Does a Plant-Based Diet Mean Eating Vegetarian?

Our resident nutritionist examines what it really means to follow a plant-based diet.



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Eating a plant-based diet has never been more popular. But does following this type of diet mean you should give up all meat, poultry, fish dairy and eggs? Here’s what the term "plant-based" really means, and what a balanced plant-based diet should look like.

Although there is no specific definition, plant-based diets are commonly focused on eating foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. That’s not to say that people who follow plant-based eating plans don’t eat meat, however. Diets like DASH, Mediterranean, and MIND diet incorporate heavy amounts of plants, while balancing them with lean chicken and beef, fish, dairy, and eggs.

The latest 2015-2020 dietary guidelines for Americans recommended a healthy diet that is heavy on plant foods. However, the dietary guidelines for the general population also promote eating 8 ounces of seafood per week (specifically oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, trout and tuna), while the American Heart Association recommends up to one whole egg per day.

As such, eating plant-based does not mean to go vegetarian or even vegan. Rather to eat a wide-variety of foods, including the often under-consumed plant-based foods.

What About Pork, Beef and Poultry?

Watch commercials from the 1980s and you’ll find a huge slab of meat taking over the plate, with a few small string beans or a few florets of broccoli. Nowadays, we have done away with the 16-ounce steaks and replaced them with leaner cuts of meat and more reasonable portion of around 4 ounces. Next to a palm-sized portion of lean meat is a cup or so of cooked whole grains (think brown rice, farro and quinoa), and the remaining half of the plate filled with veggies and fruit. With only 15-percent of Americans meeting their recommended daily fruit intake and 10-percent meeting their recommended vegetable intake, it makes sense to increase the portions of these foods while decreasing foods that have historically been overconsumed.

With increased trimming practices over the last 50 years or so, there are many more lean cuts of beef, pork, and lamb available at your supermarket. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration food labeling criteria, to be labeled as "lean," the cut of meat must be less than 10 percent fat by weight, or it must contain less than 10 grams of fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol and a maximum of 4.5 grams of saturated fat per 100 grams. "Extra lean" contains less than 5 grams of total fat, less than 2 grams of saturated fat and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 100 grams. Here are meats that meet these criteria:


  • Ground pork (96 percent lean)
  • Pork tenderloin
  • Sirloin pork chop
  • New York pork chop
  • New York pork roast
  • Porterhouse pork chop
  • Rib-eye pork chop
  • A plant-based diet


  • Ground beef (95 percent lean)
  • Top sirloin roast
  • Tri-tip roast and steak
  • Bottom round roast and steak
  • Eye of round roast and steak
  • Strip steak
  • T-bone steak


  • Leg
  • Loin
  • Rack

Meats, fish and poultry add a variety of nutrients into your diet including iron, B-vitamins, and numerous minerals. A 2017 study published in Obesity Science & Practice examined the impact of a higher-protein diet that includes beef on weight, lean muscle mass, heart health, and diet satisfaction. Participants were divided into two groups and followed a 16-week, three phase, higher-protein weight loss program. One group was instructed to eat at least 4 servings of lean beef per week, while the other did not eat any red meat. The results showed that both groups lost the same amount of weight and researchers concluded that lean beef is just as effective as other protein choices to help achieve important health goals like weight loss and heart health.

Of course there are also many plant-based sources of protein that can also create a well-balanced meal including:

  • Tofu
  • Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Tempeh
  • Seeds

The upshot of all that nutritional info? You can absolutely eat healthfully while including lean meat, fish and poultry in your diet. If you choose to be vegetarian, that’s a personal choice, but it shouldn’t be because you feel eating just plants is the only healthy option. The 2015-2020 dietary guidelines for Americans recommend both eating patterns as healthy ones. Eating 100% plant-based is a personal decision, and if you choose to do so, be sure to understand how to balance your plate so you can get all the nutrients your body needs.

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