How to Start Eating Plant-Based
Rumblings about the benefits of plant-based diets have been getting louder over the last few years. From environmental friendliness to impressive health benefits, the arguments for plant-based eating are indeed compelling. But what does plant-based eating even mean? What does the research show? And how would one start eating plant-based?
Whether you’re ready to go “all in” or just plant-based-curious, this guide is all you need—we’ll clarify what the diet is, why you might pursue it, and how to start eating plant-based.
What is a plant-based diet?
To be clear, the plant-based diet espoused here is a whole foods, plant-based diet.
A plant-based diet is simply one composed primarily of plant-derived foods, meaning fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, as well as products made from these foods.
Notably, assuming this definition, a diet rich with broccoli and lentils is just as “plant-based” as one rich with french fries and sugary cereals.
A whole foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet, on the other hand, is one comprised of plant-based foods in, well, their whole forms. A few examples:
- Soy beans are whole foods; fake meat burgers made from soy protein isolate are not.
- Apples are whole foods; apple juice is not.
- Wheat berries are whole foods; Wonder bread is not.
Another way to look at it: whole foods are single-ingredient, unprocessed foods that you could find in nature, and plant-based whole foods, in particular, are those you could find growing from the ground or off a branch (sorry, Cheeze-Its).
Importantly, a whole foods, plant-based diet does not require the exclusion of animal products (as opposed to a vegan diet, which does); it simply requires that the majority of the diet consist of plants.
Why eat a whole foods, plant-based diet
There are plenty of reasons why someone might find a whole foods, plant-based diet compelling, but the environmental friendliness and health benefits are the most commonly cited and well-received.*
*While there are strong ethical arguments for adopting a plant-based diet, they are often polarizing and unproductive, instilling defensiveness over open-mindedness. Instead of engaging in this divisive topic, let’s just point it out as a potential motivation, and move on.
The last several years have seen a dramatic increase in the urgency and priority of minimizing our environmental footprint, prompting increased media attention on plant-based products, greater investment in related entrepreneurial pursuits (e.g., the development of the Impossible Burger), and more widespread public consumption of plant-based foods.
Simply put, plant-based foods require less water, land, and energy to produce than animal foods do, with red meat and dairy products having the heaviest environmental load. (Check out this guide for a full, research-backed breakdown of the environmental footprints of different foods.)
This isn’t to say that plant-based eating is the best or only way to live more sustainably, but it is a powerful one, and even small shifts (like adopting Meatless Mondays) can make a difference.
Alas, a plant-based diet is not necessarily a healthy one; a vegan donut may have a smaller environmental footprint than a piece of steak, but it’s not going to help your health much.
This is where the “whole foods” piece fits in.
While debates will rage on about the merits of high-carb vs. low-carb, raw vs. cooked, diet ABC vs. diet XYZ, there is nearly universal agreement on the following principles:
- A whole foods diet that emphasizes plant-based foods—whether that diet is exclusively plant-based or not—is a healthy choice.
- On the flip side, consumption of too many processed foods negatively impacts health.
Sparing the biochemical details, consumption of whole plant foods is consistently linked to improved mood, higher and more consistent energy levels, clearer skin, improved immunity, decreased risk of chronic illness, improved mental clarity and focus, a healthier weight, and more. (More details and research can be found here, here, and here.)
Consumption of processed foods, on the other hand, encourages the opposite effects—poor mood, low energy, skin problems, etc. (More details here.)
Importantly, eating animal products can absolutely fit into a healthy diet. The key criteria from a health perspective are that:
- These animal products are high-quality—i.e., minimally processed and from healthy, well-treated animals. (Leaving ethics aside, the health and treatment of the animals from which your food is derived do directly impact the nutritional profile of that food. As an example, beef from ethically-raised, grass-fed cows is higher in anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids than beef from factory-farm cows.)
- Plant-based foods comprise the majority of the diet, as they are rich with unique nutrients that are necessary for optimal health.
It’s also worth noting that significant benefits can be derived simply from moving along the spectrum from ultra-processed foods to whole foods. in other words, baby steps (like transitioning from Cookie Crisp to Cheerios, as compared to Cookie Crisp to steel cut oats) are still meaningful. Additionally, your diet doesn’t have to be fully “whole foods, plant-based” to be healthy; while olive oil isn’t technically a whole food, it can still be part of a healthy diet.
In short, a mostly whole foods diet—with an emphasis on plant foods—is the way to go for achieving and maintaining good health.
Plant-based diets are good for the planet, and whole food diets are good for your body.
So if you’re looking for a diet that’s good for both, then a whole foods, plant-based diet is definitely something to try.
(Added bonus? Whole foods, plant-based diets—assuming you’re not stocking up on asparagus water or the world’s finest lucuma powder—are often cheaper than equally healthy diets that include animal products.)
How to start eating plant-based
While there’s no universal prescription for effectively adopting a whole foods, plant-based diet—different things work for different people—hopefully some of the suggestions and resources below will help you determine how to start eating plant-based in a way that works for you.
(For the sake of brevity, the rest of the article will use the phrase “plant-based” as a synonym for “whole foods, plant-based.”)
Step 1: Clarify
Clarify your motivations, goals, and tendencies to increase follow-through and inform your strategy to start eating plant-based.
Get clear on your motivation
If you’re embarking on a plant-based journey because someone told you to, or because you think you should, it might be hard to stick with it long term. If you’re in this boat, you could try three things:
- Give it a shot, keep an open mind, and see how you do.
- Seek out additional information to cultivate internal motivation to start the diet.
- Accept that this isn’t something you care about right now, and revisit it later (or never).
If you are convinced this is something you want to try, then consider recording your motivations, whether in writing or some other form. The more specific and immediately relevant the motivation, the better (e.g., “I want to be healthier” is not as powerful as “I want to be healthier so I can have enough energy to play with my kids after work”).
When you take time to clarify and capture your motivations, it’s much easier to stay on track in times of stress, distraction, or anything else that might undermine your efforts.
Get clear on your goals
Though tightly coupled, motivations and goals are distinct; motivations are what compel you to change, while goals are either the processes to implement change or the end results of change.
As an example, let’s say you want to eat a plant-based diet to lose weight. The motivation is the desire to lose weight, but your goals might be to eat a serving of veggies with every dinner (process-oriented), and/or to lose 10 pounds (results-oriented).
Clarifying your goals, as well as your commitment to them, helps you identify the best strategies to employ and increases the likelihood that your desired future will be achieved.
Choose wisely: Baby steps vs. “All in”
The “baby steps” vs. “all in” decision point is relevant when considering the following:
- How “whole foods, plant-based” you want to be (100% vs. <100%)
- How quickly you want to make changes (all at once vs. slowly over time)
Some people genuinely do better with an “all in” approach when they’re trying to make changes. If this is the approach that works best for you, then go for it!
However, if (a) the idea of adopting a plant-based diet seems overwhelming and unmanageable to you, (b) your “all or nothing” attitude has not been sustainable in the past, (c) you’re not sure if plant-based eating is right for you (or how “plant-based” you want to be), then a “baby steps” approach might be better.
Most people will do far better using the “baby steps” methodology, as it affords more freedom, flexibility, and customization. Even from a purely physiological perspective, our bodies tend to prefer slower changes so they have time to adapt.
The one caveat to the “baby steps” recommendation is this: When dealing with a particularly strong and unhealthy temptation, sometimes a black-and-white framework is most effective.
Specifically, sometimes it is easier to abstain from something than it is to moderate—for example, to avoid potato chips entirely than to eat “just one.” Both strategies are valid, but one will likely be more effective for you.
How you deal with strong temptations doesn’t necessarily have to dictate your entire approach to plant-based eating—you can adopt a “baby steps” methodology while also abstaining from refined sugar—but it is an important thing to think about as you craft your plant-based eating plan.
Step 2: Plan
Create a plan to help you start eating plant-based (and achieve related goals), and continue to re-evaluate as your circumstances change, as you gain more experience, and as you learn more about yourself and what works–and doesn’t work–for you.
If you’re going for the “all in” approach, your plan might look something like the following:
- Create a list of “in” foods vs. “out” foods that align with your motivations and goals. (Sign up for my email newsletter to get an example list.)
- Perform a food purge to get rid of all “out” foods in your kitchen (ideally delivering them to a person or group that can make use of them).
- Find or create your own meal plan.
- Stock up at the grocery store to fuel your new way of life.
- Continuously evaluate how this plan is working for you, and make adjustments as needed.
If you’re going for a “baby steps” approach, consider leveraging the following strategies, all of which can inspire a large swath of different action steps:
- Add before you subtract: Add in whole, plant-based foods before removing processed foods and/or animal products.
- Replace: Replace processed foods with similar but unprocessed counterparts; replace animal products with similar but plant-based counterparts.
- Moderate (or abstain from) particularly tempting foods.
Referencing these strategies, think of specific action steps that you can take daily, weekly, or monthly to incrementally improve your diet. Here are some examples:
Phase A: Eat more veggies
- Week 1: Eat a salad with every lunch.
- Week 2: Eat a serving of veggies with every dinner.
- Week 3: Try a green smoothie for breakfast a few times a week.
- Week 4: Add a serving of raw veggies with your afternoon snack.
Phase B: Eat less meat
- Week 1: Try a vegan “meat” alternative for one dinner.
- Week 2: Create a whole foods, plant-based meal—no fake meats; just pure, plant-based goodness.
- Week 3: Go one full day without meat (#MeatlessMondays).
- Week 4: Up that to two full days.
Phase C: Eat less refined carbs
- Week 1: Eat half of your daily breakfast muffin and add a serving of fresh, whole fruit.
- Week 2: Replace white bread with whole grain bread.
- Week 3: Create one meal with quinoa, whole wheat berries, or brown rice.
- Week 4: Try overnight oats for breakfast.
As should be easy to see, there are tons of ways that you can go about your plant-based journey. Whether you lay out a multi-week plan or take just one week at a time, articulating concrete action steps to get you closer to your goals will make them much easier to attain.
Step 3: Set yourself up for success
Explore the perspectives, find the tools, and craft the environment that will help you succeed as you start eating plant-based.
Reframe restriction-oriented thoughts
Diets are inherently restrictive; they propose limitations to the amounts and types of foods you can eat. But the “restriction” mindset tends to trigger anxiety, resentment, and cravings, all of which make dieting unsustainable and frustrating.
Fortunately, you have a lot of power over how you see a diet, and that perception can greatly impact your ability to minimize pain, increase enjoyment, and build a sustainable, healthy lifestyle.
Here are a few examples of reframing the plant-based diet in a way that encourages freedom, not restriction. By eating a plant-based diet…
- … all the calories that used to be devoted to animal products and processed foods are now free for new and different foods. Example: If you used to eat 700 calories’ worth of cheese, eggs, and chicken everyday, you now effectively have 700 “discretionary” calories to play around with.
- … you are no longer a victim to confusing food labels and temptation-leveraging, processed-food marketing; you know what’s good for you, and you are in control.
- … you are free from the shackles of processed foods—the cravings that consume your mental energy, the post-sugar crashes and lethargy that destroy your productivity, and the weight of self-consciousness and guilt.
Make it convenient (and make alternatives inconvenient)
Even if your motivations are strong, convenience often wins out; it’s just how humans are wired (and this tendency is exaggerated when we’re tired and hungry). Instead of trying to counteract this tendency, it’s much more productive to leverage it in a way that promotes the end goal—in the context of starting a plant-based diet, this means crafting an environment in which healthy eating is the default choice, and unhealthy eating takes extra work.
- Store unhealthy foods out of reach (e.g., high cabinets), and health foods at eye-level. Even better, keep fruits and veggies in plain view, such as on your kitchen counter top or your desk at work.
- Alternatively, don’t keep unhealthy foods in your house at all. If you want a special treat, you’ll have to make a special trip.
- Find your “convenience” foods, e.g. canned beans, frozen brown rice, frozen quinoa, rice cakes, dehydrated veggie chips—healthy things that take at most a few minutes to prepare.
- Try meal prepping. This can be as simple as chopping up vegetables before putting them in the fridge, or as complex as preparing a week’s worth of meals in one go. Either way, meal prepping, though it requires an upfront cost, makes healthy eating throughout the week much more convenient.
- Consider a healthy eating service, like Hello Fresh, to make home cooking even easier.
Create a whole foods, plant-based diet meal plan
If the question “What should we eat for dinner tonight?” is something that causes you pain on a daily basis, then consider meal planning.
Having a meal plan—whether you create one yourself or sign up for a meal plan service—is a great way to reduce decision fatigue during the workweek and minimize the frequency of the I’m-too-tired-to-cook-so-I’ll-eat-potato-chips-for-dinner predicament. (As a side benefit, meal planning helps you buy the right amount of food, which minimizes both food waste and the risk of an empty pantry!)
Create a schedule
For any diet-related task you’re trying to complete, consider adding it to your calendar; generally speaking, a task is much more likely to get done if it’s on the calendar than if it is not. For example, you might block off half an hour each week for meal planning, 2 hours on the weekend for meal prepping, or a daily reminder to write in your food journal.
Beyond simply scheduling tasks, consider scheduling them on a recurring basis (e.g., 10a every Saturday for grocery shopping). The more consistent you can be with completing certain tasks, the easier it will be to stick with them long-term.
Monitor your progress
Many are greatly motivated by tracking progress over time (and de-motivated by perceived lack of progress). If this is you, consider recording your plant-based journey in some way.
Naturally, the more you record, the more analysis you can perform, but you don’t need to write a lot to derive benefit. Oftentimes, the simple act of journaling can increase awareness throughout the day, enabling you to observe and identify patterns without even consulting your notes.
Here’s a simple, low-maintenance approach to get started: At the end of every day, take a few minutes to (a) record what you ate (or perhaps just the deviations from your normal diet, if you stay pretty consistent day to day), and (b) write a sentence or two that captures how you felt—tired, energized, stressed, calm, irritable, happy, etc.
Whether or not you continue this practice long-term, this type of reflection can help surface positive changes that otherwise might be easily overlooked.
If you struggle to meet personal goals, like eating better or working out more, external accountability might be the missing piece.
Accountability can take many different forms, but the crux is that it involves meeting an external expectation—an obligation to something or someone outside of yourself.
Here are some examples of how to build external accountability into your plant-based lifestyle:
- Hire a health coach.
- Embark on your plant-based journey with a friend, and schedule regular check-ins to review progress and missteps.
- Schedule a weekly plant-based cooking date with friends—this can be done in person, or even over Skype.
- Create a calendar that records your daily/weekly/monthly plant-based goals, and place that calendar in a public place. Use different marks to denote when you met your goals vs. when you didn’t.
- Record your food intake in a journal, and share that journal with a friend or coach.
- Sign up for a meal plan service, like Hungryroot or Hello Fresh.
- Sign up for a dieting program, like Weight Watchers.
Plan for stumbling blocks
It’s almost a certainty that you will fall off the wagon at some point during your plant-based journey—we are human, after all. The key is not to avoid these failures, but rather to learn how to bounce back from them (similar to meditation, where the goal, at least for beginners, is not necessarily to stop all thoughts but to learn how to come back to the present moment after wandering away).
Consider the moments in which you think you might veer off track. Some common ones: going out with friends who don’t follow the plant-based diet, traveling for work or leisure, the holidays, or doughnut Friday.
For each of these moments, think about: (a) what you can do to minimize the risk of falling off track, and (b) what strategies you can employ to get back on track if you do fall off.
Write these down, and revisit when the moment comes.
Find non-food ways to manage emotions and stress
While it’s all fine and well to seek out yummy plant-based recipes, it’s important to not rely solely on food to bring pleasure, comfort, stress-relief, or the like. Doing so enforces an unhealthy co-dependence on and attachment to food that (a) makes it really difficult to make positive dietary changes, (b) weakens emotional resilience and control, and (c) provides only a short-term emotional high that doesn’t contribute to long-term well-being.
As you make your dietary changes, consider non-food strategies to manage emotions and stress. There are tons of ways to bring little bits of positive emotion into your daily life; oftentimes, it just requires a bit of reflection and creativity.
If you need some inspiration, here are a few personal examples of things I use to lift my spirits: chicks in hats (my laptop wallpaper), comedy clips (late night TV shows), baby animal clips (like this one), and talking to my twin.
Seek adventure, make it fun, and get creative
Most people want more adventure, fun, and creativity in their lives, but it can be hard to achieve these things without a prompt.
Well, starting a plant-based diet can be just that—a push to explore and enrich your life. Whether you’re seeking out plant-based-friendly restaurants you’ve never tried, inviting your friends over for a plant-based potluck, or experimenting in the kitchen to recreate your favorite recipes in plant-based form, plant-based eating can be a powerful way to encourage a richer, happier daily life.
Treat whole foods, plant-based eating as an experiment
Most people will thrive on a plant-based diet, but there are many different forms; one person’s plant-based diet might include small amounts of animal protein, while another’s might not. Remember that there’s a lot of variation within the plant-based diet, and only experimentation and reflection can surface which variation will work best for you.
Don’t let a bad experience during your first week or two of plant-based eating dictate what the entire journey will be like.
Especially if you prefer an “all in” approach, and particularly if you’re transitioning from a meat-heavy and/or processed food-heavy diet, you may find plant-based eating challenging.
But things change, assuming they’re given the chance to do so.
Your taste buds will change. After a few weeks of cutting down on processed foods, you will become more sensitive to the taste of salt, sugar, and fat. Also keep in mind that it might take upwards of 10 tries of a new food to develop a taste for it.
Your body will change. Some studies suggest that certain individuals can experience withdrawal symptoms after cutting out processed foods, but those symptoms will pass.
Your perception will change. Make it over the hump, focus on the positive, and things will feel easier with time.
Of course, there’s much more than just strategy to consider if you’re wondering how to start eating plant-based—there’s the question of what to actually eat!
Here are a few resources to get you started:
- 5-minute breakfast guide
- 5-minute snack guide
- Easy plant-based dinners guide
- Healthy Eating 101 Guide (delivered to your inbox when you sign up for my newsletter) – recaps the benefits of plant-based eating, the foods to eat more of and the foods to minimize, and a whole foods, plant-based diet food list.
(I’m working on a handful of additional resources to tackle the “tactics” of plant-based eating — meal prep guides, templates and formulas, healthy recipes, etc. If you’re interested in receiving those, be sure to sign up for my email newsletter in the sidebar!)
Whole foods, plant-based eating can be incredibly rewarding, but you don’t need to get it “perfect” to reap the benefits. In fact, aiming for perfection will probably do you more harm than good (and may leave you walking down the street with no clothes on).
Instead, focus on the small shifts you can make today to be healthier and happier, and reflect and experiment to find what’s best for you.
What will your first step be?