More and more people are switching to a plant-based diet thanks to its proven health and environmental benefits. In the U.S itself, more than a third of consumers are actively trying to eat more plant-based foods.
So, what constitutes a plant-based diet?
“A plant-based diet is one that centers on whole plant foods, namely vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices,” says Julieanna Hever, California-based nutritionist, founder of Plant-Based Dietitian and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition.
While plant-based eating is often used synonymously with the vegan diet — the two aren’t the same.
“The word ‘vegan’ represents a food or diet that is devoid of animal products, but it doesn’t specify what exactly the diet is composed of. One place this can be confusing is that a vegan diet is known to be healthy. But French fries, Oreo cookies, and plant milk-based ice creams are also vegan, however, they don’t count as healthy food,” explains Hever.
Bottom line: “A vegan diet can be plant-based, but a plant-based diet is not necessarily always vegan,” tells Hever.
Why is a plant-based diet good for you?
“A plant-based diet is the only diet that has been shown to not only prevent — but to reverse — advanced-stage cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes,” says Hever.
Studies also suggest that plant-based eating is associated with sustainable weight management, reduced risk of mortality and lower risk of heart disease. In addition, it’s also linked to the prevention and treatment of hypertension, high cholestrol and lowered risk of certain cancers, adds Hever.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate…and appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”
But before you jump on the vegetarianism bandwagon, note that starting a new diet requires boatloads of willpower, planning and effort. And going cold turkey from day one is never a good idea.
Here are seven simple strategies to help you easily transition to a wholesome, plant-based diet:
- Start slow. Pick a few plant-based meals and rotate them through in a week. “Start with meals you have always enjoyed that just happen to be plant-based, such as oatmeal, pasta primavera, jacket potatoes, veggie stir-fry, bean and rice burrito, lentil stew, or three-bean chili. Then build on those meals,” suggests Hever. “Since we’re creatures of habit, we tend to stick to fewer different dishes, so start slowly and learn this new language of food without any pressure to be perfect,” says the nutrition expert.
- Cut down meat and processed food intake. Instead of going cold turkey from the beginning, start by changing the proportion of plant and animal-based foods on your plate. This will give your mind and body time to accommodate to the new diet. Make simple changes like adding a large portion of salad or a fresh fruit bowl to your daily meals. Next, get rid of meat and dairy products you don’t like much anyway. And gradually work on swapping animal-based ingredients with plant-based alternatives in your favorite recipes. For instance, if you love beef chili, trade meat with dried bulgur or portobello mushrooms as shown in this recipe. Or, if you like tacos, try its plant-based versions like this Quinoa Taco Meat recipe and these Mexican Spiced Cauliflower Tacos.
- Go for plant-based breakfast. Once you’ve tested the waters, you can take the next step by committing to eat at least one plant-based meal every day. A wholesome, vegetarian breakfast is a good place to start. If you’re looking for some quick inspiration check out these delish (and totally healthy) recipes for breakfast muffins, toasts, waffles, pancakes, parfaits and smoothie bowls. Next, work on vegetarianizing your lunch, followed by snacks and dinner. Here are a few simple lunch and dinner recipes to try.
- Watch your protein. “While the average protein we require is about one gram per kilogram of our body weight, most people overconsume it by doubling or even tripling the recommendations in the incessant quest to get ‘enough’,” notes Hever. This is why it’s important to remember that just because something is good doesn’t mean more is better. “Excessive consumption of protein is not only unnecessary but can also be harmful,” she adds.”We actually don’t need to consume protein per se. What we need is to meet our requirements for the nine essential amino acids which our body cannot synthesize on its own,” explains Hever. “All plant foods contain amino acids in different proportions and there is plenty of protein in plants to meet all requirements,” “As long as you are eating enough calories to sustain yourself and are focusing on whole foods instead of refined foods, it would be impossible to become deficient in protein,” adds the nutritionist.
- Know your food. “You can eat Oreos and drink Diet Coke and call yourself a vegan. Understanding how to make your food taste great while still being healthy and wholesome is extremely important,” says Purple Carrot’s Founder and CEO Andrew Levitt. “Most of the commercial products on the market, like faux meat and cheese, are highly processed and contain the same nutrients as animal products which make them health-damaging, think saturated fat and excessive amino acids,” Hever points out. Also, these foods are often packed with highly refined oils, flours, sugars, and salts. Therefore, it’s better to indulge in these foods only once in a while. In general, it’s best to stick to whole, intact foods as much as possible, says Hever. Other than that, educate yourself on nutrition and ways to prepare different ingredients. Alternatively, you can hire a plant-based dietitian “for one-on-one guidance on making the transition and familiarizing yourself with the lifestyle,” she suggests.
- Stock up on healthy foods. “There are so many incredible products on the market today that it’s easier than it ever was to incorporate plant-based foods into your diet,” says Levitt. From kale chips and dairy-free milk to tempeh and tofu — there’s something for every budget and every palate. So take time to explore vegetarian and fresh produce aisles at your local supermarket. Stock up your kitchen with nutritious, plant-based foods and keep healthy snack options in easily accessible places like your bag, desk drawer, kitchen counter and fridge.
- Keep your meals fun and exciting. Focus on foods you like and ones that are easily accessible to you. “If you aren’t skilled in the kitchen, stick to easier recipes. For instance, throw together canned beans and frozen veggies in a pan, add sauce, and cook up a great pot of soup,” says Hever. Next, learn new ways to make those simple recipes more fun and flavorful. Here are ten healthy 5-minute recipes anyone can make. Meanwhile, if you’re tired of eating the same salad every day, find out new salad recipes to try or other fun ways to eat your veggies. Also, don’t deprive yourself of occasional treats. If you’re craving dessert, whip up one of these delectable plant-based dessert recipes to treat yourself to. In addition, invest some time in exploring new recipes, ingredients, food blogs and restaurants. “Find like-minded people — even if it’s via social media, read books and watch films on the subject to broaden your knowledge and seek inspiration,” Hever advises. “As you start to enjoy new foods and new flavors, you’ll notice how much better you will feel. And soon, you’ll start to crave more plant-based foods over time,” says Levitt.
Lastly, keep in mind that any transition takes time. “Much of this is about trial and error, finding out what works for you and what doesn’t. So be gentle with yourself as you find your rhythm to incorporate plant-based foods,” adds Levitt.