Comparison of 3 plant-based diets: DASH diet, Mediterranean diet and Vegetarian diet

Steeped in Aaron Copland's "Rodeo" music and Norman Rockwell type imagery, could anything be more "American" than the "Beef -- it's what's for dinner" marketing campaign of the 1990's?

The fact is, making meat the center of our meals is a relatively new lifestyle shift -- occurring around the mid 1900's, when refrigeration became common, distribution channels were perfected and meat became more affordable. Before that, our ancestors ate more of a plant-based diet, where meat was used to compliment the vegetables and grains -- rather than the other way around.

SHOP Amazon's Top 100* Best Selling Vitamins & Nutritional Supplements
+ Free Shipping & Returns on Eligible Items.
(*Amazon's Top 100 list updated hourly.)

Unfortunately, as meat consumption rose in the US, so did our rates of certain diseases like obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, and some types of cancer:

Thanks to books like Diet for a Small Planet (1971), The McDougall Plan (1983), and Diet for a New America (1987), attention was called to the environmental, social and health consequences of producing and eating so much meat. And as a result, eating a more vegetable-based diet is, once again, becoming more widely accepted.

(And in today's difficult economy, eating a more vegetable-based diet makes good economic sense, as well, since vegetable protein sources like beans are extremely affordable.)

Three popular vegetable-based eating patterns to consider are DASH diet, Mediterranean diet and a vegetarian diet:

What is the DASH diet?

The DASH acronym stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and was developed by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute as a tool for lowering high blood pressure.

DASH diet

The DASH Diet Eating Plan places an emphasis on:

increasing consumption of:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • whole grains like brown rice or whole wheat bread, cereals and pastas
  • fat-free or low-fat dairy products
  • smaller portions of fish, lean, fresh meats (rather than processed types) and poultry
  • nuts, seeds and legumes.

and reducing consumption of:

  • salt
  • saturated fats, cholesterol and total fats
  • added sweets and sugary beverages
  • red meat

Much more information on the DASH Eating Plan, along with sample meal plans and recipes, is available at

What is the Mediterranean diet?

Eating a traditional, Mediterranean diet is often cited as one reason why people of that region suffer less cardiovascular disease and a lower mortality rate than what we see in the US. Though the eating patterns vary among Mediterranean cultures, they generally include:

eating a higher percentage of:Mediterranean diet

  • vegetables and fruits
  • nuts and legumes
  • grain products (many of them being whole grain)
  • fish,
  • monosaturated fats (such as olive oil)

and eating less:

  • red or processed meats and poultry
  • saturated fats (i.e.: animal fats, butter and eggs)
  • sugary desserts and snacks
  • dairy products

Moderate consumption of red wine is another element of the Mediterranean diet that seems to draw a lot of attention.

Another characteristic of traditional Mediterranean-style eating is that foods are prepared and seasoned simply rather than with sauces and gravies. Unfortunately, as the modern Mediterranean diet has become more like ours in recent years (to include more saturated fats and cholesterol with less monounsaturated fats), their rates of heart disease have also risen.

What is a vegetarian diet?

The term vegetarian encompasses many different meanings, from vegans who avoid all animal products, to lacto-ovo vegetarians who include milk and eggs (which, incidentally, is the most common form of vegetarianism in the US) and even partial or semi-vegetarians who include small amounts of red meat, poultry and fish.

In general, the emphasis of most vegetarian diets is:

Eat More of:

  • vegetables and fruits
  • whole grain products
  • legumes, nuts and seeds

Eat Less of:

  • sugar
  • saturated fats and cholesterol
  • salt

Nutritionally, a vegetarian diet differs from the traditional American diet in that it includes more dietary fiber, complex carbohydrates, magnesium folic acid, Vitamins C and E, potassium, carotenoids and other phytochemicals.

myplate adjusted for vegetariansWhat does a well-balanced vegetarian diet look like?

The ChooseMyPlate graphic (which replaces the food pyramid) developed by the USDA can be applied to vegetarian meal planning almost exactly as it would be used for "normal" healthy diet with one substitution which we first found suggested at Just replace the word Dairy with Calcium.

Key points to keep in mind are:

To assure that you've covering all your nutritional needs, be sure to include a wide variety of foods from the major groups. For fruits and vegetables - whether you use fresh, frozen, dried or canned (avoid canned vegetables or fruits with added salt, butter, sugar or syrup) - try to select from the different color groups since they each are rich in different nutrients:

  • Greens: asparagus, avocados, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, celery, cucumbers, leafy greens, green peppers,
  • Reds: such as beets, cherries, radishes, red apples, red onions, red peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, watermelon
  • Whites: bananas, cauliflower, garlic, ginger, mushrooms, onions, parsnips, turnips
  • Yellows & Oranges: cantaloupe, carrots, oranges, papayas, peaches, pumpkin, squash, sweet corn,
  • Blues & Purples: blackberries, blueberries, grapes, plums, purple potatoes, purple cabbage, raisins

Be mindful that you are getting adequate:

  • calcium: sources include dark green leafy vegetables like collards, broccoli, turnip greens, bok choy or mustard greens; almonds, beans and soy products like tofu; calcium-fortified cereals, soy or rice milks and juices; blackstrap molasses. Also prevalent in milk products.
  • iron: sources include dark leafy greens like spinach, dried beans like lentils; oatmeal, nuts, raisins and dried prunes, and blackstrap molasses
  • protein: beans, nuts, whole grains. Also prevalent in milk products and eggs.
  • zinc: dried beans, pumpkin seeds, wheat germ. Also prevalent in milk products.
  • vitamin d: sunshine, supplements, fortified soy or rice milk, juices and cereals
  • vitamin b12: vegetarians should take a supplement or consume fortified foods since vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal-based foods. Also prevalent in milk products and eggs.

Sources (Accessed April 5, 2012) appendices 8 and 9

Low Prices on Best Selling VITAMINS &


Join in the conversations:
Showing comment(s)
May 10, 2012
Having spent a lot of time in Italy and Greece, I think that HOW Mediterranean meals are eaten may be as important as WHAT is eaten. They put a wonderful focus on fresh foods, enjoyable activities, unhurried meal preparation and relaxed sharing with family and friends.
Copyright 2024 All rights reserved. rss Subscribe to our RSS
Information provided here should not be relied on to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any condition, disease or illness. Please consult with your physician or health care professional for guidance on any health concern. is a commercial website and is not affiliated with any government agency, university, or private medical center. COMPENSATION DISCLOSURE: This site may be compensated for products promoted here. Read our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.