The Ultimate Guide to Starting a Plant-Based Diet

Are you considering the switch to a plant-based diet? I have you covered with a guide to going plant based. Here, you’ll find everything you need to know about how to start a plant-based diet.

Variety of vegetables scattered on a marble surface

This plant-based diet for beginners guide is perfect for anyone, as it not only gives you details about what a plant-based diet is, it also offers actionable tips for you to get started with beginning a plant-based diet.

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet can be defined in a few different ways. At its most basic level, a plant-based diet is one that consists of mostly plants. More specifically, there are a few ways to define a plant-based diet: flexitarian, vegan, vegetarian, or some combination of the three.

Each diet pattern is plant based but with slight variations as outlined below.

Vegan

The vegan diet is the most restrictive of the three listed here, as it doesn’t allow for any animal products.

This includes the complete avoidance of meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs, gelatin, and even honey. You can eat plant-based proteins such as tofu, edamame, tempeh, beans, and legumes.

Vegetarian

The vegetarian diet is like the vegan diet in that it doesn’t allow meat, fish, or poultry. However, many vegetarian diets include dairy and eggs, as well as honey.

A vegetarian diet that includes dairy but not eggs is often referred to as a lacto-vegetarian diet, whereas a vegetarian diet that includes eggs but not dairy is often referred to as an ovo-vegetarian diet.

The lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet is one that includes both dairy and eggs. In all cases, the vegetarian diet excludes other animal products including meat, poultry, and fish.

Flexitarian

The flexitarian diet is a way of eating that allows for both animals and plants. The idea is to be flexible in the approach while also emphasizing plants whenever possible.

There’s no single definition for this way of eating, so it allows for customizations based on what works best for you.

The bottom line

Eating a plant-based diet can be as strict as the vegan diet that eliminates all animal products or as flexible as the flexitarian diet that allows for animal products at your choosing.

No matter which plan you choose, the ideal plant-based diet for you is one that puts an emphasis on plants and is both enjoyable and satisfying.

Continue reading to find out how to start a plant-based diet. Now, let’s look at the benefits of beginning a plant-based diet.

big bowl of salad with sliced eggs on top

Benefits of a plant-based diet

While there are pros and cons of a plant-based diet, the benefits to beginning a plant-based diet certainly outweigh any challenges. Here’s an overview of some of the most important benefits of starting a plant-based diet.

Eating plant-based can improve your diet quality

Focusing on eating more plants can be beneficial for your diet quality. This is especially true if you’re focused on adding whole, minimally processed foods to your plant-based eating plan.

If you’re planning to make the transition to a plant-based diet, put an emphasis on choosing plant-based foods and on limiting highly processed foods.

You can eat processed foods such as plant-based hamburgers occasionally. Doing so may offer benefits to your health over the long-term.

fruit smoothie with sliced strawberries and blueberries on top

A plant-based diet may positively affect your mood

While the research isn’t definitive on how plant-based diets affect mood, studies show there may be a benefit if you’re looking for a mood boost.

One study on vegan and vegetarian Australians found that high-quality plant-based diets may be protective against depression.

Another study on Iranian adults following a plant-based diet found an association with eating plan -based and a reduced risk of depression and anxiety.

Still another study indicates that more research is needed to definitively draw the connection between eating plant-based and its effect on mood.

Note: anyone with depression or another psychological condition should work with their doctor to determine the best treatment.

Eating plant-based can save you cash

Swapping higher-cost meats for lower-cost plant-based proteins can save you money at the grocery store––a big benefit to beginning a plant-based diet.. Keep in mind that any diet, even a plant-based diet, can be expensive.

But if you take the time to plan your meals and stick to your plant-based grocery list, you may find that plant-based eating is more cos -effective.

Plant-based diets may be better for the environment

Eating a plant-based diet can have beneficial effects on the environment. However, keep in mind that food waste plays an important role in the effect our diets have on the planet. Even when eating plant based, it’s important limit food waste whenever possible.

Your health may benefit from eating plant based.

Adding more plants to your diet, especially when the diet consists of mostly whole, minimally process foods, has shown to offer health benefits.

From heart health to digestive health to even PCOS and autoimmune disease, many benefits of eating a minimally processed, plant-based diet exist.

variety of fruits and vegetables on a marble surface

Tips for getting started

Want to know how to start a plant-based diet? Well, there’s no one right way to start a plant-based diet. But these simple tips can help you on your path to eating plant-based.

Find helpful resources

There are tons of plant-based diet books out there that can give you specific guidance with meal plans and recipes. Keeping one or two of these on hand can give you meal-time inspiration when you find your own creativity waning.

Experiment with new recipes

Along with finding helpful resources, make sure you’re open to trying new recipes. This makes following a plant-based diet for beginners that much easier!

Eating a plant-based diet may be a significant shift from your everyday diet so you’ll want to keep an open mind while you find the recipes and foods that work for you. If you don’t like something, try it again but prepared in a different way. You may be surprised!

Keep nutritious snacks on hand

When those mid-afternoon hangry feelings start popping up, you’ll be glad that you’ve got some plant-based snacks on hand! Roasted chickpeas, dried fruit, and vegan protein bars are easy options to keep in your purse or gym bag when you’re on the go.

At home, consider fresh fruit, veggies with hummus, energy balls, or easy-to-make smoothies.

Roasted chickpeas in a glass bowl

Check for plant-based options on the menus of your favorite restaurants

Eating away from home is the reality for many of us and when you’re transitioning to a plant-based diet, it’s good to know which restaurant menus support your new way of eating.

Spend some time reviewing the menus of your go-to restaurants to see what types of plant-based options are available. If you’re struggling to find something you’ll enjoy, plan to try a new restaurant with more options.

Take some time each week to meal plan

A diet transition is likely going to require additional planning.

As you learn new recipes and are picking up different foods to fit your new way of eating, taking time to think through the meals you’ll have each day can go a long way in helping you be successful with your diet change.

If you’re overwhelmed by meal planning, get started with my simple guide and download my 30-day plant based diet plan.

Write a grocery list (and stick to it)

In addition to meal planning, making a grocery list can also help you be successful with your transition to a plant-based diet.

You’re going to add a lot of new foods to your diet during this transition, so it’s best to have a list of foods you need to buy instead of relying on memory.

Plus, making a grocery list can help you save money at the grocery store while also preventing mid-week frustration of missing ingredients when preparing new recipes.

blank grocery list next to asparagus sprigs

Set goals

This may sound obvious. But as with any health behavior change, it’s important to set goals to help you stay on track. Simple goals like trying a new recipe or tasting a new plant-based food each week can help you stay focused.

Research shows that goal setting is an important part of behavior change. What’s more, when goals are focused on what you will do, not what you won’t do, people report having more positive emotions tied to the goal.

Think about adding to your diet, not taking away

Similar to the goals focused on what you will do versus what you won’t do, the same logic applies to how you think about your diet.

An abundance mindset can make all the difference in your ability to stick to your new way of eating. Focus on what you’ll add to your meals instead of what you’re taking away.

Ask for support

Behavior change may be easier when you have the support. Enlist a friend or family member to join you on your plant-based diet transition or consider asking someone to help you stay accountable.

Alternatively, find a plant-based registered dietitian who can help you stay on track. Support is an important part of any health behavior change, including a change to your diet.

Know your why

Knowing your why can help you stay on track with things get hard. It’s what you’ll come back to again and again when you face challenges, so be sure to have it clearly defined.

Ask important questions like “Why do I want to eat plant based?” and “What are my immediate and long-term goals for this diet change?” Write down your answers and refer to them when needed.

Sample plant-based meal plan

What does a day of plant-based eating look like? This simple one-day plan is the perfect way to get started with a plant-based diet for beginners. It can help you better understand what it means to eat plant based.

Remember, individual calorie and nutrient needs vary and this day of eating may need to be adjusted to better suit your nutrition needs.

Breakfast

Tip: If a smoothie isn’t enough to fill you up, add a piece of whole-wheat toast with almond butter or make a tofu scramble to go with it.

blueberry smoothie in a glass jar next to a bowl of wild blueberries

Snack

  • ¼ cup build-your-own trail mix: Choose your favorite mix of nuts and seeds, plus dried fruit

Tip: Add a piece of fruit if you’re still hungry or double the portion of the trail mix.

Lunch

Tip: Any combination of beans and vegetables you have on hand will work for the rice bowl.

vegetarian rice bowl with rice, chickpeas, olives, okra, tomatoes and crumbled feta

Snack

Tip: If you need to add more to this snack for it to be satisfying, try crumbling the power balls over your favorite plant-based yogurt.

gluten free and vegan energy balls on parchment paper

Dinner

Tip: Pick your favorite marinade and pair with any vegetable you have on hand if zucchini and squash isn’t available and/or if you don’t enjoy it. Roasting times will vary depending on the vegetable you choose.

baked crispy tofu covered in sesame seeds over a bed of white rice

Dessert

Tip: Individually wrap and freeze extra brownies so that you have healthy plant-based desserts on hand for the future.

chocolate avocado brownies topped with crushed nuts on a white marble surface

If this one-day plan leaves you wanting more and curious about how to start a plant-based diet, you’re in luck! I have a free 30-day plant-based meal plan available for you to download. It’s the perfect start for a plant-based diet for beginners!

FAQ

Should you eat a plant-based diet if you want to gain weight?

Any diet pattern that meets your calorie needs for weight gain can be an appropriate diet to gain weight, including the plant-based diet.

The most important part of a weight-gain diet is to ensure you’re eating in a calorie surplus while also meeting your nutrient needs.

This might be more challenging on a plant-based diet, but it’s doable with some planning. This list of high-calorie plant-based foods can help you get started with a plant-based diet for weight gain. You may also want to consider some high-calorie plant-based meal replacements.

Should you eat a plant-based diet if you want to lose weight?

Any eating pattern that limits calories can help in your effort to lose weight. One of the most important parts of a weight-loss diet is to ensure that even with a lower calorie intake, your nutrient needs are still met.

This means avoiding restricting calories so much that the diet isn’t sustainable and/or limits your ability to eat enough of the essential nutrients required for health. Following a meal plan for weight loss can help you be successful in meeting your goal.

This list of foods for plant-based weight loss is a great place to get started as it provides a guide for how to build a plan that works for you while also helping you stick to a plant-based diet.

Is it safe to eat a plant-based diet while pregnant?

Yes, eating a plant-based diet while pregnant is safe if you are meeting your calorie and nutrient needs. Pregnancy requires a greater intake of calories and certain nutrients to support the growing fetus.

This, in addition to many other bodily changes, greatly impacts your nutrient needs.

Eating a plant-based diet while pregnant will likely require additional planning to ensure nutrient needs are met, especially nutrients found in animal products such as omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and iron. Learn the ins and outs of a healthy plant-based pregnancy.

Can you eat a plant-based diet if you are gluten free?

Yes, you can follow a gluten-free plant-based diet. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and triticale. Gluten is also found in many processed foods such as sauces, dressings, baked products, and prepared meals.

Following a gluten-free plant-based diet requires paying special attention to the sources of gluten and avoiding those foods. This may require additional planning and preparation, especially if you’re new to eating gluten-free.

Check out my comprehensive list of gluten-free foods,  as well as tips for how to follow a gluten-free plant-based diet.

Final thoughts

Following a plant-based diet comes with many benefits to your health, your wallet, and the environment.

Starting a plant-based diet doesn’t require strict avoidance of animal products if that’s not your interest. The goal is to find a way to eat more plants while also enjoying your new diet.

For some people, that will mean eating a flexitarian diet whereas others may transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet.

No matter what you choose, make sure it’s satisfying and nutrient dense.

And if you want more support, sign-up for my newsletter. You’ll get weekly recipes and access to free resources. I offer oodles of tips for following a plant-based diet for beginners. I’ll see you in your inbox!

Sources

  • A 2021 study published in Clinical Nutrition
  • A 2021 study published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health
  • A 2022 study published in Journal of Affective Disorders
  • A 2019 study published in Translational Psychiatry
  • A 2017 concept paper published in Nutrients
  • A 2018 study published in Trends in Cardiovascular Medicine
  • A 2022 study published in Frontiers in Nutrition
Thinking about starting a plant-based diet? Find information about benefits, helpful tips, a sample meal plan, and more!
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