Beginner’s Guide to a Plant-Based Diet


In a plant-based diet, produce — such as avocado, banana, and tomato — take the starring roles on your plate.

Dropping the phrase “plant-based diet” is hip when talking nutrition these days. But why is it so hot right now? Lauren Manaker, RDN, who is based in Charleston, South Carolina, suspects it’s because of increased awareness of the health and environmental benefits that come along with eating this way. Some of that could be the result of documentaries that throw shade at eating meat and other animal products, such as What the Health (2017), Cowspiracy (2014), and Forks Over Knives (2011).

But what does “plant-based diet” mean, anyway? Is it the same thing as being vegetarian or vegan? Or does this diet just mean you make an effort to pack more veggies into your meals?

What Does Following a Plant-Based Diet Mean Exactly?

Technically, all of the above interpretations are correct. “Some people use the term ‘plant-based diet’ as a synonym for the vegan diet,” says Summer Yule, RDN, a nutritionist based in Hartford, Connecticut. “Others may use the term in a broader way that includes all vegetarian diets, and I’ve also seen people use ‘plant-based’ to mean diets which are composed mostly, but not entirely, of plant foods.”

The main idea is to make plant-based foods the central part of your meals. “A plant-based diet emphasizes foods like fruits, vegetables, and beans, and limits foods like meats, dairy, and eggs,” Manaker says. From there, more restrictions could be put in place depending on how strict you want to be. “It may completely eliminate foods from animals or just limit intake depending on the individual’s interpretation,” Manaker says.

That means meat and seafood don’t necessarily need to be off-limits — you might just decide to cut down on how frequently you eat those items.

More on Eating Produce

Think of “plant-based” as a broad category of diets, with other more specific diets falling under its umbrella. For example, the Mediterranean diet is a version of a plant-based diet because even though it incorporates fish and poultry, the emphasis is on plant-based foods, Manaker says.

Vegetarian and vegan diets are also plant-based. (1) Whole30, a popular diet and lifestyle plan, however, doesn’t usually qualify. “The Whole30 diet traditionally is heavier on animal proteins, though it is possible to follow this diet in a plant-based way,” Manaker says.

Food List of What to Eat, Limit, and Avoid

What to Eat and Drink

  • Vegetables (including kale, spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens, sweet potatoes, asparagus, bell peppers, and broccoli)
  • Fruits (such as avocado, strawberries, blueberries, watermelon, apples, grapes, bananas, grapefruit, and oranges)
  • Whole grains (such as quinoa, farro, brown rice, whole-wheat bread, and whole-wheat pasta)
  • Nuts (walnuts, almonds, macadamia nuts, and cashews all count)
  • Seeds (such as flaxseed, chia seeds, and hemp seeds)
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Coffee
  • Tea (including green, lavender, chamomile, or ginger)

What to Limit (or Avoid Entirely, Depending on How Strict You Decide to Be)

  • Dairy (including milk and cheese)
  • Meat and poultry (like chicken, beef, and pork)
  • Processed animal meats, such as sausages and hot dogs
  • All animal products (including eggs, dairy, and meat if you’re following a vegan diet)
  • Refined grains (such as “white” foods, like white pasta, rice, and bread)
  • Sweets (like cookies, brownies, and cake)
  • Sweetened beverages, such as soda, and fruit juice
  • Potatoes and french fries (3)
  • Honey (if not vegan)

6 Ways to Eat More Leafy Greens

From bok choy and mustard greens to kale and spinach, find out how adding more verdant produce to your plate can offer a bounty of health benefits.

What Are the Scientifically Proven Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet?

In the United States, diet is the biggest predictor of early death.  A classic American diet that’s high in saturated and trans fats, sodium, and processed meat puts you at a disadvantage when it comes to health and longevity, while a diet that promotes whole foods and plant-based ingredients appears to have the opposite effect.

As the following studies show, adopting a plant-based diet may help reduce the likelihood that you’ll need medication, lower your risk of obesity and high blood pressure, and maybe even help prevent or manage type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

In a review published in July 2019 in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that following a plant-based diet (one that included foods like fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and whole grains) was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. The nine studies involved about 307,100 participants, and were adjusted for factors such as smoking status and exercise frequency that otherwise could have affected the results. Researchers therefore deduced that the lower risk was due to participants’ diet choices.

The reason for this lower risk of type 2 diabetes may be improved function of beta cells, which help produce insulin (the hormone that keeps blood sugar levels stable). Past research has noted that as type 2 diabetes progresses, beta cell function declines  and this can cause dangerous fluctuations in blood sugar levels.

But a randomized trial published in February 2018 in Nutrients found that after just 16 weeks following a plant-based diet, participants had better beta cell function and insulin sensitivity compared with the control group — not to mention improved body mass indexes (BMIs) and less belly fat.

Manaker agrees that a plant-based diet can help you manage your weight, and may even lead to weight loss if you follow it in a healthy way. “Most people [who transition from a typical American diet] also start to feel like they have more energy,” she adds.

A plant-based diet could be helpful for both your body and your mind. One study published in September 2019 in Translational Psychology set out to answer that question, and the results turned out mixed. While researchers concluded that this diet is beneficial for boosting metabolism, managing weight, and reducing inflammation (especially among people with obesity, and those with type 1 and type 2 diabetes), they didn’t confirm whether this diet can positively affect mental function. Don’t rule it out yet, though — the researchers noted that there’s plenty of potential for future studies to explore the subject further.

And if you’re not ready to give up on animal proteins just yet, don’t worry. Another study published in August 2019 in JAMA Internal Medicine  found that, while adding plant-based proteins to your diet can help lower your risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease, there was no increased risk associated with animal proteins.

So while it’s not necessary to completely eliminate meats and dairy from your diet, you can still lower your risk of certain diseases by making an effort to include more plant proteins. To set yourself up for success, Manaker suggests making a shopping list heavy on produce, beans, and plant-based proteins to make sure you have plenty of options to reach for when you get hungry.

10 High-Fiber Foods to Add to Your Diet

Fiber can help keep you regular and ward off unhealthy cravings. Next time you’re looking to add filling ingredients to your plate, turn to these foods.

What Are the Potential Disadvantages of Adopting a Plant-Based Diet?

Simply sticking with plant-based foods likely isn’t going to cut it — you’ll need to pay attention to the quality of the foods you’re consuming, because there are plenty of unhealthy foods that qualify as plant-based, such as potato chips and french fries. Choosing unhealthy plant-based foods can increase your risk of weight gain and health conditions such as heart disease.

Another thing you should be aware of: When you first switch to a plant-based diet, you may notice an uptick in bowel movements, diarrhea, or constipation. That’s because many plant-based foods are loaded with fiber, which normalizes bowel movements, Manaker says.

Consider gradually incorporating plant-based foods in your diet to give your body time to adjust, and be sure to drink plenty of fluids during and after you make the switch to eating more plants.

More on Popular Diet Plans

For the most part, eating a plant-based diet will check the boxes of all the major nutrients. “A well-planned plant-based diet can be nutritionally adequate and particularly rich in fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium due to all of the fruits and vegetables that are typically eaten,” Yule says.

That said, if you decide to take the plant-based diet to the next level and swear off all animal products, you may need to keep an eye on your levels of vitamin B12 and choline. “Vitamin B12 is found primarily in animal sources, and the two best sources of choline are egg yolks and liver,” Manaker says. “If a person is avoiding animal products, they may not be taking in enough of these nutrients.”

A Final Word on What It Means to Eat a Plant-Based Diet

The plant-based diet is a category of diets that have this in common: “All plant-based diets limit animal-derived foods in favor of plants,” Yule says. Instead of a diet centered on meat and dairy, the starring roles are played by vegetables, fruit, and whole grains. It’s a fresh, flavorful approach to eating and has been shown to have significant health benefits, including weight loss and disease prevention.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  1. McManus KD. What Is a Plant-Based Diet and Why Should You Try It? Harvard Health Publishing. September 2018.
  2. Panth N, Gavarkovs A, Tamez M, Mattei J. The Influence of Diet on Fertility and the Implications for Public Health Nutrition in the United States. Frontiers in Public HealthJuly 2018.
  3. Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Spiegelman D, et al. Healthful and Unhealthful Plant-Based Diets and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in U.S. Adults. Journal of the American College of CardiologyJuly 2017.
  4. McMacken M, Shah S. A Plant-Based Diet for the Prevention and Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes. Journal of Geriatric CardiologyMay 2017.
  5. Hever J, Cronise RJ. Plant-Based Nutrition for Healthcare Professionals: Implementing Diet as a Primary Modality in the Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Disease. Journal of Geriatric CardiologyMay 2017.
  6. Qian F, Liu G, Hu FB, et al. Association Between Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes. Journal of the American Medical Association. July 2019.
  7. Bagust A, Beale S. Deteriorating Beta-Cell Function in Type 2 Diabetes: A Long-Term Model.QJM: An International Journal of Medicine. April 2003.
  8. Kahleova H, Tura A, Hill M, et al. A Plant-Based Dietary Intervention Improves Beta-Cell Function and Insulin Resistance in Overweight Adults: A 16-Week Randomized Clinical Trial. Nutrients. February 2018.
  9. Medawar E, Huhn S, Villringer A, et al. The Effects of Plant-Based Diets on the Body and the Brain: A Systematic Review. Translational Psychiatry. September 2019.
  10. Budhathoki S, Sawada N, Iwasaki M, et al. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. Journal of the American Medical Association. August 2019.
  11. Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet. Mayo Clinic. November 2018.

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