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Plant-Based Diets: How Do Health Professionals Define Them?

The Heart Foundation defines a plant-based diet as

“A diet rich in minimally processed foods such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds and comprises smaller amounts of meat, poultry, fish, seafood and dairy”.

However, a scan conducted by two dietetics students (presented in our August newsletter) reveals wide variations in definitions across search engines, social media, and academic literature. Now to understand the health professionals’ views on a plant-based diet given their influential role as sharers of evidence-based health knowledge we conducted an online survey (from June to August 2021), titled “How Does a Health Professional Define a Plant-Based Diet”

In total, there were 108 respondents

  • The majority (51.9%) were dietitians and nutritionists
  • 5.6% nurse and nurse practitioners
  • 4.6% midwives
  • Remaining: other professions e.g. medical doctor, student dietitians.

What do they perceive to be a plant-based diet?

  • 54.6% Flexitarian (occasional meat consumption)
  • 43.5% Vegan
  • 37% Vegetarian
  • 1.9% all of the above
  • Other responses: a variety of answers but responses were along the lines of “mostly or all plant foods”

Where have they got their info from? (could select more than one option)

  • 74.1% from scientific research
  • 57.4% from tertiary education
  • 53.7% other healthcare professionals
  • ~40-47%: other media, books, education-based videos
  • ~23-30%: family and friends, social media
  • Overall, it’s reaffirming to see that scientific research, tertiary education, healthcare professionals are the top three sources from where health professionals obtain their information

Would you recommend a plant-based diet to any of your clients?

  • The majority of health professionals would recommend a plant-based diet (72.2% would and 27.8% would not)

If they responded “yes”, why:

  • Many commented that we should all be eating more plants (no one, however, said we should all be vegan or vegetarian)
  • Some mentioned importance of discussing potential nutrient shortfalls
  • Some mentioned benefit on weight loss and disease risk
  • Those who responded yes understood plant-based to mean plant-predominant (doesn’t have to exclude animal products)

If they responded “no”, why:

  • Some respondents commented that it was not their place to promote a certain diet but mainly to inform and provide knowledge
  • Other respondents commented that certain nutrients are more bioavailable in animal products and would thus recommend including meat/dairy in the diet
  • Some respondents mentioned certain conditions where plant-based would be inappropriate e.g., bariatric, eating disorders, digestive issues, malnourished

Our recommendation

Our survey was relatively small and did not span across all health professionals. However, based on the variability of how a plant-based diet was defined in our results (and general media) we recommend that:

When communicating about plant-based diets, health professionals should define their interpretation of a plant-based diet, making note to declare whether their definition of a plant-based diet

  • Allows for inclusion of animal products (or not)
  • Focuses predominantly on unprocessed foods (or not)

 

 

Thank you to Shalee Harris and Rhianna Morgan for conducting this survey and thank you to all our participants for your time.