There are plenty of reasons to adopt a plant-based diet – your health, the environment, your budget, and more. If you’re interested in plant-based eating but aren’t sure where to start, consider this your guide. Learn all about what a plant-based diet means, what foods belong in a plant-based diet, and how to include more plant foods in your diet.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet can mean something different for everyone – it’s not a “one-size-fits-all” kind of thing. But the main concept is the same: eat more plants and less meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal products. Check out a few diets that fall under the umbrella of plant-based eating.
Vegan: A vegan diet excludes all foods that come from an animal – meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and even honey and gelatin.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: This diet excludes meat, poultry, and fish, but allows dairy products and eggs.
Pescatarian: This is a type of vegetarian diet that excludes meat and poultry, but allows fish, dairy products, and eggs.
Flexitarian: This type of diet is flexible. It focuses mostly on plants but includes meat, poultry, and fish occasionally. There are no strict rules about how often you can include meat, so it’s open to your own interpretation.
Your version of a plant-based diet may be different than someone else’s – but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Take some time to figure out what a plant-based diet means to you, and then check out these tips to help you include more plants in your diet.
What foods should you eat on a plant-based diet?
This may seem like an obvious answer – plants! While you don’t have to completely eliminate meat, dairy, and other animal products, try to make plants the main component of your meals and snacks. There are even food products made from plants that serve as an alternative to animal-based products to help you along your plant-based journey.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (plant nutrients) that help your body function properly. They’re also a great source of fiber, a nutrient that helps support gut health, heart health, and satiety (feeling full and satisfied). Many fruits and vegetables also have a high water content, which helps you meet your fluid needs and stay hydrated.
Aim to eat the rainbow each day – red, yellow, blue, green, and every color in between. Variety is the key to make sure your body gets all the nutrients it needs.
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend making at least half of your grains whole. But what’s a whole grain?
Grains have three main components: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Whole grains contain the entire grain kernel, so they’re rich in vitamins (especially B vitamins), minerals, and fiber. Great options include oats, quinoa, couscous, whole wheat bread, brown rice, and whole-wheat pasta.
Refined grains have been processed to remove the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. This results in a finer texture and improved shelf life, but it strips the grain of important nutrients, like fiber and B vitamins. Refined grains are usually enriched to add back vitamins and minerals lost in processing, but the fiber isn’t added back.
Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are very nutrient-dense – they pack a ton of nutrients into just a small handful. For example, a ¼ cup serving of walnuts provides 190 calories, 18 grams of fat, 2 grams of fiber, and 4 grams of protein.
If you’re concerned about calories and fat, don’t worry too much. Calories aren’t always a great indication of a food’s value – not all high-calorie foods are unhealthy, and not all low-calorie foods are healthy. Stick to a handful of nuts or seeds at a time, and they’re a great option. In addition to plant-based protein and fiber, nuts and seeds are also rich in plant-based omega-3s, an essential fat that helps support heart health.
You won’t run short on options – add variety to your plant-based diet with walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews, chia seeds, flax seeds, and sunflower seeds.
Black beans, chickpeas, peanuts, lentils, soybeans, and peas all belong to the legume family. Legumes are the total package. They’re a great source of plant-based protein, fiber to keep you full, and healthy carbohydrates to fuel all of your daily activities.
Interested in learning more about legumes? Check out this blog next: “Spilling the Beans on Legumes.”
If you’ve decided to ditch dairy, there are plenty of plant-based milk alternatives. Almond milk, soy milk, and oat milk are trending options, but you may also find coconut milk, pea milk, cashew milk, or hemp milk in your local grocery store. Keep in mind that most varieties of plant-based milk are lower in protein than dairy milk, but they’re often fortified to contain a comparable amount of calcium and vitamin D.
And it’s more than milk. The demand for plant-based products has driven the creation of other dairy alternatives, like dairy-free yogurt and cheese.
Plant-based meat substitutes are meant to mimic the flavor and texture of meat, and recent advances in food technology have made them more realistic than ever. While you can get plenty of protein from legumes, nuts, and seeds, meat substitutes are a great option for those who love meat but are striving to reduce their meat consumption.
Check out your local grocery store to explore their plant-based meat alternative section. You can usually find a substitute for nearly any meat – chicken, beef, sausage, fish, and even chorizo.
What foods should you avoid on a plant-based diet?
Plant-based eating doesn’t have to be “all or nothing.” The goal of a plant-based diet is to support your overall health by adding plant foods. So, think about all the foods you can add to your diet, rather than foods you should take away. While the focus should remain on plant foods, it’s not meant to be restrictive. Feel free to include all of your favorite foods – even if they’re animal-based. Just surround them with plants!
How do you transition to a plant-based diet?
Adopt these tips to help you jumpstart your plant-based journey.
Ditch the “all-or-nothing” mindset.
You don’t have to follow an exclusively plant-based diet and eliminate all animal products to reap the benefits of plants. Every plant you add to your diet is a step towards a healthier you.
Small, gradual changes lead to sustainable habits. If you’re interested in transitioning to a plant-based diet, set realistic goals for yourself. Try to add a vegetable to each meal, hop aboard the “Meatless Monday” train, or step out of your comfort zone and toss a plant-based meat substitute in your cart the next time you go grocery shopping.
Eat foods you love.
What’s life without the foods that bring you joy? As you embark on your plant-based journey, you’re going to find new plant-based favorites along the way. And that’s great! But you don’t have to leave your favorite animal-based foods behind if you don’t want to. It’s perfectly fine to enjoy meat, cheese, yogurt, or eggs if it aligns with your goals and values.
Make simple swaps.
Swap ground beef for black beans in your burrito. Throw white beans into your hearty vegetable soup instead of chicken. Opt for almond, oat, or soy milk instead of dairy milk. There are so many simple swaps you can make every day to include more plants and fewer animal products in your diet. Take it one meal at a time.
Although there are many different definitions for “plant-based diet,” they’re all the same at their core. Eat more plants. There are thousands and thousands of edible plants in the world. Challenge yourself to see how many you can check off your list, all while benefiting your health, the environment, and your budget.