In a world where nutrition books are best-sellers and a different supplement is promising the shortcut to health on Instagram every week, the word “diet” is as much a part of our lives as the latest Netflix rom-com or seasonal fashion trend. Keto diet, paleo diet, Atkins, Whole30–the list of trendy diets goes on and on. Before you roll your eyes at the title of this article and click away out of irritation for yet another “diet,” know that plant-based eating is not a fad or wellness shortcut that you stick to for a couple of weeks and then give up.
Eating plant-based is not a secret weight-loss diet or an unsustainable eating plan. Instead, it’s the simple decision to eat more of the natural foods from the earth that our bodies were meant to eat, and less of the products, ingredients, and chemicals that our ancestors wouldn’t have recognized as food. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But if eating healthy were that easy, everyone would be doing it. So to help in a culture of confusing health trends and diet fads, I asked plant-based experts everything you need to know about starting and keeping a plant-based lifestyle.
What does “plant-based” really mean?
Plant-based means exactly what it sounds like: the majority of your diet is made up of plants (it really is that simple!). However, because most foods we eat today come with labels, it’s important to clarify what a “plant” really is. Dr. Mona Vand, a pharmacist turned plant-based eating advocate, defined the diet as “eating food in its most natural state, without any manipulation or processing.”
Kelly LeVeque, nutritionist to the stars and founder of Be Well By Kelly, agrees and says that many processed foods can have negative effects on the body like increased inflammation and elevated blood sugar. While a plant-based diet does mean limiting animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy, many packaged, processed foods technically count as dairy-free (like white-flour pastas and yes, even Oreos and Thin Mints), so the difference between a vegan diet and a plant-based diet is that a vegan label just means no dairy, while plant-based means filling up on actual unprocessed plants, rather than dairy-free processed products.
Just because something is “vegan,” or “gluten-free” doesn’t mean that it’s automatically good for you (see: Oreos), which is what makes plant-based eating different than other popular diets. Another reason it’s different is that while vegan means no animal products and gluten-free means no gluten or wheat products, a plant-based diet just means eating more plants, which might mean 100 percent plants, or it might mean including small amounts of animal products here and there, depending on your preferences (more on that below!).
LeVeque tells her clients that the goal of eating plant-based is to fill your plate with actual plants. Think leafy greens, root and cruciferous vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds, and eat fresh plants instead of products with refined grains and processed oils. The biggest case for plant-based eating? Of all the diets and nutrition advice in the world, the one factor that most nutritionists, scientists, and doctors can agree on is that plants are good for you.
Can you get everything your body needs on a plant-based diet?
The key to being healthy on a plant-based diet is to be intentional about getting all the nutrients your body needs. It’s possible to feel your best with plants alone, but you have to be conscious of replacing the nutrients your body used to get from non-plant-based foods. In other words, you can’t just remove processed foods and animal products from your diet. You have to add more and different plants than you might be used to eating to make sure you’re getting enough nutrients.
For example, protein is one of the most common nutrients people get from meat, eggs, and dairy products. LeVeque recommends eating plenty of plants with high protein levels like nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes, as well as supplementing with a plant-based protein powder for an additional boost (her favorites are NOW Food’s Pea Protein which has minimal ingredients, and Tone It Up’s organic, vegan Vanilla Protein Powder. Of course I had to ask for specifics!). Dr. Vand agrees that you can get enough protein from plant-based sources, as long as you eat the right foods. She said, “there is plenty of protein in plant-based food. Some of my favorites include hemp seeds, walnuts, tempeh, pea protein, quinoa, and broccoli.”
Bottom line, if you’re eating a variety of plants rather than processed foods, you’re likely getting adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. However, nutrient levels and needs depend on the person, so talk to your doctor about what’s right for you. LeVeque recommends some plant-based clients take an Omega-3 and vitamin B supplement, as well as routinely getting iron and vitamin D levels checked to make sure they’re absorbing enough nutrients. As with any supplement or vitamin, talk to your doctor about your diet and nutrient levels to see if supplementing is right for you.
How can I start?
Plant-based technically means 100 percent of your diet is made up of plants, but do what’s best for your body and lifestyle, rather than following the guidelines of any one diet. If you can’t imagine totally giving up all the processed products you rely on, then don’t! If eating animal products make you feel great, then why stop eating them? Instead, start by focusing on the ways you can add more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, etc. into your diet.
Eating more plants doesn’t have to be hard (or taste bland). For example, add some veggies into your breakfast omelet and eat with a side of berries, try a pizza with a cauliflower crust instead of wheat crust, and make pasta out of zoodles or spaghetti squash instead of a box of dry noodles.
How to eat plant-based when you’re dining out:
Sure, plant-based would be a piece of (carrot) cake if you lived on a farm or home-cooked every single meal. But we’re in the 21st century and are eating out with friends, traveling all over the country, and doing it while being smart about our budget. Not all of us have the time or money to prepare regular gourmet salads, and we want to keep our social lives intact (nobody wants to be the friend who always says, “I can’t eat anything here!” whenever you go to a restaurant).
Eating more plants does not have to feel limiting, restrictive, or expensive. You can eat plant-based while traveling or eating out, with just a few tricks and tips. For example, focus on sides when there are limited options on the menu. Try ordering any plant-based sides that the restaurant offers like string beans, brown rice, sautéed spinach, etc., and ask for them to be cooked in olive oil instead of butter or canola oil. Another trick is to simply add a side salad, no matter what your meal is. Life should be about enjoying, not restricting, so if you really want an entrée that’s not “plant-based,” order a side salad (sans croutons and sugary dressing, of course) to get some plant-based nutrients from leafy greens.
LeVeque also suggests thinking about meals in terms of what she calls “the Fab Four,” which is protein, fat, fiber, and leafy greens. Because protein and fat are typically the easiest nutrients to find when eating out, look for where you can add fiber and leafy greens. This could mean a southwest salad with beans or lentil soup and a side salad (yum to both!), but no matter what you’re craving or what flavors you prefer, make sure to add fiber-rich veggies and fresh leafy greens.
How to eat plant-based on a budget:
Coming from a self-titled cheapskate who sticks to a plant-based diet, eating more plants does not have to be expensive (trust me). Plant-based eating only gets pricey when you purchase pre-cut and prepared foods, or the fancy plant-based snacks. Try shopping as local as possible for the most affordable produce options; become BFFs with the farmers at your local farmer’s market or check out the smaller grocery stores in your area that carry local produce.
Try buying dry beans or grains in bulk (very affordable), and store them in the pantry to meal prep every week for delicious, easy, and healthy meals (tasty recipe ideas below!). Frozen vegetables are also a more affordable option that won’t go bad after a few days like your fresh produce will, and you can easily add them into smoothies or sauté in dishes. Other pantry staples like oats and quinoa are affordable and will last for a while on the shelf (unlike avocados, which brown faster than I can toast bread to go with them).
Easy tips to start eating more plant-based:
- Rather than thinking about what you’re “not supposed to” eat (which leads to cravings, binges, and an unhealthy relationship with food), think about what you are supposed to eat. Eating more plants doesn’t have to mean boring salads. Instead, start by adding more plants to the meals you already eat, like adding spinach, artichokes, and zucchini into your pasta or making a sushi bowl out of brown rice and veggies if you’re craving Japanese.
- If plant-based feels overwhelming, start with mastering breakfast and work your way through the day (rather than changing every meal at once). Start with a balanced, plant-based breakfast like a Fab Four Smoothie or oats with flaxseeds, cinnamon, nuts, and berries. Once you feel comfortable with your breakfast options, try plant-based meals for lunch like a packed salad or warming soup. Finally, test out satisfying, plant-based meals for dinner.
- If you’re not enjoying your meals, you’re not preparing them the right way. Experiment with natural seasonings like herbs and spices to make foods more flavorful and delicious. Keep in mind that sauces can be loaded with sugars or processed oils (like canola), so think more spices and less sauces. Experiment with turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, paprika, or black pepper.
- When you go to the grocery store, think of shopping the rainbow. Because plants get their color from the antioxidants and other nutrients they contain, eating a variety of colors (think blueberries, purple cabbage, red peppers, carrots, squash, etc) means a variety of antioxidants. Incorporating reds, blues, oranges, greens, yellows, and purples into your diet (in the form of plants, not artificial dyes, FYI!) is the easiest (and prettiest) way to ensure you’re getting the full spectrum of nutrients your body needs.
- Because bad choices often happen when we’re hungry, have a go-to snack to reach for between meals. Nuts and seeds are a nutrient-dense snack that’s easy to pack (you can keep a bag of unsalted almonds at the office or pumpkin seeds in your purse for an afternoon snack), or prepare a nutritious smoothie before going out to eat or in the mid-morning when you start getting hungry (your junk food cravings have got nothing on a Cookies & Cream smoothie)