If you want to try out more plant-based foods, but haven’t dipped your toes yet, then this guide is for you.
As a dietitian with a decade of personal experience as a vegetarian (I’ll tell you why I’m not one anymore later in this article), I’m going to cover everything you need to know to start with a plant-based diet.
What Is a Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet?
A whole foods plant-based diet is exactly what it sounds like. Lots of plants. Mostly unprocessed.
In fact, plant-based meals don’t necessarily have to cut out all meat and animal products. Just limiting the amount of meat you eat can lead to health benefits. At one end of the plant-based spectrum are vegan diets. Vegans don’t eat any food made from animals or made by animals, like meat, dairy, eggs, and honey.
Vegetarian diets, aka Lacto-Ovo vegetarian diets, ease up on the rules with dairy, eggs, and honey, but not meat and fish. The least stringent plant-based diet is plant-centered, plant-forward, or (my favorite, the oft awarded) “flexitarian”. Flexitarians emphasize plants at every meal and meat is an occasional side dish.
Flexitarianism can be a great option if you have a picky family or if you’re just curious about what benefits you might see. Andrea Wotan, a plant-based dietitian, reminds us that “people don’t need to go 100% plant-based. This is not an all-or-nothing option!” Think that almost half of the people who identify as vegetarians sometimes do eat meat, and 8% of Americans identify as “former” vegetarians.
Just do what works for you and know that you’re doing a favor for your health and the planet too.
What are the science-Based Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet?
Plant-based diets are some of the most extensively researched dietary patterns. Studies have shown healthy vegan, vegetarian, and plant-centered diets to:
- Help people lose weight and improve health
- Decrease blood pressure
- Lower the risk of heart disease and stroke
- Lower the risk of type two diabetes
- Decrease cholesterol and reverse early-stage nonalcoholic fatty liver disease
- Lower the risk of many cancers, particularly breast, prostate, and colon cancers
- Decrease the risk of dementia and slow the cognitive decline associated with aging
According to some of the most respected environment and nutrition scientists in the world, plant-based diets are also a critical component of addressing the global climate crisis.
Read “10 Ways a Plant-Based Diet Helps the Planet” here.
What Are the Potential Disadvantages of a Plant-Based Diet?
Vegetarians and vegans get asked all the time, “but what about your protein?”
The reality is that most Americans get more protein than they need. In one study, the difference in protein intake between vegetarian and non-vegetarians was only 4 grams of protein per day, and both had more than enough.
To be sure, though, eat a variety of protein sources. Lentils, chickpeas, nuts, and beans are some examples of plant-based foods high in protein.
Some vegetables are low in specific essential amino acids, but these can always be made up for by others that contain complementary nutrients.
For example, beans are high in lysine and low in methionine, whereas rice is the opposite: high in methionine and low in lysine. This principle holds true for almost all beans and grains, and many seeds have a complete amino acid profile.
Nutrient Deficiencies on a Vegetarian Diet
Regardless of the diet, many people may have trouble getting enough vitamin D, and potentially calcium and magnesium, too. But there are ways you can ensure you are getting enough. For example, you might want to consider a Vitamin D supplement. Tofu, most beans, almonds, seeds, and green leafy vegetables are all good sources of calcium and magnesium.
Iodine may be something to pay attention to, especially if you only use pink salt and don’t eat any sea vegetables. If you’re eating a more strict vegetarian diet, emphasize variety, whole foods, and fortified foods to maintain your nutrition.
Nutrient Deficiencies on a Strict Vegan Diet
As a restrictive diet, a vegan diet needs to be supplemented with certain nutrients essential for health. The most common nutrient deficiency for vegans is vitamin B12. Dr. Jaydeep Tripathy, a primary care physician at Doctor Spring says that “vitamin B12 is almost exclusively found in animal-based food sources, so going on a plant-based diet means you’ll need to take B12 supplements.”
Another nutrient you may have to supplement with on a strict vegan diet is the essential omega-3 fatty acid, eicosapentaenoic acid (“EPA”). EPA is important for brain and heart health and your body can only make a tiny amount of it. Research is unclear whether vegans and vegetarians may be able to make enough from their food. A specific algae supplement is the only vegan source.
Other nutrients that vegans may want to pay attention to include iodine, zinc, and iron, as well as vitamin D and calcium, mentioned earlier. Iodine deficiency is far more prevalent in vegans than vegetarians, with up to 80% of vegans showing signs. You find it in sea vegetables and iodized salt (so don’t use Himalayan pink salt for everything!). Zinc and iron are found in the same vegetables that are high in calcium and magnesium and are also fortified in vegan foods.
The Five Food Groups of a Plant-Based Diet
Food groups of a plant-based diet can be divided into five main categories. Eat these at some point every day, if not multiple times a day, to promote your health:
Vegetables are the mainstay of a plant-based diet, they should be highlighted in every meal. Starchy root vegetables are ok twice a day, but leafy greens pack a nutritional punch like no other, so eat as many greens as you like.
Fruit provides antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals in a naturally sweet treat. Berries are some of the highest-fiber and highest antioxidant fruits available. Dried fruit is ok in moderation, but fresh fruit is more filling and helps keep you hydrated. Eat at least 2 servings per day.
The grains you eat should be minimally processed whole-grain versions of common favorites. Instead of white rice, go for brown rice. Even better, choose red rice or black rice for their additional antioxidants.
Some grains, like quinoa, amaranth, teff, and buckwheat are packed with B-vitamins and contribute significantly to your overall protein intake. These so-called “ancient grains” should form the bulk of your grain consumption.
Legumes and beans (including soy products) are high in fiber and complex carbs, and they are the main source of protein for a vegan. They provide many B vitamins and unique antioxidants, and tofu is one of the best sources of vegetarian calcium available.
One or two servings per meal is recommended. Try to combine them with grains for a complete protein profile.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are valuable sources of healthy fats, fiber, and protein.
Walnuts are incredible sources of omega-3 fatty acids, almonds are rich in vitamin E, pumpkins have high amounts of magnesium, and brazil nuts are the world’s best source of selenium — you only need one a day to get enough.
If you incorporate flax or chia for their anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, make sure that they’re ground otherwise you won’t absorb anything!
Being high in fat, it can be easy to overeat nuts. Just watch your portion sizes and stick with one or two servings per day.
Foods to Eat on a Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet
These are the superfoods that are going to give you the best bang for your buck on a plant-based diet:
Nutritional yeast is fortified with vitamins, and one of the best vegan sources of B complex vitamins. Many people love it for its savory, umami flavor, so sprinkle it on anything savory for a boost in flavor.
Nuts and seeds, particularly pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, almonds, and brazil nuts each power you with a positive nutrient profile.
Flaxseed oil is another way to get your omega-3 fatty acids, but it doesn’t provide EPA, the one that vegans can only find from algae.
Kelp, seaweed, and sea vegetables are the best sources of iodine for vegetarians. They also provide a delicious savory, umami flavor that can be harder to get without eating meat.
UV-exposed mushrooms provide vitamin D2, which can contribute a little bit to your vitamin D status.
Plant-based milk alternatives may be fortified with calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and others, so read the label to see if you’re getting these essential nutrients.
Leafy greens mostly come from the cabbage family (kale, collards, bok choy, arugula, radish, chard), the carrot family (beet greens), or the amaranth family (spinach, amaranth). Cycle through the sources of your greens to get a balanced profile of the nutrients and unique anti-inflammatories in these plants.
I want to note that whole food, plant-based diets deliver a large dose of fiber in every meal. If you’re going from a typical amount of fiber — about half of what’s recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans — then you should make the transition to plant based slowly.
Fiber is well-known for its mild laxative properties, but as your gut gets used to the added fiber your body will adapt to the new normal. Give yourself time to adjust: your bowels will thank you for it.
Foods to Avoid or Minimize on This Diet
Just because it’s vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy.
Cookies, fries, sweets, packed convenience foods, and other processed foods fit in a plant-based dietary pattern, but shouldn’t be a regular part of it.
Plant-based meat alternatives — you probably know them as veggie burgers and veggie dogs — are staples of a vegan’s dining-out experience. I’m glad these are available nowadays, it may help people who try a vegan diet to stay the course.
But, oftentimes these meat alternatives are so packed with salt, preservatives, and other unhealthy additives that they should be kept to a minimum.
Similarly for vegan baked goods, when the flavor is almost exactly the same as the dairy-full version, there’s not much difference in the fat, salt, and sugar content. Save these for special occasions and you’ll keep the healthy habits that got you started on a vegan diet in the first place.
Let me give you an example from my own life. By the end of my stint as a vegetarian, I can tell you that I definitely wasn’t getting my optimal nutrient intake.
Nutrient insufficiency combined with too many processed foods made me feel pretty weak on a regular basis. At the time that was just normal for me. After ten years of choosing a vegetarian diet, I started cutting out the sugar and processed foods, and started eating small amounts of nutrient-dense organ meat, which helped get my health on track.
I’m not saying that any vegetarian who doesn’t feel their best needs organ meats — that would be one hard pill to swallow!
I simply caution you to learn from my mistakes. Eat minimal sugar and processed grains. These “fast carbs” provide limited nutrition for a significant amount of calories, and displace space in your stomach that should be used for nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables.
Every now and then, they provide delicious flavors to your favorite foods. Over time though, they can and do lead to poor nutrition and poor metabolic health.
Going for whole, unprocessed foods and choosing nutrient-dense foods when you have to get something premade are basic strategies for making the right choices on a vegan diet.
Sample Meal Plan for One Week
Here’s a sample meal plan for a vegan diet. If you’d rather have the work cut out for you, check out the Top10 list of best meal kit delivery services.
Breakfast: Oatmeal made with vegan milk alternative and topped with slivered almonds and dried berries.
Lunch: Mixed greens salad with cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives, pumpkin seeds, cucumber, and vegan Caesar dressing.
Dinner: Gazpacho cold soup, made with puréed tomatoes, onion, cucumber, basil, and oregano. Serve with crackers or toasted seed bread.
Breakfast: Tofu scramble spiced with seasoned salt or steak seasoning and a side of steamed spinach.
Lunch: Leftover gazpacho spiced up with your preferred hot sauce.
Dinner: Taco Tuesday! Use a meat alternative or a chili-spiced tofu scramble as you’re a protein, and add all of the standard accouterments: lettuce, tomato, onion, and cilantro. Use plain yogurt or a yogurt alternative instead of sour cream.
Breakfast: Muesli made with your favorite milk alternative.
Lunch: Taco salad made with leftovers.
Dinner: Seared tofu deglazed with shoyu sauce, nutritional yeast, and sesame seeds topped with green onions.
Breakfast: Plain yogurt, or plant-based yogurt alternative with frozen berries, hemp seeds, and a teaspoon of agave or maple syrup.
Lunch: Spinach and diced tofu salad, dressed with miso seasoning and sesame toasted sesame seeds. (If you don’t have leftover baked tofu, raw diced tofu is just fine.)
Dinner: Root veggie bake, with beets, potatoes, brussels sprouts, onion, and feel free to add tempeh as well. (Add sliced sweet potatoes if you want fries with lunch tomorrow!) Serve with brown rice, quinoa, or on a bed of mixed greens.
Breakfast: Oatmeal made with vegan milk alternative and topped with slivered almonds and dried berries.
Lunch: Veggie sandwich, with arugula, cucumber, avocado, red bell pepper, swiss cheese or cheese alternative, and hummus. Sweet potato fries prepared last night.
Dinner: Dinner and drinks out! Or stay at home and make your date-night-in easier with a meal-delivery kit.
Breakfast: Curried tofu scramble with pumpkin seeds served on a bed of steamed swiss chard.
Lunch: Random leftovers you might have in the fridge. Or, a healthy veggie slaw that includes finely sliced green cabbage, red cabbage, red onion, and celery.
I eat this with a dollop of a creamy dressing and a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. Add grapes for a sweet touch. Make a lot of this and use it as a side for the later in the week.
Dinner: Now that you’ve had the chance to perfect your favorite meal, show your friends how easy it is to be vegan by inviting them over and making your favorite recipe. You don’t even have to tell them it’s all vegan, see if they even notice!
Brunch: whole wheat banana pancakes made with vegan mix. Top with coconut cream and blueberries., Serve with a side of yogurt or plant-based yogurt alternative with granola, slivered almonds, and sliced fruit (try oranges and wild blueberries).
Dinner: Broccoli, onion, and red bell pepper sautéed in olive oil, sprinkled with nutritional yeast. Serve with a side of quinoa salad: a can of drained kidney beans, diced onion and diced pepper to already prepared quinoa. Season to taste.
Meal prep by slicing and dicing some of the vegetables you’ll need next week and making a few servings of a whole grain.
Now that you’ve gotten a feel for a plant-based diet, go ahead and try it! Here are the main takeaways to remember:
- Vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diets are promising ways to improve your health. Research has shown that the top chronic conditions can be positively influenced by a plant-based diet.
- Eating a plant-based diet is not an all-or-nothing strategy. Incorporate more plants gradually, but try to avoid diving in too quickly.
- Get a balance of proteins from nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains.
- If you choose to eat a vegetarian diet, pay attention to where your vitamin D, calcium, and magnesium are coming from.
- If you choose to eat a vegan diet, supplement with vitamin B12 and EPA. Also pay attention to your sources of vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and iodine.
- Eat leafy greens, nuts and seeds, nutritional yeast, sea vegetables, and fortified foods to ensure you get enough micronutrients.
- Vegan doesn’t mean healthy. Choose whole foods or minimally processed foods when possible, and save the vegan treats for special occasions.
- Try going vegetarian or vegan for a week and see how you feel. Take some of the work off by sticking with the meal plan provided here or try out one of the many vegan and vegetarian meal kit delivery services.
Keep these tips in mind and you’ll be set to get started on a plant-based diet. You’ll be making a decision that’s good for your health and good for the planet!