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How to get started on a plant-based diet

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

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Plant-based diet for beginners

By now, you’ve probably heard the phrase plant-based diet. Unsurprisingly, this eating pattern prioritizes plant foods, including fruits and veggies, and nutritious eats, like whole grains, nuts, seeds, and pulses. Even if you eat animal foods and have no intention of eliminating them, transitioning to a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your personal health as well as the health of the planet. And it’s actually easier than you think! Here’s a beginner’s guide to a plant-based diet and some common mistakes to avoid.

What is a plant-based diet?

The switch to a plant-based diet doesn’t mean you need to exclude animal foods (though you may if you wish). A plant-based diet emphasizes plant foods, but it may include smaller portions of foods derived from animal sources, or maybe you continue to eat these foods but do so less often. The frequency and amount are up to you as long as the emphasis is on plants!

In reality, there’s no strict definition of a plant-based diet; it’s a flexible umbrella term that can include a strictly vegan diet, a more moderate vegetarian diet, or even a more liberal flexitarian diet. For example, the Mediterranean Diet could actually be considered a plant-based diet because of its focus on plant foods.

Meanwhile, I typically encourage eating at least 75% plant foods for an optimal eating pattern. Benefits of a plant-based diet can include a higher fiber intake and a lower intake of saturated fat, according to one 2020 study, which also noted improvements in cholesterol levels. Other studies suggest that emphasizing plant foods may lower your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer, as well as help improve weight status, according to a 2020 review paper.

How to start a plant-based diet

Replace animal proteins with plant-based proteins

OK, this may seem obvious but without sufficient protein, you won’t be able to maintain or build muscle, which means your metabolism could potentially slow down over time. And you will be hungry soon after you eat if your meal is low in protein.

Here are some common plant-based protein sources and the amount of protein each food contains. And just so you know how these foods compare to animal protein, a small, 3-oz serving of chicken has 22 grams of protein. So, you may get slightly less protein from a serving of plant-based foods, but since you’re likely eating them with other sources of protein--say, a stir-fry with tofu and cashews over brown rice--you can easily get what you need from plant sources. Check out these higher-protein plant-based meals for some ideas!

  • ½ c quinoa = 4 g

  • ½ c dry oats = 5 g

  • 2 Tbsp Tahini = 5 g

  • 2 Tbsp almond butter = 6 g

  • ¼ c. pistachios = 7 g

  • ¼ c. almonds = 8 g

  • 3 oz tofu = 9 g

  • 3 Tbsp hemp seeds = 10 g

  • 1 c chickpeas = 11 g

  • 1 c black beans = 15 g

  • 1 c edamame = 18 g

Don’t replace protein with carbs

One of the biggest mistakes I see when starting a plant-based diet is to replace animal proteins with carbs, like pasta, rice, and quinoa. When you reduce your chicken, fish, and beef intake, pasta may seem like a simple dinner substitute. But, when it comes to balanced eating, a better way to go is to eat starchy carbs as side dishes and pair them with other foods. That’s why I like to say that carbs are team players! Even healthy, higher-fiber carbs are best when eaten with some protein and fat. This team approach will help you manage your blood sugar and hunger levels better than if your meal or snack is imbalanced.

Balance out convenient plant-based proteins with whole food options

I love a good veggie burger, and I use plant-based protein in my oatmeal and smoothies. (BTW, some of my faves are Dr. Praeger’s Perfect Burger and Barney Butter Powdered Almond Butter.) However, I balance out these convenience items with other whole forms of plant protein, such as chickpeas, tofu, edamame, and black beans--and I recommend that you do, too. Of course, if you’d like, you can also include some animal protein since a plant-based diet doesn’t have to eliminate foods like salmon, chicken, eggs, and yogurt. But, the point is, when you’re beginning a plant-based diet, try to include some whole plant-based proteins, even if you’d like to enjoy some healthy packaged items, too.

Embrace veggies

Sometimes, I see people reduce their consumption of animal foods without paying attention to their veggie intake. Hands down, one of the healthiest things you can do is to eat more veggies, so if you’re transitioning to a plant-based diet without paying attention to your veggie consumption, it’s time to re-think your plate. At lunch and dinner, try to fill half your plate with non-starchy veggies, such as zucchini, spinach, kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cabbage. These foods provide the raw materials that stabilize your cells and guard against the damage that can result in chronic health conditions. So go ahead and add my easy veggie side dishes to your plant-based diet menu!

Watch out for nutrient shortfalls

You can certainly get all the nutrients you need on a well-planned plant-based diet, but even people who eat all foods can fall short on certain nutrients, and that can be even more likely if you’re transitioning away from dairy and meat. These are the nutrients to watch out for and where you can get them on a plant-based menu.

  • Calcium. Check labels to make sure you’re buying plant-based milk that’s fortified with calcium. Calcium is also found in almonds and chia seeds. If you’re not eliminating dairy foods, you can get calcium from cheese, milk, and yogurt.

  • Vitamin D. Certain mushrooms contain vitamin D, and if you’re eating salmon, that’s another source. However, I think most people benefit from a supplement. NOW Foods Vitamin D 3 with 2,000 IUs of vitamin D is one option.

  • Iron. Lentils, soybeans, and pumpkin seeds are plant-based sources of iron. If you pair an iron-rich food with one rich in vitamin C, it’ll enhance the absorption of iron. So, serve those lentils with Brussels sprouts or snack on strawberries and pumpkin seeds. You can also find iron in fortified whole grain, low-sugar cereals. Here are some of my favorite whole grain cereals, but note that they're not all fortified.

  • Zinc. You can find zinc in soybeans, pulses, nuts, and whole grains. Zinc is also found in beef, chicken, and fish if you happen to eat those foods.

  • Vitamin B12. This nutrient only comes from animal foods, but you can get it in nutritional yeast as well as fortified plant-based milks. However, brands fortify milk alternatives to varying degrees, so definitely compare labels. (Here’s my favorite Bob’s Red Mill Nutritional Yeast.)

  • Omega-3s. Plant-based sources of these anti-inflammatory fats include walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. The type of omega-3 fatty acid in plant foods is different from the types in fish, though, so if you’re not exclusively plant-based, I’d suggest eating two servings of seafood each week.

Don’t get stuck in a rut

OK, so you’re starting out on a plant-based diet and you’re getting into a groove. Unfortunately, sometimes that groove is more like a rut! Be sure you’re not falling into the common trap of relying on the same foods and recipes over and over and over. The truth is, it’s not a good idea to eat the same foods every single day. Your body thrives when it’s fed an array of plant foods! Don’t worry! I’ve got you covered with this plant-based food list!

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