Plant-Based Diet for Beginners: The Health Benefits & More
You may have heard the term plant-based, but are you confused about what it really means? Is it the same thing as being a vegan or a vegetarian? (The short answer: No!) How do you get enough protein?
Here, we demystify some common misconceptions about a plant-based diet, explore some of the benefits, and show you how to get started if you want to lead a more plant-based lifestyle.
What is a plant-based diet?
First, what even is a plant-based diet? Is it just a trendy new term for “vegan” or is it a whole different thing?
While there is no set definition, a plant-based way of eating focuses on consuming plant-derived whole foods that are unrefined and minimally processed. This means pure, unadulterated ingredients that are in their original form.
In terms of what you eat, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, tubers, and legumes are the dietary staples. These foods are full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals and provide an abundance of nutrients for your body.
A huge concern for many when contemplating a plant-based lifestyle is whether eating in this manner is balanced and nutritionally sound. The resounding answer is yes! As long as you're consuming a healthy balance of protein, vegetables, fruits, and other fiber-rich, whole-food carbs, there's no reason why you shouldn't get the vitamins and nutrients your body needs.
However, it is important to be mindful and considerate of the foods that you're eating. It's key to make sure that you are consuming a colorful and diverse diet in order to optimize your nutrition.
Plant-based vs. vegan: What's the difference?
To get technical, a vegan doesn't consume any animal products including meat, eggs, milk, dairy, and honey. For some vegans, the primary reason for leading a vegan lifestyle is related to ethics and animal welfare. Yet, a vegan diet is not always as nutritionally virtuous and as clean as a plant-based lifestyle—hello, faux meat and french fries.
The vegan focus is usually set on avoiding animal products, but the priority is not placed on unprocessed plant-based whole foods.
On the other hand, following a plant-based lifestyle doesn't necessarily mean fully avoiding animal products like a vegan or vegetarian. For plant-based eaters, animal proteins can happily fit into the lifestyle, yet they typically serve as more of a supporting role to your veggies and whole grains.
Overall, “plant-based” is more of a broad and flexible way of thinking about nutrition and ingredient quality rather than a rigid diet. As mentioned, with a plant-based diet, the focus is on simple, nutritious, whole foods.
How to get plant-based protein.
Where to get your protein is often the major concern for individuals considering a plant-based way of life. Beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are all plant-based sources of protein that are also filled with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. (Be sure to check out our full list of the best plant-based protein sources!)
Protein needs vary from person to person depending on age, health status, and amount of physical activity. But garnering all of your protein needs from a plant-based diet is simple and achievable.
Plant-based diet benefits.
One of the main reasons to start following a plant-based diet is for the health benefits. Now, more so than ever, research is showing how eating more plants and less meat can positively affect health. While eating animal products from grass-fed, pasture-raised sources can work for some people's bodies, here are some benefits to adding more plants to your plate.
It's heart healthy.
Most notably, a plant-based lifestyle has been linked to heart health. Ditching meat in favor of veggies can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce the risk of cardiac events. In a study of more than 10,000 adults published in the Journal of the American Heart Association it was shown that those who followed a more plant-based diet had a 16 percent lower risk of having cardiovascular disease and a 32 percent lower risk of dying of cardiovascular disease.
It can aid in weight management.
A plant-based lifestyle can also help to promote weight loss and help to maintain your goal weight. Weight loss commonly occurs because the diet consists of foods that are full of fiber and have a high water content, which promotes the feeling of fullness.
It can help stabilize blood sugar.
It can aid digestion.
A plant-based lifestyle is full of fiber, which helps with digestion by moving things along, preventing constipation, and promoting regular bowel movements.
It has antioxidant properties that can benefit your skin.
Another major reason to jump on the plant-based eating train is for the external benefits. Plant-based foods are loaded with healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, which can improve skin clarity and help you get that glow.
One of the plant-based vitamin all-stars is vitamin C, which is a powerful antioxidant. A large number of fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, such as broccoli, papaya, apricot, and bell peppers. They assist in stimulating collagen production, smoothing lines, and reducing wrinkles.
It can support energy levels.
Feeling more energized and alert is another benefit of following a plant-based diet. The standard American diet is filled with processed foods, sugar, and white flour, which de-energize your system and make you fatigued. These foods cause spikes and rapid declines in blood sugar levels, which can result in spurts of energy followed by extreme tiredness.
Eating whole foods, which are clean sources of carbohydrates, protein, and fruit, sustains your energy more naturally. Consuming foods high in fiber causes blood sugar levels to increase and decline slowly and steadily, without the sugar rush and the crash.
The bottom line about a plant-based diet.
Transitioning away from processed foods to a more plant-based way of life can help your body function optimally. Your digestion will likely improve, your skin can start glowing, and your total energy might increase due to the nutrient-dense attributes and high quality of the foods being consumed.
Miranda Hammer M.S., R.D., CDN is a New York City-based Registered Dietitian, chef, and founder of the clean-eating, healthy-living blog Crunchy Radish. She received her master's in clinical nutrition and dietetics from NYU, and completed chef training at the National Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts. Hammer's health and wellness philosophy focuses on health-supportive, plant-based, seasonal eating, and balanced living. She works with private clients on various nutritional and lifestyle issues as well as develops recipes and content for brands and media outlets.