healthy food” issues in such a clear and sensible way

  8. Robin Avatar

    Thanks, Katie!
    I’m curious what the number of calories is in the Norwegian study in the first paragraph under the heading Epigenetics and a Plant-Based Diet: “According to a Norwegian study, a diet with more than ? of total calories…” Thanks!

  9. Kelly Avatar

    We should choose vegan for the simple fact that not doing so is in support of horrendous abuse and treatment of animals that were simply born to die. Animals go in a slaughter house alive and terrified and come out chopped into pieces and we think something humane happened along the way. Processed meat is a level 1 carcinogen according to the World Health Organization and a major contributor to greenhouse gases and polluted ground water. There is nothing you get from meat that you can’t get from plants, except of course the blood, pus, tumors and feces.

    1. Alicia Avatar

      Unfortunately your knowledge is incomplete. I believe you didn’t even actually read the article.

      You can not get Vitamin A (retinol) from plants, you can get beta carotene, and unfortunately due to gene expression, there are over 40% of people who simply cannot convert beta carotene into retinol. You can’t get choline from plants either.

      The second thing is that you can in fact source meat that is from animals that were raised ethically, slaughtered humanely and without fear (not in a slaughter house), thus putting that argument to rest. I’m really lucky my local butcher is absolutely amazing and a lot of the meat is local and the animals are given the best care (I know because I visit the local farms to see the process). I pay more to source meat like that.

      The other fact is that just because something isn’t directly an animal product, does not mean that it is not harming animals or people. Vegan does not equal ethical. Cashews are mostly unethically processed, causing severe caustic burns to the workers. The use of captive monkeys to retrieve coconuts for coconut oil is prevalent, the devastation of Orangutan habitat for palm oil, the “vegan” clothing made from plastic that is releasing fibers into our waterways and killing marine life.

      You should also look into restorative agriculture. To blame cows for climate change shows a real narrow minded thinking, as cows have been on this planet for a very long time, but it is just recently we’ve had issues. Could it perhaps be the modern agriculture is the culprit, and not the cows themselves?

    2. Sandy Avatar

      Bravo. You are spot on. This author is an uninformed health nut who doesn’t know that casein causes cancer or that meat is linked to many diseases. It is obvious she eats dead decaying rotting corpses by her response. Eating dead flesh is like running your water through a sewer line and drinking it. I could go on and on about how wrong she is but it wouldn’t matter how much proof or evidence you present when carnists don’t want to hear something. Cognitive dissonance reigns Supreme.

  10. Lorraine Avatar

    This is THE most sensible article on a healthy diet I have read. I really enjoyed reading. Thank you.

  11. Julie Avatar

    This is a great article. I think of it as “The Voice Of Reason” article. What you said it so true, the health and nutrition spend a large portion of their energy arguing about that last little 10% and the important part really is: Eat lots of veggies and little sugar and the rest is really particular to the individual and for most of us, doesn’t matter nearly as much at those 2 main points.

  12. Cheryl Kondratow Avatar
    Cheryl Kondratow

    I agree that a plant based diet is not for everyone. I would advocate staying open & learning all you can before eating what someone says is good for you. You know your body best.

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