Plant-Based Diet for Beginners

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So you’re thinking about starting a plant-based diet? Perhaps you’ve heard about the health benefits, are concerned about the environment, or you just want to eat a little less meat. Whatever your reasons, you’re not alone. For the past few years, plant-based products have been flooding (and flying off of) supermarket shelves. At the same time, dairy sales are on the decline and a 2020 Gallup poll found that about one out of every four Americans is eating less meat.

But What Exactly Is a Plant-Based Diet?

Is it a vegan diet? Vegetarian? A quasi-plant-sometimes-meat diet? There’s some confusion around the term “plant-based” because as Sharon Palmer, M.S.F.S., RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian, explains, there’s no official definition. To some, it means eating a 100% vegan diet. To others, a plant-based diet means eating mostly plants, while occasionally enjoying meat, fish, eggs and dairy. The basic tenets, however—eating more whole plant foods like whole grains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and reducing intake of animal products—are the same.

Pictured recipe: Black Bean-Quinoa Bowl

Foods to Fill Up on and Foods to Eat Less Of

The biggest question still remains to be answered: What do I eat on a plant-based diet? Palmer shares her recommendations for what to eat on a daily basis:

  • Legumes (chickpeas, beans, peas and lentils) provide plant protein and essential amino acids
  • Leafy green and cruciferous vegetables for calcium and other nutrients
  • Nuts and seeds provide healthy fats
  • Whole grains offer essential amino acids, iron and zinc
  • A variety of fruits and veggies so you don’t eat the same things every meal and every day. This will ensure you’re getting a mix of various vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.

One thing you’ll notice is that the recommended foods to fill up on are predominantly whole and minimally processed, which leads us to what you should aim to eat less of on a plant-based diet.

Because eating more plants and less meat is “in” right now, food companies have started giving consumers more options when it comes to plant-based products. But just because a product is vegan doesn’t mean it’s healthy. The quality of the food you’re eating matters, no matter what type of eating pattern you follow. A 2021 Journal of Nutrition study found that the more people avoided meat, the more ultra-processed foods they ate. The authors concluded that not all vegetarian diets automatically have health benefits and that highly processed foods can affect the nutritional quality of the diet.

What a Plant-Based Diet Looks Like: 1-Day Sample Menu

Breakfast

Chocolate-Banana Protein Smoothie (You can sub a non-dairy milk of choice.)

Morning Snack

1 small apple

1 tablespoon almond butter

Lunch

Roasted Veggie & Tofu Brown Rice Bowl

Afternoon Snack

2 tablespoons hummus

1 cup chopped raw veggies

Dinner

One-Pot Tomato Basil Pasta

Small side salad

Evening Snack

No-Bake Vegan Date Brownies

Pros and Cons of a Plant-Based Diet

Here are some pros and cons to consider as you think about starting a plant-based diet.

Pro: There Are Many Health Benefits

A well-planned plant-based diet does a body good. “It’s well documented that plant-based diets are linked with lower risks of chronic diseases like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s and more,” Palmer says. Case in point: A 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed the diets of more than 300,000 people and found that the more closely they followed a plant-based diet, the lower their risk of developing type 2 diabetes, regardless of how much they weighed. Another 2019 study published in JAMA found a link between eating plant-based proteins (like beans and tofu) and overall longevity.

Pro: It May Help You Lose Weight

Eating more plants also affects your waistline. In a 2019 Epidemiology study, a more plant-based diet (and therefore, eating less animal-based foods) was associated with a smaller waist circumference and lower body fat percentage. But the good news here is that you don’t have to give up meat, dairy and eggs altogether to reap the benefits. While researchers found the more you scale back, the better for your weight and waistline, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing scenario.

Pro: It’s Better for Mother Earth

Animal agriculture takes on a toll on our environment and natural resources (to be fair, all agriculture takes a toll). Producing meat demands a lot of water too. A 2-ounce serving of pasta requires 36 gallons of water while a 4-ounce hamburger requires 616 gallons.

To combat the damage, we need to make some substantial shifts in the way we eat. The EAT-Lancet Commission, a group of 37 scientists representing 16 different countries, was tasked with establishing the best go-forward strategy when it comes to our diets and reducing climate change. Their findings? Global consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes will have to double, and consumption of foods like red meat and added sugars will need to be reduced by 50%.

Pro: It’s Easy to Maintain

Compared to most other diets, eating a plant-based diet is fairly easy to maintain. There’s no calorie tracking or specific meal plans to follow. It offers a lot of flexibility because there aren’t any hard and fast rules either—you can reduce your meat intake, eliminate animal products altogether, or find a happy balance in between. You do what works for you.

Con: You May Need to Supplement

What’s the saying—failing to plan is planning to fail? These words of wisdom apply here. Depending on where you fall on the plant-based spectrum, you may be at risk of certain nutritional deficiencies. “If you don’t plan well and you don’t eat a balanced diet, you can be missing out on important nutrients, such as vitamin B12, calcium, iron, zinc and protein—all of which are part of healthy, whole plant foods,” Palmer explains. (Vegans are at a greater risk because their diets are the most restrictive.) Other nutrients to take into consideration are vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.

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