What Is a Plant-Based Diet? (& How to Get Started)
By: Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital | Published 01/20/2023
From the Mediterranean diet to a flexitarian one, more and more people are going plant-based these days.
"A plant-based diet is more of an eating pattern than a diet," says Angela Snyder, wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist. "It emphasizes eating whole fruits, vegetables and plant-based proteins and grains. This differs from the standard American diet, which prioritizes not just meat but processed foods."
This also differs from the trendy diets we often think of when making healthy changes to what we eat, like Whole30, keto and paleo — which can help a person lose weight through the sheer amount of food restriction required. But these diets aren't sustainable for most people. They also don't provide much benefit beyond short-term weight loss. Some even make it harder to consume important nutrients, or, worse still, cut them out completely.
It's why dietitians like Snyder prefer plant-based eating patterns. They're not just helpful for losing weight; they're easy to follow and maintain. They also come with a slew of concrete health benefits.
And, no, plant-based eating doesn't mean you have to give up meat.
The benefits of a plant-based diet
"When we consume larger amounts of whole, plant-based foods, we benefit from more fiber and antioxidants," explains Snyder. "A lot of people, including those who eat a standard American diet, don't get enough of these beneficial nutrients."
The case for going plant-based is rooted in what we know about the Mediterranean diet, which is high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nut and seeds and olive oil. Based on the eating patterns of people who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, the diet prioritizes plants over meat and animal products.
"Research shows that people who follow a Mediterranean-style eating pattern have a lower risk of developing certain chronic diseases than those who eat the standard American diet," says Snyder.
A Mediterranean style eating pattern leads to lower rates of:
- Heart disease
- Certain cancers, including GI cancers
- Type 2 diabetes
U.S. News & World Report recently ranked the Mediterranean diet as the best overall diet for the sixth year in a row.
"A lot of really interesting information is coming out about how plant-based diets could also potentially be helpful for brain health," adds Snyder. "There are so many benefits to prioritizing plants because of the fiber and antioxidants we get from them."
7 tips for starting a plant-based diet
With these benefits in mind, you're probably wondering how to start a plant-based diet. Snyder shares her seven tips below:
1. Understand that plant-based doesn't mean quitting meat
Don't trap yourself into thinking that going plant-based means eating all plants all the time. This mindset might actually keep you from succeeding.
"The goal is to increase the amount of nutrients, fiber and antioxidants you're getting by eating more whole, plant-based foods, but the diet doesn't eliminate fish, chicken, eggs or dairy products," says Snyder. "I think that's the appeal of this eating pattern. It offers more flexibility than a vegetarian or vegan diet, which many people find hard to maintain."
While there's no hard and fast rule as to how much of your diet should be comprised of plant-based foods, Snyder says at least 50% is a good starting point — though she adds that, ideally, the majority of your foods come from a plant-based option.
So what, specifically, are good options?
2. Know which plant-based foods are high in protein
The terms "protein" and "meat" are basically synonymous for those who are used to the standard American diet. It can leave us wondering where to find protein when switching to consuming mostly plants.
Plant-based proteins include:
- Beans (black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, cannellini beans, etc.)
- Red and green lentils
- Soy products, like tofu and tempeh
- Peanuts and almonds
"Beans and lentils are some of the best plant-based proteins," says Snyder. "They not only have a good amount of protein but are also high in other beneficial nutrients, like fiber, B vitamins and minerals."
Snyder adds that, on occasion, you can also consider plant-based meat products, like Beyond Beef and Impossible Burger.
"I recommend eating limited amounts of these processed plant-based options since the manufacturing of these meat alternatives tends to require a lot of additives and ingredients that aren't necessarily healthy, like excess salt and saturated fats," warns Snyder.
(Related: Is Plant-Based Meat Any Healthier Than Beef?)
3. Don't forget to fill half of your plate with non-starchy veggies
According to the CDC, only 9% of adults eat enough fruits and vegetables — yet another reason to make plants the focus of your diet.
"Half of your plate at lunch and dinner should be non-starchy vegetables," says Snyder. "Veggies don't just provide us with antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals, they help us portion control our protein and carbohydrate sources that make up the other half of the plate."
There are tons of non-starchy veggie options to consider, but given so many of us regularly fall short of our needs, here are some ideas:
- Green beans
- Brussels sprouts
- Collard greens
- Leafy salad greens
- Squashes, including Zucchini
- Swiss chard
You may have a favorite or two from this list, but Snyder recommends trying to switch things up as often as possible.
"Variety will help keep you from getting bored of a plant-based diet," says Snyder. "It also helps make sure you get all of the different antioxidants, vitamins and minerals found in these different foods."
The same goes for fruits. For instance, you may like eating a banana every morning, but swapping in an apple, orange or blueberries now and then can help provide you with a broader spectrum of these beneficial nutrients.
Two tips to help you incorporate plenty of variety in your fruits and veggies:
- Look for what produce is in season
- Eat all of the different colors of fruits and vegetables — red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple
4. Reframe how you plan meals and grocery shop
"Our brains are trained to think about meat as the main course and veggies as the side," says Snyder. "Plant-based eating becomes much easier if you shift to thinking about plant-based options as the backbone of your meal."
For instance, you could start by deciding that you want quinoa for dinner, with perhaps some Brussels sprouts and salmon on the side. Or maybe you want seasoned black beans, paired with broccoli and brown rice. The point: you can still have poultry or seafood with your dinner; it's just easiest to stick with the diet if these foods aren't your primary focus.
Whatever you decide on, remember that your plant-based journey begins at the market: If you want 50% of your diet to be plant-based, 50% of your grocery cart has to be plant-based, too.
"If you only pick up bananas and one bag of salad for the week, you're probably not going to get there in terms of your plant-based diet," says Snyder. "Think about the meals you want to cook ahead of time and plan your grocery list from there."
5. Beware that "plant-based" doesn't always equal healthy
Speaking of plant-based grocery shopping, just because something says "plant-based" on the label doesn't mean it's automatically the healthier option.
"It's become a bit of a buzzword," says Snyder. "Yes, plant-based is good, but sometimes marketing takes it in another direction. Margarine is sometimes labeled as plant-based now, but it's still just vegetable oil."
Margarine may contain less saturated fat than regular butter, but some brands contain more of this less healthy fat than you might expect. Be sure to check the nutrition facts label. Plus, margarine is still a processed food item that contains many additives.
The same is true for a meal like buttered pasta or cheese pizza. Sure, these are plant-based options, but both are also fairly processed and lack the nutrition a well-balanced meal brings.
"This takes away from the goal of plant-based eating, which is to benefit from the nutrients that whole vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and seeds provide us," Snyder points out.
6. Consider plant-based swaps of your favorite meals
Struggling to get excited about meatless meals? Start by changing one of your go-to options to a plant-based version that's not much of a stretch. It may not be as hard as you think.
For instance, try swapping:
- A meat lovers pizza for one loaded with veggies, like mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, olives and zucchini
- A hamburger for a black bean and quinoa burger
- A traditional meat-based chili for a three-bean chili made with kidney, pinto and black beans
If you're still struggling, go slow — just a day or two a week. For instance, you might try doing Meatless Monday for a month.
7. When you turn to meat and animal products, do so in a healthy way
A lot of the appeal of a plant-based diet is that it doesn't eliminate our beloved meats, milk and other animal products. But Snyder recommends thinking about these items in a healthier way as often as possible.
"The main downside of meat and animal products is the saturated fat content, in terms of how it can raise cholesterol and potentially be inflammatory," says Snyder. "By prioritizing plants, we cut way down on our saturated fat intake."
And as you fill in your diet with non-plant options, you can still help limit saturated fat by opting for lean meats over red meat and choosing fat-free options of milk and yogurt.
"Sometimes it's easier to get nutrients like protein and calcium from animal-based products, but we should still do that in a healthy way," recommends Snyder. "By choosing chicken and fish instead of beef, for instance. And we can eliminate the saturated fat from dairy products completely by having skim milk and 0% Greek yogurt."
By: Katie McCallum