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How To Start A Plant-Based Diet

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Article Summary

  • How to start a plant-based diet
  • Plant-based diets, vegetarians, and vegans
  • Benefits of a plant-based diet
  • What to consider: protein, supplements, planning, and budgeting
  • Delicious recipes to get you started.

Learning how to start a plant-based diet can lead to life-changing benefits. A diet that is mostly focused on plant sources does not necessarily mean becoming a vegetarian or a vegan. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to a plant-based diet. You can begin your journey by giving plant foods a more prominent space on your plate every meal. Some people who choose a plant-based diet may choose to identify as semi-vegetarian, vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, or flexitarian.

How to start a plant-based diet

Choosing a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for long-term, high-quality health. It can be as simple as adding as many colors as possible to your plate with a wide variety of plant foods every day. Or you can gradually ease into a vegetarian or vegan diet. You have to start somewhere, of course. Here are a few tips on how to start a plant-based diet.

  • Have whole grains for breakfast. Add flavor and texture by mixing in some fresh fruits, nuts, and seeds.
  • At least half of your lunch and dinner plate should consist of raw or cooked vegetables. The more colorful your plate is, the healthier it is.
  • Incorporate fruits and vegetables into your snacks, such as fruit slices, hummus, or guacamole.
  • Have fresh fruits for dessert to satisfy any sugar cravings.
  • Preserve the flavor and nutrients of vegetables by steaming, stir-frying, grilling, or braising them.
  • Gradually reduce the amount of meat in your diet while you increase your consumption of plant foods. Semi-vegetarians and flexitarians may choose to treat meat as a garnish instead of the main dish.
  • Build your meals around a fresh salad. Be creative and mix different kinds of vegetables, with different colors and textures. Add fresh herbs, legumes, nuts, fruits, and tofu.
  • Switch to healthy, plant-based fats, such as olive oil, avocado oil, and nuts and seeds and their butters and oils.
  • Prepare a vegetarian meal once a week, for the first few weeks. And then you can allot one full day per week to nothing but plant foods.

Is plant-based the same as vegan?

A plant-based diet can simply mean creating a meal plan that is mostly focused on plant foods and minimally focused on animal-based foods. A vegan diet is a plant-based diet that does not allow any type of food derived from animals, but a plant-based diet is not always a vegan diet.

Vegetarian diets are more flexible than a vegan diet; there are different kinds, depending on the degree of food restrictions. But all of them emphasize eating more plant foods than any otherfood group.

  • The semi-vegetarian and flexitarian diets include eggs and dairy products as a protein source. They can also occasionally allow poultry, meat, fish, and seafood.
  • A pescatarian diet is mostly plant-based but also includes fish and seafood for protein.
  • A vegetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian diet only allows eggs and dairy products as a source of protein.

Benefits of a plant-based diet

  • Plants are a significant source of essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and many other healthy compounds – most of which are not present in other food groups.
  • Plant nutrients provide critical support to the immune system and play a vital role in fighting off inflammation.
  • A plant-based diet is high in fiber, promoting gut health, effective nutrient absorption, and healthy bowel movement. Dietary fiber from plants is also known to lower cholesterol levels, stabilize blood sugar, and reduce cancer risk.
  • A plant-based meal plan can help you achieve sustained weight loss and maintain a healthy weight long-term.
  • Adopting a plant-based diet can reduce the risk for many diseases, including breast, colon, and prostate cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome, among many others.
  • A diet rich in plant foods can also improve stamina, physical and cognitive function, mood, and depression symptoms.

What can you eat on a plant-based diet?

What you can eat when following a plant-based meal plan depends on your preferences, health goals, and nutritional needs. It is a diet that mostly or only includes plant foods; it can also include moderate or minimal amounts of foods derived from animal sources.

Just as importantly, a plant-based diet emphasizes eating whole foods and very few to zero processed foods, sugary foods, refined white carbohydrates, processed vegan/vegetarian substitutes that may contain salt or sugar, and fatty/deep-fried foods.

How to get protein on a plant-based diet

Getting enough dietary protein is one of the main concerns of individuals on a plant-based diet. Fortunately, many plant-based proteins are nutritionally equivalent to animal-based proteins. You can get high-quality protein from the following plant sources:

  • Legumes, including beans, chickpeas, and green peas.
  • Lentils
  • Chickpeas
  • Soy and soy-derived foods, such as tofu, tempeh, edamame, and soy milk
  • Ancient grains, such as barley, einkorn, farro, sorghum, spelt, and teff.
  • Amaranth and quinoa
  • Wild rice and oats
  • Spirulina, a type of blue-green algae.
  • Nuts and seeds, and their butters and oils.
  • Protein-rich vegetables include broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and brussels sprouts.
  • Protein-rich fruits, which include guava, cherimoyas, mulberries, blackberries, nectarines, and bananas.

Including a wide variety of plant-based protein sources in your daily diet will ensure that you can meet your dietary protein needs without the intake of animal proteins.

Supplements you should be taking.

Some nutrients are not abundantly present in plant foods, if at all. If your plant-based meal plan limits or completely excludes animal food sources, you may need to supplement your diet with the following nutrients to meet your recommended daily intake.

  • Vitamin B12. This B vitamin is mostly derived from animal food products. It plays a vital role in blood and cell health. Anemia and nerve damage commonly result from a deficiency in Vitamin B12. Besides B12 supplements, you can also incorporate plant-based foods fortified with this vitamin, such as cereals, nutritional yeast, and plant-based milk.
  • A mostly or exclusively plant-based diet can also lead to severely low intakes of iron if you are not eating enough of certain plant foods. Make sure your daily meals include the following to meet your dietary iron needs. Combine these foods with plant-based Vitamin C sources to facilitate efficient iron absorption by the body.
  1. Black beans
  2. Cabbage
  3. Cashews
  4. Dark leafy greens
  5. Oatmeal
  6. Raisins
  7. Soybeans
  8. Spinach
  9. Tomatoes
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. DHA and EPA are omega-3 fatty acids that reduce certain chronic conditions, such as memory loss, inflammation, and heart disease. Fish and seafood are rich sources of DHA and EPA; animal products such as eggs are good sources of these omega-3 fatty acids.

Some plant foods are rich in omega-3 ALA, which can be converted into DHA and EPA. However, the conversion process is slow and inefficient, and some individuals cannot correctly absorb ALA. If your plant-based diet allows it, make sure to eat adequate amounts of fish and seafood to increase DHA and EPA intake. If you are a vegan, you can take plant-based omega-3 supplements that are readily available online and in health stores.

Gradual change vs. Overnight change

A wholesome and well-balanced diet should already contain lots of plant foods. If you’re only trying to limit or eliminate animal foods from your diet, switching to a plant-based meal plan will be relatively easy, as you’re already used to preparing meals rich in plants.

If you have been following a modern-day diet that mostly consists of animal food products and processed foods, and very little plant foods, switching to a plant-based diet can be more challenging.

Whatever your goal is – be it for weight loss, better long-term health, or a more sustainable and earth-friendly lifestyle – you will be more successful committing to a plant-based diet if you opt for a gradual change instead of an overnight change in your eating habits.

As with any drastic lifestyle change, slow and steady wins the race. This means you should gradually ease into your new and healthier diet. Start with small and more manageable changes while giving your body and mind time to adjust to the new norm.

Eliminating animal foods and processed products that you have been conditioned to crave and enjoy will be difficult. Doing it cold-turkey often results in intense feelings of deprivation and frustration, which, in turn, typically leads to a lapse into old eating habits. So, do it gradually, and allow yourself small indulgences from time to time.

You don’t have to go completely vegan or vegetarian to enjoy the benefits of a plant-based diet. Again, the important thing is to focus more on increasing the number of plant foods you eat in every meal and minimizing the amount and frequency of animal foods.

Plant-based recipes

Preparation is key to a smooth and easy transition into a plant-based meal plan. One of the first things you will have to do is create a new menu that incorporates a lot of plant-based recipes. During your first few weeks, you will be experimenting with different recipes to find those that best suit your tastes. You will explore different whole-food and plant-based ingredients, flavors, textures, and combinations.

Eventually, you will learn which combinations you enjoy the most and which provide all the nutrients you need. And then these go-to, plant-based recipes will become weekly staples. Taking the time to discover plant-based dishes that you love will help you succeed in adopting a plant-based diet as your new lifestyle.

Below is a list of tasty and exciting plant-based recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and snacks to help get you started on your journey. 

You do not have to completely reinvent your meal plant right away, or at all. Stick to flavors you already know and enjoy. You can simply substitute ingredients to make your recipes more plant-based. When making a chicken sandwich, for example, you can substitute mashed chickpeas for the chicken. You can continue to enjoy a barbecue by slathering grilled tofu or vegetables with your favorite sauce.

You can continue satisfying your taste buds even as you gradually adopt a more plant-based diet

What about social events and restaurants?

Attending social events and eating out means you may have limited options. These days, however, many people and establishments are more accommodating of special and healthier diets.

If you’ll be attending the social event of a close family member or friend, you can inform them about your dietary preferences ahead of time. Or find out what the menu is so you can plan ahead – this might be your ideal option if it’s not possible or proper to ask the host/s and caterers to accommodate your dietary needs. But if you can find out what the menu is, then you can plan beforehand how you can combine different dishes or make simple modifications so that you can stick to your new diet.

Many restaurants these days already offer vegetarian and vegan options. Again, you can simply call ahead and ask the kitchen if they can modify a dish for you to make it plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan. A lot of places readily entertain such requests. If it’s not possible, study the menu ahead of time so that you can also plan how to modify the dishes yourself.

Is eating plant-based expensive?

The modern-day diet has mostly been designed to be fast and convenient while compromising proper nutrition. Mass-produced foods are, of course, more affordable, too. But one of the common misconceptions about a plant-based diet is that it is expensive.

Whole foods, i.e., fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and herbs, are actually budget-friendly. Creating a plant-based meal plan that fits your budget is all about knowing your whole-food and plant-based ingredients and all the delicious and enjoyable dishes you can make with them. 

Choose plant food products that are locally-produced and in season. Create a weekly meal plan and keep it simple. Stick to your shopping list when at the supermarket. Better yet, visit a local farmer’s market where the fresh produce is of better quality and less expensive. For some ingredients that you can safely store for weeks or months, buy in bulk; make sure you incorporate these ingredients as often as possible into your weekly menu plans. Lastly, grow your own plant foods. Start with herbs and small vegetables, or whatever your place can accommodate.

Don’t forget that because you’ll be investing in your long-term health when you start a plant-based diet, you’ll be saving yourself tons of money that you might otherwise spend on medication, doctor and hospital visits, and preventive healthcare.

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