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As the name implies, a plant-based diet is all about getting most of your calories and nutrients from plants. But there’s room for the meat and animal products you love — sparingly.
Given the fairly wide parameters, a lot of 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 University of South Carolina, tells TODAY.com.
The pros of a plant-based diet include health benefits and the flexibility, explains Amy Shapiro, registered dietitian, founder and director of Real Nutrition in New York City. And while you’re limiting foods, like meat and cheese, you don’t have to give them up entirely.
Here’s what to know about getting started with a plant-based diet.
How do I start a plant-based diet?
Plant-based eating is generally a healthy dietary approach, but don’t just assume that you’ll automatically be eating healthy by cutting down on animal products, Shapiro says. For example, if you eat mostly refined carbohydrates and processed foods, that’s not necessarily healthy or nutrient dense.
Here are some tips to get 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 pastas, 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 savor them and satisfy your craving.
Plant-based diet versus vegan
A vegan diet falls into the category of a plant-based diet, but it is more restrictive because you do not eat any animal products at all on a vegan diet. That means no eggs, honey, dairy or meat.
Because a plant-based diet is more flexible and allows enjoying animal products from time to time, it’s easier to adopt. And since you’re still loading up on plants, you reap many of the same health benefits as people following vegan diets.
Some of the diets that fall under the plant-based umbrella include:
- Semi-vegetarian diets, like the Mediterranean Diet or the DASH Diet, which that limit red meat and allow for 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.
Plant-based diet benefits
Here are some known benefits of following a plant-based diet.
Meeting daily requirements of vitamins and minteerals
Filling about half your plate with fresh fruits and vegetables means you’ll likely to get all of the vitamins, minerals and macronutrients and micronutrients you need, Shapiro explains.
Lowering risk of and helping manage health problems
Following a plant-based diet makes it easier to portion-control the foods that tend to be less healthy, like saturated fats and sugars, so you’re lowering risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and other health problems.
A plant-based diet is also good for people with chronic conditions, like high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, because you’re limiting saturated fats and sugars.
Weight loss and management
Research shows 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 prescribed a plant-based eating plan for weight loss on average lost the equivalent of 7.5 to 10 pounds.
A 2015 randomized controlled trial published in the journal Nutrition (in which Turner-McGrievy was the lead author) that compared weight lost over 6 months for people on vegan, vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian or omnivorous diets found that people on vegan diets lost by far the most weight over the course of the trial (7.5% of their baseline body weight). But those on all four other types of diets (including the omnivorous diet) lost just over 3% of 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, lower risk for most chronic diseases and heart disease deaths.
Plant-based eating is good for the planet, given that farming animals for food is known to be one of the big contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.
Are there downsides to a plant-based diet?
A lot of major health groups consider it a healthy diet for people of all ages and stages of life. But certain health conditions may not respond not respond well to a plant-based diet, such as digestive issues where you need to limit the amount of fiber you eat, or kidney disease, where you need to watch your intake of potassium, which is readily available in plant foods, Shapiro says.
Consult your health care provider if you have underlying health conditions and want to switch to a plant-based diet.
Another downside of plant-based diets is that prepping fresh fruits and vegetables, the mainstay of your meals and snacks, can be time-consuming. Shapiro’s advice: Plan ahead. Roast vegetables ahead of time that can quickly become a salad or sandwich. Wash and cut fruit that can easily be tossed with yogurt and nuts or 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:
Beans are packed with nutrition, including magnesium and fiber. Legume consumption is also associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Beans are versatile, fit into 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 flavor, which is further enhanced through roasting, and they’re one of the top sources of beta-carotene — a precursor to vitamin A and anthocyanin, a phytochemical. Studies have shown sweet potatoes promote metabolic control.
As a fermented food, this spicy pickled cabbage dish naturally contains probiotics and is loaded with vitamins A and C, and minerals such as magnesium, calcium and selenium.
A handful of nuts a day is recommended to help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease. Walnuts may be a particularly good choice. Besides 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 are high in unsaturated fat and a good source of protein. Choose a natural, low-salt peanut butter with no sugar or palm oil added.
This ancient grain has been a favorite in other countries — mostly Italy — for a long time, but its popularity is now rapidly rising in the U.S. as a nutritious substitute for other common grains. It’s rich in fiber and protein and has a nutty flavor.
Grilled, fried or baked, tofu contains protein and is a complete source of the nine essential amino acids the body needs. Flavor-wise, it soaks up whatever sauces or spices you cook it in.
Broccoli is high in cancer-fighting sulforaphane and is also a good source of protein.
This uncooked sauce is made with fresh parsley, oregano, garlic, oil and vinegar, making it a great way to get in fresh herbs and boost your antioxidants.
Brightly colored fruits and veggies
They’re richer in phytochemicals than paler options, so choose dark leafy greens such as spinach, intensely orange carrots, bright berries — all of those are packed with antioxidants. But all fruits and vegetables are beneficial, so look for what’s seasonal, affordable and fits your lifestyle.
Plant-based diet meal plan
Here’s a sample menu for a plant-based diet created by Shapiro:
Smoothie (1 banana, 1 tablespoon peanut or any 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 veggies
Pineapple slices with coconut yogurt and hemp seeds
Zucchini noodles with chickpeas and shrimp in a tomato based sauce
Oatmeal cookies with dark chocolate chips
Plant-based diet recipes
Here are some plant-based diet recipes from TODAY.com to try out: