Many people are adopting plant-based diets and consuming even more plant-based foods. According to a 2018 study from the NPD Group, about 43 million American consumers (about 14%) “regularly use plant-based alternatives such as almond milk, tofu, and veggie burgers.” Of these consumers, 86% say they’re not vegan or vegetarian.
Why (and how) are so many people eating plant-based foods?
There are many benefits, and therefore many reasons, to start eating a plant-based diet. And unlike what you may think, eating plant-based isn’t so hard.
If you’re not sure where to start, here’s our plant-based diet for beginner’s guide to steer you in the right direction.
What is a Plant-Based Diet?
Like the name suggests, a plant-based diet consists of plant foods. We’re not talking about rabbit food, though. Bleeding veggie burgers made by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are plant-based despite looking and tasting like real beef.
The definition of a plant-based diet may vary based on who you’re asking. Some followers of a plant-based diet don’t take the name literally, consuming mainly plant foods and minimal animal products.
According to Dr. Robert Ostfeld, a cardiologist who recommends a whole food plant-based diet, a plant-based diet “consists of all minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs, and spices and excludes all animal products, including red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products.”
What is a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?
A whole-food plant-based diet is a specific type of plant-based diet. The diet Dr. Robert Ostfeld describes in the quote above would be considered a whole-food plant-based diet. Notice what’s emphasized: plant foods in their whole, unprocessed form. This is where the difference between a vegan diet and a whole food plant-based diet is made abundantly clear.
For example, French fries are made from potatoes and oils, which are both vegan foods. However, fries are heavily processed, so they’re not recommended on a whole food plant-based diet. A favorable alternative would be baked potato wedges seasoned with herbs and spices — no oil necessary.
Many other plant-powered physicians — Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. Neal Barnard, and more — also recommend plant-based diets consisting largely of whole, unprocessed foods. A common recommendation among these health professionals is to eliminate animal products and limit your intake of processed, refined, and high-fat foods.
Dr. T. Colin Campbell is one of the original pioneers of a whole food plant-based diet. He published the famous China study, a groundbreaking study that examines the relationship between animal protein consumption and cancer risk. His Center for Nutrition Studies is an excellent resource for anyone looking to adopt a beginner-friendly plant-based diet.
What to Eat on a Plant-Based Diet
While a plant-based diet may sound restrictive, there are tons of delicious foods you can eat.
Food to Eat Regularly
- Whole grains
- Soy protein from tofu and tempeh
Foods to Eat Sparingly
- Processed foods
- Refined carbohydrates (i.e. pasta, bread, white rice, etc. that’s not made from whole grains or whole wheat)
- High-fat foods
Foods to Avoid
- Meat (i.e. beef, chicken, pork, etc.)
- Animal byproducts (i.e. honey, lard, gelatin, etc.)
- Too many processed foods
- Refined sugar
Are Vegetarians Plant-Based?
In the purest form of the label, “plant-based” includes strictly plants, whereas the “vegetarian” label leaves some wiggle room for animal products like dairy and eggs.
However, some vegetarians refer to themselves as followers of a plant-based diet since the base of their diet is made up of plants.
How to Start a Plant-Based Diet For Beginners
1. Go at your own pace
There are two schools of thought on how quickly you should transition to a plant-based diet: Take it day-by-day or go cold tofurky overnight. There is no “right” way to go about it — just do what feels best for you.
Some people get fed up with feeling weighed down by the Standard American Diet, so they ditch animal products overnight and go grocery shopping in the morning. That’s one way to do it.
The more common way is to take it step-by-step. Start by using up any animal products and processed foods in your kitchen. As you phase out the foods to avoid, incorporate more plant foods. Try to mimic foods you love with plant-based substitutes, such as using lentils in your bolognese sauce instead of beef. You can actively make subtle changes by participating in Meatless Mondays, eventually working your way up to a plant-based diet seven days a week.
Another great resource to get started is Veganuary, a charity that organizes an annual campaign to help people switch to a plant-based diet. Sign up to receive their free vegan starter kit. If you need more support, Challenge 22 connects new members of a plant-based community with mentors, dieticians, recipes, and more.
2. Stock up on plant-based pantry staples
On your first big plant-based grocery haul, load up on the following staple foods:
- Grains — oats, brown rice, quinoa, etc.
- Beans — black beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, etc.
- Lentils — red lentils, brown lentils, etc.
- Nuts — almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, etc.
- Seeds — flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, etc.
- Soy protein — soy milk, tofu, tempeh, etc.
You should also get plenty of fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables. Frozen products tend to be more affordable. Shop seasonal produce at farmer’s markets if possible.
3. Try out some vegan alternatives to your favorite foods
If you’re going plant-based overnight, give yourself permission to replace your favorite animal products with vegan alternatives as you adjust. Though store-bought veggie burgers are technically processed foods, these may hold you over until the cravings pass.
Remember that adopting a plant-based diet is a long-term lifestyle change. You’re bound to indulge from time to time. There’s a whole world of vegan processed food out there (have you seen the vegan cheeses?). While you shouldn’t make a habit of consuming it daily, every now and then is reasonable.
4. Enjoy plant-based take-out food
A popular question is: Can you eat out as a vegan? The answer is a resounding yes. However, fast-food options aren’t going to have the healthiest options, so take a look at the menus at local restaurants near you.
When eating out, look for tofu or salad dishes as they tend to be the healthiest. You can also ask the staff about low-fat options. Some restaurants even make veggie burgers in-house with fresh ingredients like brown rice and black beans.
5. Experiment with plant-based recipes
If you’re not sure where to find plant-based recipes, the Internet is a gold mine. Or, if you prefer cookbooks, try one of these cookbooks written by plant-based physicians:
- The How Not to Die Cookbook by Dr. Michael Greger
- The McDougall Quick and Easy Cookbook by Dr. John McDougall
- Eat to Live Quick and Easy Cookbook by Dr. Joel Fuhrman
Find even more plant-based recipes here:
Plant-Based Diet Benefits
Saving animal lives is a popular ethical reason to go vegan. Looking out for your own health and wellness is another motivator to eat more plants and less animals.
The most widely studied benefits of a plant-based diet are related to health and the environment.
Studies suggest that one possible solution to the obesity epidemic in the U.S. is through plant-based nutrition. One study even found that a plant-based diet is twice as effective as a traditional diabetes diet for weight loss.
Since a plant-based diet is low in animal fat and high in fiber, it’s clear to see why it would aid in weight management.
Reduced Risk of Disease
Dr. Michael Greger gives a famous speech on the 15 leading causes of death. Among them, the majority can be prevented and often reversed with a plant-based diet. Some of the top killers include:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Respiratory disease
A plant-based diet is also proven to help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, which are both important aspects of promoting overall heart health. Since heart disease is the #1 killer in America, eliminating animal products, which are high in saturated fats, can increase your longevity and quality of life.
Good For the Planet
Many articles are floating around with headlines like, “A Vegan Diet Is the Best Thing You Can Do for the Environment.” Many experts and their research agree.
The hot topic was sparked by the 2018 study published in Nature. It found an undeniable link between the food system and impending environmental devastation. Researchers recommend shifting towards a heavily plant-based diet, which is more sustainable than current dietary trends.
This is good news for cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals bred and raised for consumption. Animal agriculture also impacts animals in the wild since it’s a leading cause of mass extinction, deforestation, global warming, ocean dead zones, and so on.
Answering Your Plant-Based Diet Questions
How to get enough protein on a plant-based diet?
Ah yes, one of the biggest myths surrounding a plant-based lifestyle. For starters, there is protein in every single plant food. Plant protein also has its advantages over animal protein.
Some of the top plant protein sources include:
- Tofu, 22 grams per 1 cup
- Peanuts, 35 grams per 1 cup
- Black beans, 15 grams per 1 cup
- Lentils, 18 grams per 1 cup
- Edamame, 15 grams per 1 cup
The secret to getting enough protein on a plant-based diet? First, realize the amount of protein you need per day is less than you think. Secondly, consume a varied plant-based diet. This means getting protein from a mix of legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and other foods.
Isn’t a plant-based diet expensive?
If you’re buying dragon fruit by the pallet and cold-pressed organic green juice by the truckload, then yes. The same is true of plant-based meat alternatives like the Beyond and Impossible burgers, but regular consumption of these processed foods isn’t the most nutrient-dense choice anyway.
If you’re stocking up on seasonal fruit, frozen veggies, and starches in bulk, then no.
The debate about whether a vegan diet is more expensive rages on, but one study found that a vegetarian diet is more cost-effective and contains more servings of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Imagine the further savings by eliminating dairy and eggs.
Just like being an omnivore, your grocery bill all depends on what you buy. Shop local farmer’s markets to get the best deals on produce, and don’t be afraid to purchase fruits and vegetables in the freezer aisle. When you can, buy starches like potatoes, grains, and legumes in bulk.
For more tips on how to eat affordably on a plant-based diet, check out Toni Okamoto’s Plant-Based on a Budget recipes, meal plans, and more.
How can I stick to a plant-based diet away from home?
When you’re traveling or visiting a friend’s house, some extra preparation may be necessary. This is especially true around the holidays.
The key to making healthier choices on the road is to do some research and choose your restaurants or grocery stores wisely. You’re unlikely to find something on the menu at McDonald’s, for example. To make things way easier when you’re traveling, simply download the Happy Cow app, which displays vegan options near you.
When in doubt, order from the sides menu. Build a meal with a baked potato, side of steamed vegetables, and grilled tofu.
You can also bring food with you. There’s nothing wrong with heating up a can of lentil soup or a frozen bean burrito.
Quick Start Your Plant-Based Diet With This 3-Day Meal Plan
- Breakfast: Oatmeal with fruit and nuts
- Lunch: Lentil salad
- Dinner: Black bean and corn burritos
- Snack: Veggie hummus
- Breakfast: Oil-free crispy hashbrowns
- Lunch: Chickpea salad sandwich
- Dinner: Spicy black bean and quinoa veggie burgers
- Snack: Veggie pinwheels
- Breakfast: Eggless tofu scramble
- Lunch: Sweet potato nourish bowl
- Dinner: Lentil vegetable soup
- Snack: Crispy dry-roasted chickpeas
Is a Plant-Based Diet Right For You?
Probably. Many experts agree that almost anyone can benefit from adopting a plant-based diet. Yes, there are special exceptions and every body is different, but a diet that’s low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and disease risk sounds pretty good.
A plant-based diet for beginners doesn’t have to be perfect. You might slip up, and that’s okay. What’s important is actively working towards your health goals. If a plant-based diet helps get you there, then you already know your answer.