Plant Vs. Animal: Helping Patients Understand “Plant Based” Diet Recommendations

By American Dairy Association Indiana

The public has increasingly become concerned about where their food comes from, their health and the health of our planet. In turn, conversations regarding plant based diets will likely become a topic of discussion during patient visits. A recent study published July 2016 in Nutrients discussed increasing plant-based foods in a person's diet at the expense of foods that come from animals and the effects on adequate nutrition. Author Christopher Cifelli, PhD explains further how this research not only provides a thoughtful start to understanding the effects of such a change in diet, but how asking people to consume more plant foods (when current intake is already low) could present challenges. But what is a "plant based diet"? 
The term “plant-based” if often misunderstood and interpreted as animal-free which is not the case. In fact, dairy products and other foods that come from animals are a core component of several healthy eating patterns highlighted in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including the vegetarian pattern. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report recommended eating a more plant-based dietary pattern, and acknowledged there is more than one way to meet this goal. In turn the final version of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans noted that a healthy eating pattern includes: a variety of vegetables (from all subgroups ie: dark green/red/orange, legumes, starchy), fruits (especially whole), grains (half to be whole grain sources), fat free or low fat dairy and a variety of protein sources (including lean meats and poultry, seafood, legumes, nuts, seeds and soy products). Three plans in particular are highlighted to show variety of choices and how the above recommendations can be accommodated based on individual preference.

Blanket recommendations to follow a plant based diet could be misinterpreted by the community, raising concerns for Physicians, Registered Dietitians and other healthcare practitioners on the adequacy of the public's nutrition if they are eliminating food groups without appropriate education on vitamin and mineral replacement. Additionally, the Dietary Guidelines note that potassium, dietary fiber, choline, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, D, E, and C are under consumed by many individuals. Dairy foods provide 4 of these and if eliminated could result in further decline in healthy intake.

A thorough nutrition assessment and specific recommendations would be helpful for individuals looking to increase plant foods in their meals without sacrificing the health benefits of those that come from fish, eggs, dairy foods, etc. Reminding patients that this does include eating from all of the food groups will be key in effectively communicating the intent of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and maximizing nutritious meals.

American Dairy Association Indiana (ADAI) serves as a resource to provide detailed information about the benefits of dairy and to answer questions that you or your patients may have. Get the latest research directly with ADAI’s monthly newsletter for health professionals. Contact Hanna Kelley, RDN, CD to sign up. Visit for more information on recent dairy nutrition research, tips/toolkits, or to order nutrition education materials.