Although plant-based diets seem increasingly popular these days, they have been around forever — at least since ancient Greece. In fact, plant-based diets were once named for the ancient Greek Pythagoras, who reportedly feasted on vegetables, bread and honey.
If you’re interested in joining this time-tested trend, here are some tips to help you get started — and stick with — plates of plant-based food.
A plant-based diet for beginners: Understand the key ingredients
The key ingredients of a plant-based diet vary depending on who you ask. Some definitions specify that the diet include only plants. Others expand the definition to mean eating plants more often than animal products.
What isn’t up for debate is that minimally processed vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices are included in a plant-based diet. Variations of the diet can include:
- Vegan. Only plant foods and nothing that comes from an animal.
- Vegetarian. Plant foods plus dairy, eggs or both.
- Flexitarian. Vegetarian with the occasional addition of meat or fish.
Beans, lentils, fruits and vegetables can help
Whether being vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian appeals to you, there are some things you can do to help yourself feel great and stick with it.
- Vegetables should be the foundation — stock up on these high-fiber and high-nutrient goodies.
- Fruit is important too. If enjoying fruit before it spoils is a concern, frozen fruit is a great option.
- Beans can help you fill up. If you choose canned beans, look for no-, low- and reduced-sodium options.
- Nuts and seeds might be small, but they are packed with healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Calcium doesn’t have to come from dairy products. Tofu, tahini and some leafy greens all contain calcium.
Getting enough protein
Is it possible to get enough protein from a plant-based diet? Absolutely. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults eat a variety of proteins that add up to about 50 grams a day. Other acceptable options include consuming protein as 10% to 35% of your calories, or at least 0.8 grams of protein a day for every kilogram of body weight. There is protein in:
- Whole grains like quinoa.
- Beans and legumes like lentils and chickpeas.
- Vegetables like artichokes, asparagus, broccoli and spinach.
- Soy products like tofu and tempeh.
Made from cooked soybeans, tofu often comes in a block with texture ranging from soft or silken to extra firm. You can cube extra-firm tofu for a stir-fry dish. Or blend silken tofu to make sauces and smoothies. Tempeh is made from cooked soybeans that are then fermented. It comes as a firm patty that can be sliced up, marinated, and added to wraps and sandwiches.
Today’s grocery shelves contain quite a variety of plant-based products that mimic animal products. But these foods can be ultra-processed and high in sodium. Be sure to check the labels on faux meats like burgers and “chicken,” or consider using them only occasionally.
Educate yourself with plant-based recipes and health benefits
You might be interested in exploring a plant-based diet because you are concerned about animal welfare. Maybe you’re looking for ways to reduce your environmental footprint. If health is your motivation, there are lots of health benefits to choose from. For example, following a vegetarian diet may reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
The key to supporting your health with a plant-based diet is to strive for foods that are minimally processed. For example:
- Whole grains instead of refined grains.
- Whole fruits instead of fruit juices.
- Unrefined vegetable oils like olive and sunflower oils instead of partially hydrogenated oils.
Try to limit highly processed items like frozen meals, snack foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Here are some recipe ideas that align with these principles to help you get started:
- Black bean and corn salsa or cracked wheat chili if you’re following a vegan diet.
- Pesto-stuffed mushrooms with Parmesan cheese and butter if you’re including dairy in your diet.
- A Southwest taco bowl with cheddar cheese and ground turkey breast if you’re occasionally integrating lean meat in your diet.
Collect cookbooks — The more options, the easier it is
Variety is key to meeting your nutritional needs with a plant-based diet. And cookbooks can be a great way to tap into a variety of recipes that put plants first. Whether you are vegetarian or prefer the Mediterranean eating style, you will find an abundance of recipes and meals that won’t leave you hungry in The Mayo Clinic Diet and Cook Smart, Eat Well.
For more ideas, check out the seemingly endless ideas on the internet. For example, you can find hundreds of vegetarian recipes at MyPlate.gov, which is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Ease into a plant-based diet with one meal or one day
If you are new to plant-based eating, it might be easier to start and stick with it if you take a gradual approach. The good news is that even small steps toward eating more foods from plants can benefit your health. Here are some tips to try to gradually adopt a plant-based diet:
- Go meatless one day a week.
- Make breakfast more about whole grains, like whole-grain toast or oatmeal, than animal products, like eggs, milk and bacon.
- Eat plant-based until dinner.
- Add greens like spinach or kale to your daily meals.
- Swap out meat in a recipe for a plant-based option like black beans or tofu.
Get supporters to keep you on track
When planned appropriately, plant-based diets can be right for people in all stages of life, including children, pregnant or breastfeeding people, and competitive athletes. So consider encouraging the people in your life to join you — it’s more fun to do it together.
If you’re in charge of meal prep in your household, invite your family members to join you in your quest to make more plant-based meals. You might also invite a friend to join you for a meal out at a restaurant that features plant-based foods. For example, certain Asian, Ethiopian, Indian and Middle Eastern diets limit red meat and focus on key components of a plant-based diet.
If you’re not sure where to start or you’re having trouble following a plant-based diet, a registered dietitian and your healthcare professional can be helpful resources for creating a plan and ensuring you are getting the right nutrients.
Know that no diet is successful without plant-based meal prep
Speaking of nutrients, it can take a bit of planning to ensure you have what you need. Vegan and vegetarian diets can cut out natural sources of some essential vitamins and minerals. Depending on your preferred path of plant-based eating, ensure you are including meals that cover your needs for:
- Calcium and vitamin D.
- Vitamin B-12.
- Iron and zinc.
You can also help ensure your new plant-based diet is a success by planning to discuss your diet with your healthcare professional, inviting others to eat plant-based with you, gradually easing into a new pattern of eating, and finding variety and inspiration in cookbooks.
Start benefitting your body today by stocking up on nature’s rainbow of plant-based foods.
Cook Smart, Eat Well
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