Your Complete Guide to Going Plant-Based
Ready to try plant-based cooking? Let a dietician answer your questions about health, nutrition, and of course, what to eat.
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Jamie Vespa is a registered dietitian, nutrition and food journalist, and digital influencer who operates the health-centric food blog and social media accounts, Dishing Out Health.
Plant-based eating may seem like the latest diet trend, but this way of eating has been central to those living in the Mediterranean for millennia. Rooted in diversity and flavor, the Mediterranean Diet embraces an abundance of produce, olive oil, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Fish, poultry, eggs, and cheese are enjoyed in smaller amounts, and red meat only a few times a month. Hundreds of studies have showcased the health benefits of this plant-centric diet pattern, including lower risk of obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's, and certain types of cancer.
And yet while the Mediterranean Diet may be familiar, what we’re now calling “plant-based” or “plant-forward” eating is interpreted in different ways. For starters, is plant-based different from veganism?
The different terms may be confusing, but I’m going to clarify all that and more. Here, you’ll learn about plant-based diet benefits, key nutrients to keep in mind, and naturally, what to eat on a plant-based diet.
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Why go plant-based?
It’s clear that the health benefits of a plant-based diet can include reducing your risk of chronic disease, thwarting inflammation, and even increasing longevity. Going plant-based also means getting more good-for-you nutrients (see more on that below) that many Americans fall short on.
The power of a plant-based diet expands to include the health of the environment, too. The Environmental Working Group commissioned a Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change to determine the carbon footprint generated by common food sources. It showed that livestock farming and the meat industry as a whole make up 18% of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. By eating less meat and more plants, we can also help lower our environmental impact by reducing the amount of land dedicated to livestock farming.
Transitioning to a plant-based diet has never been easier. Chefs, food bloggers, and food manufacturers are getting more creative with plant-based recipes to entice even the most devout carnivore.
Is plant-based cooking healthy?
Yes! The perks of eating more plants include better overall nutrition, lower markers of inflammation, and reduced risk of chronic disease such as diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers. This is partly because plant-based diets include lower amounts of saturated fat and higher amounts of fiber and phytochemicals (plant antioxidants) from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains compared to meatier omnivore diets. People who follow a plant-based diet also tend to have reduced risk of obesity.
Plant-based vs. vegan cooking
The guidelines of a vegan diet are clear-cut: no animal products of any kind, including meat, dairy, eggs, and for some, even honey. The definition of “plant-based,” however, runs the gamut. For some, plant-based eating is closely aligned with veganism and excludes all or most animal products. For others, it’s more about making plants the central focus of the diet, but leaving some wiggle room for dairy, eggs, meat, and fish. Since the latter approach offers more flexibility, some refer to it as “plant-forward” or a “flexitarian” diet. This is the dietary pattern most aligned with the Mediterranean Diet, and the one with the most science to back up its benefits.
What should you eat on a plant-based diet?
"Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants." With these seven words from his book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto, the author Michael Pollan famously summarized advice for eating healthy, and that's a good place to start here, but only part of the story.
1. Eat whole foods
While meat analogues have exploded in popularity the last few years, as a dietician, I encourage a whole-foods approach to plant-based eating. This ensures that fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds — all of which have a myriad of good-for-you nutrients — are the central focus. As a general outline, follow the USDA MyPlate approach, which encourages filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables, and the other half with grains and protein.
2. Eat the rainbow
For the produce half, focus on variety and color of fruits and vegetables to get the widest range of vitamins and minerals. Experiment with different cooking methods (roasting, air frying, grilling) and umami boosters (soy sauce, miso, nutritional yeast) to maximize the flavor potential of plants. Start by adding mushrooms, eggplant, beets, purple cabbage, and cauliflower to your shopping list, which are some of the best whole-food subs for meat.
3. Go for whole grains
Embracing whole grains over refined will add crucial nutrients like iron and B vitamins to your plant-based meals. (Bonus: the extra fiber from whole grains will help keep you fuller longer.) Start by adding healthy foods like bulgur or farro to salads, stir-fries, or grain bowls for extra heft. These whole grains are also great for molding into “meatballs”, binding a bean burger patty, or working into a savory (and gluten-free) breakfast bowl.
4. Make protein part of every meal
Keeping the MyPlate recommendation in mind will help you feel full. Some of the top sources of plant-based protein come from soy (tempeh, tofu, edamame, and soymilk), beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, and quinoa.
5. Eat healthy fats
Fat is essential for absorbing vitamins A, D, E, and K. Most of the good-for-you fats (meaning, ones that support your heart, brain, and overall health) come from plants like olives, avocado, nuts, and seeds. Aim to include plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids too, such as flaxseeds and chia seeds (see more on this below). Limit animal sources of fat, including butter, ghee, heavy cream, and lard, which are higher in saturated fat.
What foods should you avoid on a plant-based diet?
Fortunately, the list of foods to stay clear of if you're starting a plant-based diet is a short one: For starters, limit processed foods.
Heavily processed foods with lots of added sugar and sodium offer scant nutritional value. As mentioned above, meat analogues that mimic the taste, texture, and look of real meat are fine on occasion, but they shouldn’t be the cornerstone of plant-based cooking. (Many are highly processed and high in saturated fat.) These foods also often contain industrially processed seed oils like inexpensive soybean, canola, and corn oil. These oils are exposed to high heat and chemical solvents during processing, which strips them of their good-for-you nutrients and instead creates unhealthy byproducts.
Instead, look for foods that contain extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, or "expeller-pressed" canola oil (a much gentler, chemical-free way of extracting oil).
Then there's meat. Should you avoid it? Read on for more.
Is it OK to eat a little meat on a plant-based diet?
If you still choose to enjoy meat, treat it like a condiment, and think of it more as a side dish or flavor agent. This will leave more plate real estate for plant foods, while still satisfying your cravings.
Will I get enough protein on a plant-based diet?
Most Americans get plenty of protein; however, about two-thirds of that protein comes from animal sources. For those who avoid animal protein, research shows that eating a variety of plant foods over the course of the day can also provide all of the nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Some of the best plant protein sources come from soy (tempeh, tofu, edamame, and soymilk), beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, and quinoa.
Do I need to take vitamin and mineral supplements on a plant-based diet?
With a little strategy, you can get all your essential nutrients while following a plant-based diet. To avoid potential deficiencies, look over the following nutrients and make sure you’re either consuming their food sources or in some cases, taking supplements.
1. Omega-3 fatty acids
You’ve probably heard that fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart and brain health. Flexitarians can eat these fish a couple of times a week, but vegans need to rely on plant sources of omega-3s — which the body doesn’t absorb as efficiently — such as flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, seaweed, and soy. Vegans may also need to take algae-based omega-3 supplements.
The form of iron that’s in animal products (beef, oysters, chicken, and turkey are all good sources) is much more easily absorbed by our bodies. Plant foods like beans, lentils, tofu, dark leafy greens, and whole grains also contain iron, but in a form that our bodies can’t use as efficiently. Fortunately, pairing these foods with ones rich in vitamin C makes it easier for our bodies to use the iron. For example, add red bell pepper (vitamin C) to a spinach salad (iron), Brussels sprouts (vitamin C) to a lentil dish (iron), or strawberry jelly (vitamin C) to a whole-grain PB&J sandwich (iron).
This essential mineral is crucial for bone health as well as muscle and nerve function. Vegetarians can often get sufficient calcium from dairy foods; however, vegans need to be a little more strategic. Some of the best plant-based sources of calcium include fortified plant milks and juices, tofu made with calcium sulfate, tahini, and almond butter.
4. Vitamin D
This nutrient is another key player in bone health and nerve function, and it helps safeguard our immunity. The foods richest in vitamin D are fatty fish and fish liver oil, though cheese and egg yolks are good sources too. Vegetarians can often hit their vitamin D quota through fortified dairy products. For vegans, mushrooms that have been exposed to UV light during production offer a decent dose of vitamin D (check the label). Fortified plant-based milk, orange juice, and cereals are also decent sources.
5. Vitamin B12
This nutrient is of particular concern for vegetarians and vegans because natural food sources are only from animal products. Vitamin B12 plays a key role in red blood cell formation and DNA synthesis, and keeps the central nervous system humming. The best sources of B12 for vegetarians are dairy foods and eggs. To get their share, vegans have to lean on fortified foods like nutritional yeast, breakfast cereals, non-dairy milks, and meat analogues, and may need to take supplements as well.
You may be less familiar with this mineral; however, it plays an important role in immunity and DNA synthesis. Zinc is found in animal foods like oysters, beef, poultry, seafood, and dairy, and some plant foods like beans, nuts, and whole grains. Unfortunately, we absorb much less zinc from plants than animal foods because of a “food inhibitor” substance called phytic acid that’s in grains, beans, and nuts. Soaking and sprouting are two easy work-arounds.
Sprouting changes the nutritional profile of grains, making their nutrients more readily available and easier to digest. Look for whole-grain bread made from sprouted wheat, barley, lentils, or spelt, for example. And if you’re cooking with dry beans, cover them with water by 2 inches and let them soak for at least 4 hours or overnight.
5 more plant-based dinner recipes to add to your repertoire
Now that you’re up on all the particulars of plant-based eating, I wanted to give you just a few more new recipes for enjoying these delicious foods. These main dishes spotlight some of the most creative use of plants, plus offer key nutrients to make sure you don’t fall short.
Easy Vegan Lasagna is layered with tofu hummus ricotta to give it delightfully cheesy (but dairy-free) flavor and creaminess. One slice offers a whopping 17 grams of plant protein, plus calcium from the tofu, and vitamin D from the mushrooms.
Smoky Tempeh Black Bean Burgers combine two sources of plant-based protein to create the meatiest meatless burger you’ll bite into. Don’t let the lengthy ingredient list intimidate you — most are pantry staples.
Sesame Broccoli and Shiitake Stir Fry showcases fiber-filled veggies and protein-rich edamame in a 30-minute meal. Serve it over brown rice pasta to reap the extra nutritional benefits of whole grains.
This cozy curry features hearty vegetables, protein-rich lentils, and warm spices. Serve it over rice, noodles, or quinoa for a healthy weeknight meal.
This may be the most irresistible (and ingenious) fast-food makeover. And if you’re just discovering the versatility of tofu, the recipe is all the convincing you’ll need. You'll make a spicy crumbled tofu with taco seasoning, and a cashew queso. Add roasted vegetables, some crunchy tortilla chips, and fresh stuff like cilantro and salsa. Wrap the whole thing in a couple of flour tortillas and cook until crispy.
Plant-based diet for beginners
If you're not ready yet for a big commitment and need a beginner's guide, read on for some easy ways to incorporate plant-based cooking into your life even on busy weeknights. Simply focusing on a vegetarian diet and Meatless Mondays may help you make lifestyle changes and change your eating habits as well.