First of all, what is a plant-based diet, really? Is it the same as vegan?
You might be following a Plant-Based Diet without even realizing it ! According to Alexis Joseph, RD, the dietitian behind the popular blog Hummusapien: “A plant-based diet means eating primarily whole plant foods rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats.”
A plant-based diet means prioritizing plant foods—specifically minimally processed fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. What that looks like can vary from person to person, though.
For instance, if you follow a Mediterranean diet, you can easily be mostly plant-based, prioritizing items like legumes, nuts, healthy fats, fruits and veg, and avoiding fish. If you’re keto, it may be a little harder to follow since the keto diet nixes more carb-rich foods like whole grains, starchy vegetables, and fruit, but it can be done.
And plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean plant-exclusive. Though veganism is a type of plant-based diet, you don’t have to cut out all animal products forever to consider yourself a plant-based eater. (Plus, not all vegan foods are inherently plant-based; egg-free brownies might be vegan, but they’re not truly plant-based if they’re packed with processed ingredients.)
“I consider myself plant-based because most of the foods I eat are plants,” says Joseph. “That said, I also eat yogurt, cheese, eggs, and fish when I feel like it, and that’s okay!”
Bottom line: Plant-based eating is more of a template that encourages focusing on plant foods, not a restrictive diet that makes things off-limits.
What do you eat on a plant-based diet?
Again, a plant-based diet is one that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, and pulses (beans and legumes). In other words: Anything that doesn’t contain meat, fish, eggs, or dairy is fair game.
“When planned appropriately, you can meet all your nutritional needs through a plant-based diet,” says Ryan Maciel, RD, head nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition.
Instead of animal proteins, for example, you’ll focus on plant-based protein sources, like beans, peas, lentils, and soy products (tofu, tempeh, and edamame). Nuts, seeds, and nut butters also deliver a healthy dose of protein, along with healthy fats. Heck, even whole grains provide a few grams of protein per serving.
Once you’ve got your protein covered, try to eat as wide a variety of fruits and vegetables as possible, since eating different colored produce can help you get the different nutrients you need. For example, while dark leafy greens are a good source of iron and calcium, wild mushrooms provide vitamin D.
What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?
Since a proper plant-based diet is centered around whole foods, it’s rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, says dietitian Amy Gorin, RDN.
“Plant foods are packed with fiber and phytonutrients that support immunity, combat inflammation, and feed the healthy bacteria in your gut,” echoes Joseph.
Swapping animal protein for plant protein has benefits, too. “Regularly consuming foods high in plant protein versus animal protein can help prevent and reverse a slew of chronic conditions, including diabetes and heart disease,” says Joseph. (The nutrients found in plants help support healthy cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels.) Plant-based diets have been linked to a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.
Another major reason people choose to eat plant-based? Cutting back on animal products has significant environmental benefits. Eating more plant foods reduces your carbon footprint since livestock production is responsible for a good portion of global greenhouse gas emissions.
One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that transitioning to more plant-based diets could reduce global mortality by 6 to 10 percent, and food-related greenhouse gas emissions by 29 to 70 percent—when compared with a reference scenario for the year 2050. In addition, a 2013 study aimed at physicians advising patients asks them to consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.
Others, still, go plant-based to support weight loss, which can totally work if you keep calories in check. A 16-week study which compared overweight participants following a vegan, plant-based diet to a control group found that the plant-based vegan diet proved to be superior to the control diet in improving body weight, fat mass, and insulin resistance markers, suggesting its benefits for both diabetes and weight loss.
What are the potential downsides of plant-based diets?
Plant-based eating is a safe and healthy choice for most people, but you should always talk with your doctor or a registered dietitian before making big changes to your diet.
“Anyone with a history of eating disorder or disordered eating shouldn’t follow a diet that eliminates food groups,” says Joseph. “A plant-based diet in the wrong hands can be abused as another restriction diet.”
If that hits close to home for you, Joseph recommends experimenting with plant-based recipes, but steering clear of any strict food rules and restrictions, or labeling your eating habits.
How do you transition to a plant-based diet?
Switching to a plant-based diet may sound daunting, but it’s important to take it one step at a time. Here are eight simple tips and tricks to help ease your transition.
1. Start small.
If you’re ready to start eating more plants, better starting small. Overturning your entire diet in a day is overwhelming and lessens the likelihood of you sticking with it. Instead of jumping to extremes, pick two small changes to implement each week. For example, one easy small step you can take is swapping mayo for another creamy option, like hummus, or baking with a flax egg instead of a real egg.
2. Be realistic.
Remember, a plant-based diet doesn’t mean you can never eat animal products again. So, instead of focusing on taking things away, think about how you can enhance your diet. “Research suggests that following a flexitarian diet (which increases plant-based foods and reduces, but doesn’t eliminate, animal foods) yields similar health benefits, like reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes.”
3. Try Meatless Mondays.
If you simply don’t know where to begin, Meatless Mondays can be a huge help. Cutting out animal products for just one day a week is relatively easy—and can still have a profound impact on the environment and your overall health.
4. Replace cow’s milk with dairy-free milk.
Whether you put a dash of skim milk in your morning coffee or fill up your cereal bowl with 2 percent, swapping the little bits of cow’s milk in your life for a dairy-free alternative, like oat milk and almond milk, but there are a bunch of other options too, is an easy and approachable way to ease into plant-based life. Just be weary that some dairy-free milks can be high in sugar, so choose something that works with your nutrition goals.
5. Rethink breakfast.
Another option is to swap your morning bacon and eggs for oatmeal with banana, raisins, coconut flakes, and chopped nuts. Breakfast is one of the easier meals to control since it’s typically eaten at home, and this plant-based menu will still ensure you get all the protein and nutrients you need to start your day off right.
6. Meet meat in the middle.
If you’re not yet ready to give up your favorite meat-based recipes, try swapping just half of the meat for a plant-based option. This might mean subbing half of the beef in your burgers or meatballs for mushrooms.
7. Go vegan for one meal a day.
If going plant-based 100 percent of the time isn’t in the cards for you, consider going full vegan for just one meal a day to create a good balance. If that is not doable perhaps you can fill your plate with 80 percent to 90 percent plant foods such as sweet potato, asparagus, greens, and roasted beets and then add a small portion of fish (about 10 percent to 20 percent of the plate).
8. Eat foods you love.
Just because you’re opting for a plant-based diet does not mean you have to give up all of your favorites. Instead, get creative, and swap out meat for one of the many meat alternatives now available, or the less-than-healthy ingredients for healthier ones. For example, try making a portobello burger at home instead of heating up a store-bought burger patty, or attempting to make your own froyo using real fruit and dairy-free milk, as opposed to buying a tub of ice cream. As long as you keep your meals and snacks fun and exciting, you won’t get bored of a plant-based diet.
Don’t know where to start? Here’s a 7-day sample menu of plant-based eating.
Breakfast Tofu scramble
Lunch Cauliflower rice bowl with black beans, corn, avocado, and salsa
Dinner Veggie-topped pizza
Snack Zucchini chips
Breakfast Oatmeal-based breakfast muffins
Lunch Tomato basil soup with oyster crackers
Dinner Veggie stir-fry with tofu
Snack Hummus wrap
Breakfast Homemade oatmeal bars
Lunch Greek salad with a slice of whole-grain pita bread
Dinner Kale and tofu curry
Snack Cashew yogurt with berries and a scoop of peanut butter
Breakfast Breakfast burrito with eggs, peppers, and salsa
Lunch Veggie burger and a side salad
Dinner Cauliflower “steak” with roasted sweet potato fries
Snack Veggies with hummus
Breakfast Dairy-free yogurt with berries and granola
Lunch Tomato sandwich with pesto and a drizzle of olive oil
Dinner Whole-wheat pasta with roasted tomatoes
Snack Roasted chickpeas
Breakfast Chia seed pudding with fresh berries and a spoonful of almond butter
Lunch Avocado toast
Dinner Vegan mushroom enchiladas
Snack Handful of almonds
Breakfast Oatmeal with almond milk
Lunch Quinoa bowl with roasted carrots and sweet potatoes
Dinner Vegetarian chili topped with slices of avocado
Snack Whole-wheat toast topped with peanut butter (1)