A couple of years ago, I made a big leap with my diet. I haven't eaten red meat since college, but occasionally ate chicken, turkey, fish and dairy. For the most part, my diet was solid - at least in the conventional sense. But as I crept into my 40s, I started feeling more run down than usual. My workouts began to suffer, too...largely because I wasn't recovering. For many different reasons, I decided to eliminate all animal byproducts from my diet. I'm now entirely vegan.
Nudging out the foods that were once in my diet wasn't difficult, and despite the fact that I don't eat animal protein anymore, I've actually dropped body fat and have been able to recover so much faster from my harder workouts. I feel great.
One of the things that made this transition so much easier is that my husband was on board with me, too. And similar to me, he's dropped body fat, maintained a good energy balance and recovers much better from harder workouts. All of this is important because we're both in our mid-40s and would like to defer any age-related aches, pains and weight gain to later years for as long as possible!
Plant-Based vs Vegan Diets
You've probably seen the terms plant-based and vegan used interchangeably, right? Eating plant-based is great. Everyone should, regardless of how you eat. But the main difference between plant-based and vegan is that a plant-based diet doesn't have to be vegan, it just needs to be rooted (no pun intended) in vegetables and fruit. Plant-based diets may still have dairy products, or even meats, fish or poultry - there's simply a big emphasis on getting plenty of foods from leafy greens, colorful vegetables and in some cases, whole grains.
A vegan way of eating is plant-based, but it's also void of all animal protein, which includes, dairy, fish, and even honey. In fact, the production of wine often uses animal byproducts, like collagen, to clarify wine, and casein to help remove color. Alas, there are wine makers that use no animal byproducts whatsoever. You just need to know what you're buying.
What About Pescatarians, Vegetarians and Omnivores?
Now that you know the difference between plant-based and vegan, here's a quick primer on a few other common diets.
If you're a pescatarian, you're all about fish and seafood. You don't eat chicken, turkey, pork, red meat, etc. You still may eat dairy products, eggs and honey.
You don't eat meat, poultry or fish, but you still may eat dairy products, eggs and honey. Research has shown that the nutrient breakdown of vegetarians vs their meat-eating counterparts really isn't that much different. This is probably because dairy consumption is likely quite high for many people.
If you're omnivorous, you're likely open to eating anything - meat, dairy, seafood, plants...all of it. You may have some restrictions or preferences, but you don't limit yourself for the same reasons vegetarians, pescatarians or vegans limit themselves.
So What's the Best Diet?
From where I'm sitting, the best diet is a healthy diet, or the diet you don't know you're on because you feel so awesome all the time. Because I live it, a vegan diet is hands down the best diet. It's done nothing but favors for my body - from how I feel in terms of mood and overall energy to the results of my most recent blood tests (WOW!). I should also mention that I'm a soy-free vegan for good reason. No tofu for me.
Regardless of the diet you choose, the most important things you can do for yourself is eat less refined, less inflammatory foods. This can get a little tricky because refined and inflammatory foods (i.e. most dairy products, pastas, cookies, diet sodas) are the most addictive.
Bottom line: eat plant-based regardless of how many accoutrements you bring to the table! A good way to know whether or not you're getting enough plants in your diet is by knowing how much fiber you're eating. The average person eats somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 grams. You belly should be getting 35 grams.
Getting Protein With a Vegan Diet
One of the biggest questions people have when it comes to vegan eating revolves around protein, and getting enough. Protein is important, not doubt about it. Rest assured, it you're eating a healthy vegan diet, you're likely getting plenty of protein.
You probably already know that protein is a building block of muscle. The building blocks of protein, however, are amino acids. When you eat any type of protein, whether it's plant or animal based, your body doesn't actually "eat" that protein as it is. Thanks to the amazingly intricate process of digestion, the protein we eat gets broken down to it's base amino acids. As long as you're getting the balance of essential amino acids, your body will get ample benefit.
Making Sense of Amino Acids
Amino acids breakdown into two general groups: Essential and Non-Essential.
Our body can make non-essential amino acids, so we don't need to worry about getting them from food.
On the flip side, our body can't make essential amino acids. Those need to come from the foods we eat on a regular basis to maintain a healthy metabolism, good digestion, and adequate energy balance. The names of those amino acids include:
An animal-based protein will give you all the essential amino acids you need. Very few plant-based proteins can do this, so a healthy vegan needs to eat a combination of plants (throughout the day, not in one sitting), to get the spectrum of essential amino acids needed.
Make sense? Just to recap, the bulleted amino acids are needed in our diet and can come from combinations of plant-sources.
So what are these combinations? Here you go! You can find a list right here.