Eating a plant-based diet has lots of benefits, not just for you but for the environment too. But starting something new can feel overwhelming and stir up lots of questions.
Is the food any good? Are the recipes impossible to cook? Will this new diet actually deliver on the benefits it claims? Will you even notice a difference?
It can all start to feel like too much. Before you bail out and go back to old patterns, stick with me!
I’m here to answer your questions and guide you along the way. A healthier lifestyle is ahead—let’s get started!
What do We Mean by a Mostly Plant-Based Diet?
Following a diet that focuses on plant-based foods means you’re eating mostly fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. As the name implies, you’ll be eating mostly plants.
Keep in mind, however, meat isn’t completely forbidden. It just isn’t the main event of your meal. It’s kind of like an afterthought.
Vegan diets and other strict, plant-based dietary patterns eliminate meat completely. A mostly plant-based diet, or flexitarian diet, is different. Flexitarians can eat small amounts of meat in moderation.
As you might guess, a flexitarian diet allows you to be flexible in your eating habits. Flexitarians eat mostly whole, minimally-processed, healthy plant foods. But they aren’t so stringent that they swear off animal foods altogether.
This kind of flexibility allows some wiggle room when you’re dining at a friend’s house or find yourself in a place with limited, plant-based options.
The reasons people start a plant-based diet may vary from person to person. Some do it for the environmental benefits. Eating fewer animal products like meat and dairy helps decrease greenhouse gas emissions and improves water quality around the world.
Eating less meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal products is something small we can all do to help our environment. We don’t have to cut them out of our diets completely to make a difference. Making small choices adds up.
Other people choose to start a flexitarian diet for the health benefits. It can reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, improve your blood pressure, reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and help you lose weight and keep it off.
People who stick to a vegetarian diet or another plant-based way of eating have a lower risk of developing cancer and other chronic diseases. If you’re at risk, a flexitarian diet might be right for you.
A plant-based diet may seem foreign at first, but you’ll quickly see some benefits.
The best way to start a plant-based diet is to start with some meal planning. Begin by brainstorming the foods you already eat that are included in vegetarian diets.
There are probably several dishes that you already like and maybe even make often. Stir fry, salads, rice and beans, sweet potatoes, pancakes, and smoothies are familiar foods. Switching to a flexitarian diet might be easier than you think.
Weight Loss, Fiber, and Plant Protein
One of the biggest reasons people kick around the idea of starting a vegetarian diet is to lose weight. Vegetarian, vegan, and flexitarian diets rank pretty high in terms of their weight-loss potential. Maintaining a healthy weight, in turn, has its own health benefits.
Harvard’s School of Public Health says maintaining a healthy weight is important because “in addition to lowering the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high blood pressure, it can also lower the risk of many different cancers.”
The combination of protein and fiber is a key component of most weight loss programs. Eating a whole food, plant-based diet is an excellent way to shed the extra pounds.
Animal proteins and animal fats can get in the way of your weight-loss goals. That’s why a flexitarian puts a greater emphasis on plant foods and plant proteins.
Because more people are shifting to plant-based eating patterns, plant proteins are gaining in popularity. Some of the most common plant proteins include tofu, tempeh, lentils, almonds, peanuts, chickpeas, quinoa, etc.
Protein-packed and fiber-dense foods will help you stay full for longer periods of time. They’ll keep you from snacking between meals, which means you’ll consume fewer calories over time. Following a high fiber diet with lots of protein often leads to more weight loss.
Start to shift your focus away from meat, dairy, and processed foods and instead put an emphasis on healthy, whole foods like fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, legumes, etc. You’ll begin to see a difference on the scale.
If you want to improve your overall health, following a plant-based diet is a great place to start.
One of the biggest benefits of whole food, plant-based eating is the impact it has on your heart. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, vegetarian diets are excellent for people at risk for high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. The foundation says following a plant-based diet “may lead to lower blood pressure, improved cholesterol levels, healthier weight and less incidence of Type 2 Diabetes, all of which can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.”
Reduce your consumption of meat, milk, and other dairy products. And instead, fill your plate with essential vitamins and minerals in fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
According to the Mayo Clinic, plant-based diets are an important part of cancer prevention and treatment.
Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds gives your body an extra boost. It fills you up with all of the essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals to fight off cancer cells and support healthy cell growth.
Your mind craves proper nutrition. According to a study at Boston University School of Medicine, there is a powerful link between a whole food, plant-based diet and a decreased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
Give your brain a boost with leafy greens and fresh berries. As they say, the mind is a terrible thing to waste.
If you’re at risk for developing type 2 diabetes, it’s not a bad idea to start a whole, plant-based way of eating as a preventative measure. A study by Harvard School of Public Health found that sticking to a healthy, plant-based diet showed reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Their study found that, “Plant-based foods have been shown to individually and jointly improve insulin sensitivity and blood pressure, reduce weight gain, and alleviate systemic inflammation, all of which can contribute to diabetes risk.”
Before you head out the door for work, choose some plant-based options for breakfast. Grab an apple with peanut butter and ditch the bacon breakfast sandwich. Swap the regular milk in your coffee for a plant-based alternative, like oatmilk, coconut milk, or soy milk. (In my humble opinion, oatmilk is the best.)
Making small changes over time can lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
There is a huge connection between the foods you eat and their impact on the environment. If you want to decrease your carbon footprint, choosing to eat a mostly whole food, plant-based diet is a great place to start.
Why is meat-consumption bad for the environment? There are a couple of reasons:
- Animals raised as food require excessive amounts of grain and water. Growing plants for food requires fewer resources.
- As animals graze, their manure releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
- Forests are cut down in order to make space for these animals to graze. Those trees are essential for absorbing greenhouse gases and turning them into oxygen. Fewer trees means more carbon dioxide and less oxygen in the air.
- The process of killing, processing, transporting, and storing meat uses a lot of energy and fossil fuels. Fossil fuels amplify greenhouse gases in the environment.
Help the environment by choosing to avoid or minimize your consumption of dairy, meat, and other animal products. Let’s fight climate change together.
Foods to Eat (Your Revolutionary Shopping List)
Now that you know the benefits of plant-based eating, let’s get you started with a grocery list!
Fill your grocery cart with some of your all-time favorite fruits. Crisp apples, bright red strawberries, tangy kiwi, juicy cantaloupe, etc. The fresher the better.
Start with in-season fruits at your local farmers’ market or roadside stand. Farms and orchards often have a pick-your-own option, which can be a fun activity for your whole family.
Wash and prepare your fruits right away, so they’re ready for on-the-go snacking.
Not everyone’s a big veggie fan. That’s okay. Start with what’s familiar—carrots, peas, corn, sweet potatoes, etc. Or go wild and try something new, like an artichoke, jicama, or kohlrabi. You might discover a new, favorite food.
If you’re feeling resourceful, you can grow your own veggies in your backyard garden. It’s a great way to cut down on your grocery bill. If your garden is tight on space, you can grow some vegetables in containers on your balcony, patio, or front porch.
Grab your gardening hat and try your hand at growing some fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and lettuces. You might just discover you’ve had a green thumb all along.
No one wants to be hungry when starting a new diet. The trick is to fill up on healthy, fiber-filled foods. Some of the best starchy vegetables to fill you up and keep you full till the next meal are beans, potatoes, squash, yams, etc. They can be your secret weapon to fight off hunger as you transition to more plant-based meals.
Not all grains are the same. When it comes to eating healthy foods, whole grains are the whole package. They are absolutely packed with essential vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber.
Refined grains, like white rice and white flour, are stripped of some of their nutritional benefits through the refining process. They just aren’t as healthy as their whole wheat counterparts. Before you cook up some rice or noodles, make sure you grab the kind that’s made with whole wheat.
In contrast to what you may have heard, eating fat does not make you fat. It turns out, while saturated fats and trans fats may cause people to pack on the pounds, unsaturated fats can actually help people maintain a healthy weight.
In fact, there’s a big difference between animal fats and plant-based fats.
Diets rich in animal fats can lead to high cholesterol and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Instead, choose healthy, plant-based fats instead.
Some healthier, plant-based options include olive oil, avocados, avocado oil, nuts, seeds, nut butters, etc. Olive oil and other healthy fats are high in calories, so remember to enjoy them in moderation.
When you make your grocery list, don’t forget the legumes. Black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and lentils are a great start.
Most legumes are great sources of iron and zinc. They’re also a great source of antioxidants that will help fight cell damage and diseases.
Seeds and nuts:
Seeds and nuts are great on-the-go snacks. Stash a bag of trailmix in your car for the long commute. Nuts and seeds are packed with plant protein that will stop you from spiraling into a hangry explosion of road rage. We’ve all been there.
Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds are great grab-and-go snacks. You can also sprinkle them on a salad for a lunchtime boost or add them to your morning smoothie. They’re a versatile snack and healthy addition to your whole food, plant-based grocery list.
When most people think of protein, they picture animal foods like a big hunk of steak or thick cheeseburger. They rarely, if ever, picture a plate of rice and beans. However, it’s just as easy to get all of the necessary protein for a balanced diet through plant-based foods.
Tofu (21.8g), chickpeas (14.7g), black beans (16g), and lentils (16.2g) contain excellent sources of protein per serving. Other great options are cashews, quinoa, hemp seeds, and peanut butter.
Atlantic Natural Foods makes meal-planning easy with these plant-based, protein-packed ingredients and ready-to-go meals:
- neat Original Mix
- neat Southwest Mix
- neat Eggs
- Loma Linda Chunky Stew
- Loma Linda Mediterranean Tomato and Olive
- Loma Linda Lemon Pepper Tuno
- Loma Linda Thai Sweet Chili Tuno
One thing that can be tricky about strict, plant-based diets is making sure you’re getting enough vitamin B12. Most foods that contain animal proteins, like red meat, fish, eggs, and milk are also excellent sources of vitamin B12. Because those foods are off-limit for vegans, many of them take a supplement to make sure they’re getting enough.
Flexitarians, however, are still able to get their proper nutrition because animal-based foods are still on the table, so to speak. Enjoy eggs, meat, fish, and dairy in moderation. And always try to buy wild-caught fish, free-range eggs, and grass-fed meat and dairy.
Hydration is important for any diet. Drink up some still or sparkling water, herbal tea, or plant-based milk. Remember, if you’re going to drink regular milk, organic is best.
Condiments are the life of the party at the dinner table. They can turn a blah meal into something special. So stock up on mustard, ketchup (without added sugar), salsa, soy sauce, hummus, and maple syrup. And get ready to party.
Foods to Avoid
This is probably a no-brainer, but it’s worth saying. Steer clear of the drive thru line. Not only will fast food deplete your bank account, but it can also derail you from making healthier, plant-based choices.
Are french fries technically plant-based? Sure. Are they healthy? I think you know the answer to that one.
Instead, stay on track with some meal planning and food prepping. Having fresh meals at home, instead of eating in your car, is always a better option.
Added sugars and sweets:
Before you pick up a store-bought smoothie or granola bar, check the packaging. You’ll be surprised how much extra sugar is pumped into these vegetarian-friendly foods. The extra sugar does you no favors for a healthy diet.
Refined grains (this one can be tough):
Refined grains are tricky. You think you’re eating something healthy, but the refining process has stripped the grains of most of their nutrients.
Brown rice is significantly different from its white rice counterpart. Refined grains cause a spike in your blood sugar and leave you feeling hungry a short while later. Rude, I know.
That means you’ll want to skip the white rice, white flour, and white bread. And replace them with brown rice, whole grain flour, and whole grain bread.
Packaged and processed foods:
Packaged and processed foods tend to have lots of added sugar, fat, and sodium. They also tend to have more calories and fewer nutritional perks. Instead of grabbing a box of protein bars, make your own. This easy-to-make recipe is a great, protein-filled option.
Processed vegan-friendly foods:
Just because it says “vegan” on the label, doesn’t mean it’s a healthy option. I’ll just remind you that Oreos are technically vegan-friendly.
So when you hit the grocery-store aisles looking for plant-based snacks, don’t fall for the trap of thinking “vegan” is synonymous with “healthy”. Instead, stick to healthy, whole, unprocessed foods.
Diet drinks and artificial sweeteners seem super appealing for people with a sweet tooth. You can enjoy a treat without the calories. But at what cost?
It turns out, artificial sweeteners aren’t as great as they seem.
According to Harvard Medical School, artificial sweeteners can play tricks with your tastebuds. Over time, they cause you to crave more and more sweets until you start finding naturally sweet foods less appealing.
Avoid food choices that contain artificial sweeteners.
Processed animal products:
Starting a flexitarian diet means you can indulge in occasional animal-based foods. However, there’s a big difference between organic, grass-fed beef and cheap, processed meat you find at the grocery store.
Try to steer clear of heavily processed animal products like hot dogs, pepperoni, sausages, and salami. There’s a link between processed meats and various cancers.
So when you sketch out your grocery plan for the week, skip the processed animal products. And buy local, organic meats and cheeses whenever possible. Your body will thank you.
Plant vs Powder
Protein shakes are often a part of plant-based diets. Vegan-approved protein shakes are a great way to include plant-based proteins into your diet. Keep in mind, however, that there’s no substitute for fresh, whole foods. The processing of fruits and vegetables into powder causes a loss of some vitamins and nutritional benefits.
But powders offer their own advantages. The convenience alone is quite a perk. You can stash some protein powder at your desk and shake up a snack that will fill you up until the next meal.
Whenever possible, try to incorporate fresh, whole foods. And when it’s just not feasible, drink up the benefits of a plant-based shake.
Sample Meal Plan
Here are some healthy, plant-based meals and recipe ideas to help you get started on your flexitarian diet:
Lunch: Loma Linda Southwest Chipotle Bowl (This meal is literally ready in 60 seconds.)
Lunch: Loma Linda Tikka Masala (This is another meal that’s ready-to-go in 60 seconds!)
Disclaimer: As always, before you make changes to your diet, be sure to get professional, medical advice about your specific needs. This article should not be used as professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.