What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
You’ve heard that a plant based diet is good for you, but what is it exactly? Is it the same as being vegetarian or vegan? Is it actually healthy?
Simply put, a plant-based diet encourages eating more vegetables, fruits and whole grains while reducing animal products (meat, dairy, eggs) and processed food.
A plant based diet is not a fad that you’ll learn down the road has done you more harm than good. It’s also not a quick fix, lose-weight-fast kind of diet.
Even using the word “diet” is misleading as it’s not something that you go “on” and “off” of. It’s a shift in mindset to recognize that our food choices directly impact our health.
Following a plant-based plan is about making the choice to fuel your body with what it needs to thrive - like essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients - rather than with foods that cause disease and obesity.
Even using the word “diet” is misleading as it’s not something that you go “on” and “off” of. It’s more of a shift in mindset to recognize that our food choices directly impact our health. If you choose unhealthy foods that are loaded with salt, sugar and fat, your health will suffer.
Following the Standard American Diet (aptly abbreviated as the SAD diet) with large quantities of red meat, sugar, highly processed food, and high fat dairy products has led to a national health crisis where over 40% of adults older than 20 are considered obese.
More worrying is that one in three children and adolescents are either overweight or are obese. Our eating habits are to blame!
If we want to have better health and prevent chronic diseases for ourselves and our families we need to prioritize making healthier food choices.
Eating a plant-based diet is a powerful step in the direction towards better health.
Plant-Based Diet Basics
Luckily, it’s not an all-or-nothing type of diet. You do not have to commit to an extreme version of the diet to benefit from it. Plant based diets are flexible so you can decide what changes to make and how quickly to make them.
Step 1 - Eat More:
- Fruits - all kinds
- Vegetables - all kinds
- Whole grains - brown rice, oats, barley, quinoa, corn, etc.
- Legumes - beans, peas, lentils, etc
- Nuts and Seeds - all kinds
- Plant-based protein - tofu, tempeh, edamame, hemp hearts, plant derived meats
Step 2 - Eat Less:
- Animal products - meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy
- Sugars - especially refined sugar
Step 3 - Avoid:
- Highly processed food - packaged cookies, cereal bars, frozen dinners
- Fast food
- Processed meat - bacon, lunch meat, sausage, hot dogs
How to Start a Plant-Based Diet
Choose 2 days a week to make meat-free dinners. Veggie filled stir fries and bean tacos are two simple options. Plus you can vary the types of vegetables and beans every week for variety.
Switch to whole grains.
You can keep your meals the same, just choose whole grain options. Whole grain pasta, whole grain bread and brown rice are easy swaps to make.
Make sure you check the labels on bread - it needs to say 100% whole wheat or it’s just unbleached enriched flour dressed in brown. Don’t be fooled!
Eat a small piece of fruit everyday as a snack.
Choose something you’ve never tried to keep it interesting. Asian pears, dragon fruits, golden kiwis - there are so many fun fruits to choose from. Plus, buying just one will keep the costs down and make the checkout person at the grocery store smile with delight when he rings up something he’s never seen before.
Experiment with nut milks.
There are so many varieties these days - soy, almond, cashew, coconut, rice, macadamia and on and on (and on). Buy one new liter a week and see which one you like the most.
When I first started drinking soy milk, I filled my cup with half soy and half cow’s milk. It wasn’t long before I liked the taste of soy milk more and stopped drinking cow’s milk altogether. Make sure to choose the unsweetened kind - you don’t need added sugars in any form.
Prep breakfast in advance.
This will save you time in the morning and ensure you don't leave the house without eating. An empty belly will lead to hangriness before you know it. Fruit smoothies and overnights oats are two quick and easy options with endless ways to mix things up so your taste buds don't get bored.
Ditch the sodas (and sweet tea and juices and froufrou coffees for that matter).
Or at least start cutting back. There’s no way around it - sugary drinks are bad for you. Weight gain, fatty liver disease, and tooth decay are just a few of the (really compelling) reasons to stop drinking the stuff. P.S. Diet soda is no bueno either.
Choose drinks that are good for you instead - water (flavored with citrus if you like), herbal tea, green tea, unsweetened coconut water. I’m not against having a small glass of wine at night either. No judgement. Keep in mind that red has less sugar than white.
The Differences Between Plant-Based, Vegan and Vegetarian
Still curious about the differences between plant based, vegan and vegetarian? Read on.
No animal products or by-products whatsoever. This includes meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs and honey.
No animal products (meat, poultry, fish or shellfish). Can include eggs, dairy, and honey.
Encourages fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts. Minimizes consumption of meat and dairy.
If you’re looking for the most flexible, easy to follow diet then choosing plant-based is the way to go.
You may find yourself down the road feeling so much better that you want to explore additional ways to enhance your diet, but for now it’s best to take small steps for a greater chance of lasting change.
Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Need more convincing? Here are a few ways eating a plant-based diet can improve your physical and mental health.
Replacing unhealthy foods (processed foods, fried foods, refined grains) with healthy whole grain, fruits and veggies will help you lose weight. Studies have shown that annual weight gain is lowest for people who changed their diet to include fewer animal products.
Eating more plant food and less meat reduces your risk of heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, eating a mostly plant based diet decreases your chances of developing heart failure by 42%.
Dementia and Cognitive Decline:
Eating lots of fruits and vegetables has been shown to decrease your risk cognitive impairment and dementia by 20%.
Seriously, the list goes on and on for the benefits of eating more plants and less meat!
Worried about Possible Problems with a Plant-Based Diet?
I won’t get enough protein.
Protein is an absolutely essential part of our diet, but there’s a bit of a protein craze going on right now. People are worried that they’re not getting enough in their diets and are turning to protein bars, protein shakes, and more red meat to make sure they’re getting enough.
Unfortunately, those types of foods aren’t necessarily providing you with the other vitamins and nutrients you need. Often they’re full of extra sugar or saturated fat which are doing you more harm than good.
Adult women need about 46 grams of protein a day and should eat a variety of beans, vegetables, and nuts daily to get what they need in a healthy way.
Also, lean cuts of meat and fish are still great sources of protein. The idea is simply to eat meat less frequently and in smaller portions. A general rule is to use meat as a condiment rather than a centerpiece.
I’ll be hungry.
Contrary to popular belief, eating meat and potatoes is not the only way to feel full. In fact, foods full of fiber like beans and leafy greens will help you feel fuller with fewer calories. Nutrient rich foods won’t spike your blood sugar levels leading to a crash and burn. Instead you’ll feel full and energized longer.
It’s too expensive.
If you associate a plant based diet with organic fruits and vegetables, I can see why you’d think you’d blow your budget at the grocery store. However, I only suggest buying organic if you can afford to.
For most of us, weighing what’s good for our bodies with what’s good for our bank account is a balancing act. If organic produce is on sale, I go for it, otherwise I load up on regular fruits and veggies. Plus, buying frozen produce is a great way to save a few pennies.
You’ll also save money buying less meat and stocking up on inexpensive items like canned and dried beans, bulk grains and nuts.
Should You Try a Plant-Based Diet?
If you’re still reading, I think you’re interested enough to give it a shot. Really, there aren’t any good reasons for not trying it. You don’t have to commit for a lifetime - just give it a week to see how you feel. If you’d like help starting, you can try our 3 Day Plant-Based Primer to jumpstart your journey.