As the name implies, a plant-based diet is all about getting the majority of your calories and nutrients from plants. But there’s room for the meat and animal products you love – sparingly.
Given the fairly broad parameters, many healthy diets that focus on whole foods and fruits and vegetables are plant-based, Brie Turner-McGrievy, Ph.D., RD, professor at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, tells TODAY .com.
The benefits of a plant-based diet include health benefits and flexibility, explains Amy Shapiro, registered dietitian, founder and director of Real Nutrition in New York City. And while you limit foods like meat and cheese, you don’t have to give them up completely.
Here’s what you need to know when getting started with a plant-based diet.
How do I start a plant-based diet?
Plant-based eating is generally a healthy diet approach, but don’t assume that cutting back on animal products will automatically make you eat healthy, says Shapiro. For example, if you eat mostly refined carbohydrates and processed foods, they are not necessarily healthy or nutrient-dense.
Here are some tips for getting started with a plant-based diet:
- Fill half your plate for meals and snacks with non-starchy vegetables and fresh fruits, such as leafy greens, carrots, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, berries, grapes, apples, pears and melons.
- Fill the rest of your plate or snack bowl with lean proteins (like chicken, tofu, beans, or yogurt), complex carbohydrates high in fiber (like whole-wheat pasta, farro, quinoa, and other whole grains, or starchy vegetables, like sweet potatoes), and healthy fats (avocados, nuts, seeds and olive and other oils).
- You can still eat foods like cheese, red meat, and sweets, but limit them, choose high-quality options, and make them the star of the meal so you really enjoy them and satisfy your cravings.
Plant-based diet versus vegan
A vegan diet falls into the category of a plant-based diet, but is more restrictive because on a vegan diet you don’t eat animal products at all. That means no eggs, honey, dairy or meat.
Because a plant-based diet is more flexible and allows you to enjoy animal products occasionally, it is easier to adopt. And because you’re still consuming plants, you’ll enjoy many of the same health benefits as people who follow a vegan diet.
Some of the diets that fall under the plant-based umbrella include:
- Semi-vegetarian dietssuch as the Mediterranean Diet or the DASH diet, which limits red meat and allows some white meat, fish, dairy and eggs.
- Pesco vegetarian diet, where you avoid meat, but fish, dairy and eggs are allowed.
- Vegetarian diet, where you avoid meat and fish, but dairy and eggs are allowed.
Benefits of a plant-based diet
Here are some known benefits of following a plant-based diet.
Meets the daily requirement for vitamins and minerals
If you fill about half your plate with fresh fruits and vegetables, you’re likely to get all the vitamins, minerals, macronutrients and micronutrients you need, Shapiro explains.
Reduce the risk of health problems and help manage them
Following a plant-based diet makes it easier to portion portions of foods that are less healthy, such as saturated fats and sugars. This way you reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and other health problems.
A plant-based diet is also good for people with chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, because you limit saturated fats and sugars.
Weight loss and management
Research shows that plant-based eating can be a good diet for weight loss. A 2015 review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that, according to data from 15 studies, people who prescribed a plant-based eating plan for weight loss lost the equivalent of 7.5 to 10 pounds on average.
A 2015 randomized controlled trial published in the journal Nutrition (in which Turner-McGrievy was the lead author) that compared weight loss over a six-month period in people following a vegan, vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian or omnivorous diet diet, it was found that people following a vegan diet lost by far the most weight over the course of the trial (7.5% of their baseline body weight). But those who followed all four other types of diets (including the omnivore diet) lost just over 3% of their baseline body weight.
And according to a 2016 review article published in The Permanente Journal, plant-based eating can support weight management, reduce medication needs and lower the risk of most chronic diseases and deaths from cardiovascular disease.
Plant-based eating is good for the planet, as raising animals for food is known to be one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
Are there any disadvantages to a plant-based diet?
Many major health groups consider it a healthy diet for people of all ages and stages of life. But certain health conditions may not respond well to a plant-based diet, such as digestive problems where you need to limit the amount of fiber you eat, or kidney disease where you need to watch your potassium intake, which is easily preventable. available in plant-based foods, says Shapiro.
Consult your doctor if you have underlying health conditions and want to switch to a plant-based diet.
Another disadvantage of plant-based diets is that preparing fresh fruits and vegetables, the basis of your meals and snacks, can be time-consuming. Shapiro’s advice: Plan ahead. Roast vegetables in advance that can quickly become a salad or sandwich. Wash and cut fruit that can easily be mixed with yogurt and nuts or made into a smoothie. And keep frozen fruits and vegetables on hand.
Foods to eat on a plant-based diet
Some recommendations for foods to add to your diet if you’re trying to eat more plant-based foods:
Beans are packed with nutrients, including magnesium and fiber. Consumption of legumes is also associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Beans are versatile, fit any budget, and are easy to prepare, whether you buy them canned or dried. If you buy canned beans, rinse them to remove some of the excess salt. Hummus is another way to enjoy beans.
Sweet potatoes have a naturally sweet taste, which is further enhanced by roasting, and they are one of the most important sources of beta-carotene – a precursor to vitamin A and anthocyanin, a phytochemical. Studies have shown that sweet potatoes promote metabolic control.
As a fermented food, this spicy sauerkraut dish naturally contains probiotics and is packed with vitamins A and C, and minerals such as magnesium, calcium and selenium.
A handful of nuts per day is recommended to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease. Walnuts can be an especially good choice. In addition to offering plant-based protein, fiber and healthy fats, they contain a trio of minerals – manganese, copper and magnesium – that also help maintain bone health.
Nut butters contain a lot of unsaturated fat and are a good source of protein. Choose a natural, low-salt peanut butter without added sugar or palm oil.
This ancient grain has long been a favorite in other countries – especially Italy – but its popularity is now rapidly increasing in the US as a nutritious alternative to other common grains. It is rich in fiber and protein and has a nutty taste.
Grilled, fried or baked, tofu contains protein and is a complete source of the nine essential amino acids the body needs. As far as flavor goes, it will absorb any sauces or spices you cook it in.
Broccoli is high in cancer-fighting sulforaphane and is also a good source of protein.
This no-cook sauce is made with fresh parsley, oregano, garlic, oil, and vinegar, making it a great way to get fresh herbs and boost your antioxidants.
Brightly colored fruits and vegetables
They’re richer in phytochemicals than lighter options, so choose dark leafy greens like spinach, intense orange carrots and bright berries; these are all packed with antioxidants. But all fruits and vegetables are useful, so look for what is seasonal, affordable and suits your lifestyle.
Plant-based diet meal plan
Here is a sample menu for a plant-based diet, created by Shapiro:
Smoothie (1 banana, 1 tablespoon peanut or other nut or seed butter, 1 cup almond milk, 1/2 cup frozen cauliflower, 1 serving chocolate vegan protein powder, cinnamon)
Large salad with quinoa, beans, olives, avocado and vegetables
Pineapple slices with coconut yoghurt and hemp seeds
Zucchini noodles with chickpeas and shrimps in tomato sauce
Oatmeal cookies with dark chocolate pieces
Plant-based diet recipes
Here are some plant-based diet recipes from TODAY.com to try: