You’ve probably heard about it somewhere – maybe online, in a doctor’s office or on TV – the term “plant-based diet” is getting a lot of buzz lately. But what does it mean and why should you care?
Eating more plants is a good way to fuel your body, maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk for certain diseases.
For some people, a plant-based diet means one that includes no meat or animal products at all. For others, it means a vegetarian diet, and for others, the term plant-based or plant-forward means a diet that focuses on eating a lot of whole, plant-based foods but not excluding meat or other animal products. Regardless of how you interpret it, eating more plants is a good way to fuel your body, maintain a healthy weight and help reduce your risk for certain diseases.
Benefits You Get From Eating More Plants
When you take a plant-based approach to eating, you focus on foods that come primarily from plants, including whole grains, beans, lentils, vegetables, fruits, seeds and nuts. If you’re thinking about eating more plants, here are some of the benefits:
- A plant-based diet can reduce your risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
- Plants are high in fiber, which can lower your cholesterol and stabilize your blood sugar.
- A plant-based diet can help your immune system and reduce inflammation.
- A plant-based diet helps you maintain a healthy weight.
10 Simple Tips for Getting Started
- Start small. It doesn’t have to be all in, all the time. Start with one meal a day being plant-based and build from there. Maybe breakfast is the easiest meal to change. As you get more comfortable and learn more recipes, keep going!
- Food prep helps. If you have a whole head of lettuce, it’s hard to get motivated to make a salad, but if it’s washed and ready to go, you’re more likely to go for it. Keep things like baby carrots, celery and cucumbers sliced and ready for snacks. Cut up veggies on Sundays to make roasting them for dinner throughout the week fast and easy.
- Try Meatless Monday. If it’s built into your weekly plan, you’re likely to stick to it. Each week, plan on keeping one day meatless (even if it’s not Monday). As you learn more recipes, you could add another day.
- Rethink your relationship with meat. A lot of family dinners revolve around meat –hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks and pork chops as the main dish. You don’t have to give these things up, but they also don’t have to dominate every meal. Start thinking about meat as having a smaller role on your plate.
- Instead of a big steak dinner, maybe use a small portion of steak and slice it thinly over a large bed of greens and other vegetables.
- Try mixing finely sliced veggies into your burger patties, using less meat and adding carrots, zucchini or other veggies to the mix.
- Make your favorite soup or chili recipe but leave out the meat. By adding beans or rice, you might find you don’t miss it.
- Eat lots of vegetables. Cut them up for snacks, find ways to include them at breakfast and fill up half your plate at dinner. Veggies are high in nutrients, low in calories and very filling. Keep hummus or dip around, and you’ve got a great plant-based snack whenever you get hungry between meals.
- Learn new ways to get protein. We are often drawn to meat to give our bodies protein; many other foods can provide us with what we need. Chickpeas, tofu and nuts are examples of other foods high in protein.
- A serving of black beans has 15 grams of protein.
- A piece of whole grain toast with almond butter or another nut butter can give you 8-12 grams of protein.
- A cup of cooked lentils provides 18 grams of protein.
- Use fruit as a sweet treat or dessert. To satisfy a craving, you’ve got options beyond a cookie or a piece of candy.
- Try making a fruit-based dessert like banana ice cream or a berry parfait.
- Make chocolate mousse and cover it with berries and sliced nuts.
- Eat fresh strawberries dipped in whipped cream.
- Get creative. There are tons of new ways to use plant-based foods. Try a recipe that substitutes cauliflower for rice. Or try spiralized zucchini or spaghetti squash instead of pasta. If you’ve got a craving for wings, try a buffalo cauliflower recipe instead!
- Make breakfast count. If breakfast sets the tone for your day, try to make it a healthy one. Sugary cereals, processed meats or coffee and a muffin aren’t the only choices. Instead, fill up on these plant-based suggestions:
- Oatmeal (or another grain) topped with bananas, walnuts and a sprinkle of cinnamon
- A breakfast burrito using a whole wheat tortilla filled with scrambled eggs, veggies of your choice (mushrooms, peppers, greens, onions), black beans, cheese and salsa
- A whole wheat English muffin topped with avocado slices and tomatoes with fresh fruit on the side
- Mix it up. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Try out new tastes, textures and cooking methods to keep things interesting.
- If your go-to lettuce is romaine, switch it up. Chop kale into a smoothie or add some spinach to your favorite pasta dish.
- If you always make rice, try a different grain. Use quinoa in a breakfast bowl with fruit and sliced nuts or add some farro to your roasted veggies for a filling meal.
Resources and Recipes
The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers a lot of articles to help you begin your journey.
- Beans, Peas, and Lentils | MyPlate: This article explains how to use these plant-based foods to help you get enough protein in your diet.
- Plant-Based Diet: When you’re looking for protein-rich foods, this article includes a helpful table with all the information you need, as well as more tips and ideas for getting started.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) also has a ton of resources to support your transition to more plant-based eating.
- How to Cook Vegetables: This document is a great go-to for cooking different veggies. It lists all different types of veggies, different ways to cook them and what temperature and time work best.
- Cooking Whole Grains: When you’re ready to try out different whole grains, use this document to help. It lists all kinds of whole grains and how best to cook them.
- Plant-Based Snacks: If you’re struggling to come up with enough plant-based snacks, check out the suggestions listed here.
- VA’s Healthy Teaching Kitchen has a ton of great plant-based ideas in its collection of cookbooks and recipes. Try the quinoa and black bean burrito bowl, the peanut butter and banana milkshake or the sweet potato hummus. You can search for new smoothie ideas, lunch ideas, appetizers, snacks and much more.
If you’re worried about the cost of trying new kinds of foods and recipes, check out MyPlate. MyPlate offers an app to help you search for savings near you and provides suggestions for preparing budget-friendly, healthy recipes.
Use these tips and recipes to find simple ways to add more plants to your diet and reap the health benefits along the way!