A Guide to Special Diets: Plant-Based, Vegan et al

Unless you’ve been trapped under a large houseplant, you know that plant-based diets are everywhere. Trouble is, plant-based can be interpreted in so many ways. Find yourself pulling out your hair when you’re getting friends together and one’s vegetarian (but not THAT type of vegetarian), another’s pescatarian, and one’s, gulp, reducetarian? Read on.

By Karen Asp
vegetable burgers


The diet: vegan

What this person eats:  No animal products. Period. 

Good to know: It’s more about what this person doesn’t eat than what they do, says Catherine Perez, M.S., R.D., a plant-based dietitian in West Hartford, Ct. The main thing you need to know? This person won’t eat anything with a mother or father, so all animal products are off the table. And it’s not just the obvious things like chicken, cow and pig but also fish, eggs, dairy and honey. There are even ingredients you may not even know are derived from animal products, including things like gelatin, beeswax, white sugar (bone char from animals is often used to whiten it), and casein.

The diet: whole-food, plant-based

What this person eats:  Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes and beans. Animal products are out.  

Good to know:  Like vegans, these folks have eliminated foods from animals from their diet, but they’ve taken it one step further by making sure the quality of their food is as minimally processed as possible, Perez says. As a result, they might also avoid salt, oil and sugar. Vegan “junk food” (like meat alternatives, French fries cooked in oil, and vegan cheesecake or cupcakes) doesn’t cut it with this friend so keep all plant foods as close to their original state as possible. 

The diet: vegetarian

What this person eats:  No animal products with the exception of dairy and/or eggs. 

Good to know: Find out what type of vegetarian your friend is. If she eats eggs and dairy, she’s lacto-ovo vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian if she eats eggs, and lacto-vegetarian if she eats dairy. The variations can make it tricky, but know that cheese might actually be okay, as most vegetarians have trouble giving up cheese, says Jennifer Mimkha, M.P.H., R.D., a plant-based dietitian and owner of Prana Nutrition in Tampa, Fla. One other note? Some vegetarians eat foods cooked in or with a meat-based broth, others don’t, so always ask. 

The diet: flexitarian

What this person eats: Mainly plants like whole grains, fruits and vegetables, although meat, eggs and dairy are allowed. 

Good to know:  The word combines vegetarian with flexible, which is why you wind up with somebody who’s focusing on less meat and more plants, Mimkha says. There are recommended guidelines for how much meat you can eat each week, depending on where you are in the diet. For instance, if you’ve reached the expert level, you’re having five meatless days every week with only nine ounces of meat or poultry per week. 

The diet: reducetarian

What this person eats: Almost anything but with a conscious effort to eat less animal products.   

What you should know: This diet is strikingly similar to a flexitarian diet. The main difference? While flexitarians will eat animal products whenever it fits the need, reducetarians are actively trying to reduce how many animal products they eat, Mimkha says. That could mean anything is on the table here, so do ask your friend and perhaps make a conscious effort to choose more plant-forward dishes.  

The diet: nutritarian

What this person eats: Whole plant foods and some animal products.  

Good to know: If your friend’s following this diet, she’s eating what’s called the G-BOMBS (greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries and seeds) daily and at least one huge daily salad. She might consume a little meat, but smoked, barbecued or conventionally-raised red meat, hot dogs and luncheon meats are huge no-nos. She’s also going to say no to sugar and other sweeteners, oil, salt, processed baked goods and anything made with white flour.  

The diet: pescatarian

What this person eats: Plants (think fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds) and fish and seafood. But no meat or poultry.  

Good to know:  Some pescatarians eat dairy and eggs, other don’t, so it’s worth asking your friend how she’s structuring her diet, Perez says.    

The diet: mediterranean

What this person eats:  Fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, fish and some meat.  

Good to know: Although meals are plant-strong, this doesn’t mean animal products are out, Perez says. Mediterranean eaters nosh moderate amounts of dairy, poultry, eggs and seafood but eat red meat sparingly. Perhaps the best news about this diet? Red wine and olive oil are a go.  

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