The idea of eating "plant-based" sounds healthy. And it is. "Plant-based" is also a buzzword we're seeing more and more. But what exactly is a plant-based diet and what makes it healthy?
A plant-based diet means eating more whole foods and plants—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds. One of the best parts about eating a plant-based diet is that you can define your strictness. It doesn't necessarily mean plants only. For some, a plant-based diet does exclude all animal products (a vegan diet). For others, it's just about proportion—choosing more of your foods from plant sources than from animal sources. It's a nice way to make plants a main part of your diet without needing to completely eliminate dairy, eggs, meat and fish (you can just eat less of these).
Related: 7-Day Vegan Meal Plan
Regardless of which variation you want to follow, there are some standout benefits to eating more plants.
Health benefits of eating a plant-based diet
Pictured recipe: Strawberry, Quinoa & Edamame Salad
Plants are healthy—you know this—and most of us don't eat the recommended amount of fruits and veggies, so making the majority of your diet plant-based will up your produce ante, which is a nutritious choice. Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Fiber is a nutrient that most of us don't get enough of, and it has tons of healthy perks–it's good for your waistline, your heart, your gut and your blood sugar (read more about the amazing benefits of fiber). But, also, science shows that people's overall nutrition is usually better when they follow a vegetarian or vegan diet versus when they eat an omnivorous diet.
People who follow a plant-based diet tend to have lower body mass indexes (BMIs) compared to their omnivore counterparts. And research shows that people who use a vegetarian diet to lose weight are more successful not only at dropping pounds, but also at keeping them off. (See more science-backed tips for weight-loss.)
Eating a vegetarian diet may lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, and may improve other risk factors for heart disease by lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol, and improving your blood sugar control. Eating plant-based can also help quell inflammation, which raises your risk of heart disease by promoting plaque buildup in your arteries.
Lower diabetes risk
Regardless of your BMI, eating a vegetarian diet or a vegan diet lowers your risk of diabetes. In fact, one study shows that meat eaters have double the risk of diabetes compared to lacto-ovo vegetarians and vegans. Another study, this one published in February 2019, shows that people who eat a plant-based diet have higher insulin sensitivity, which is important for maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
Related: Vegan Recipes for Diabetes
Cut cancer risk
Research consistently shows that regularly eating plenty of fruits, veggies, legumes and grains—aka plants—is associated with a lower cancer risk. Plus, those disease-fighting phytochemicals in plants have also been shown to prevent and thwart cancer. And, don't forget, studies also show an association between eating red and processed meats and increased cancer risk, especially colorectal cancer. So there's benefit not only from just eating more plants, but also from replacing some less-healthy foods with those plant foods.
How to start eating a more plant-based diet
Pictured recipe: Raw Vegan Zoodles with Romesco
OK, so you're inspired now, right? Let's turn that into action. Yes, you can and should up your vegetable ante—aim to make sure half of your lunch and dinner plate is always filled with vegetables, and vary the variety and color of the veggies you choose. But there's more that you can do. Try to incorporate some of these small(ish) changes.
1. Seek out healthy fats.
Unsaturated fats—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated—are the kind that are good for your heart. Most of the good food sources of these come from plants—olives and olive oil, avocado and its oil, nuts and their butters and oils. Substitute these occasionally (or always, if you prefer) for butter, ghee or lard, and you're automatically leaning toward more plants. Aim to include plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids too, such as flaxseeds and chia seeds.
2. Eat vegetables at breakfast.
If you want to increase your veggie intake, start with breakfast. Since it's not a meal you'd usually think about as veggie-filled, adding some here makes it easier to hit your daily quota. Then keep lunch and dinner as is. If you're wondering what veggie-heavy breakfasts might look like, try adding spinach to your eggs, blending cauliflower in your smoothie or eating a breakfast salad.
3. Have a vegetarian dinner once a week.
Usually we put an animal protein at the center of the plate at dinnertime, so going vegetarian one day a week is one way to cut back. And because it's just one dinner, it doesn't require any other investment over the course of the week. If going meat-free for a meal feels like a stretch, then shift your perception and see if you can make animal protein more of a condiment than an anchor to your meal one night a week. Try some of our 30 vegetarian dinner ideas to inspire you.
4. Try fruit for desserts and snacks.
Dessert is typically something made with an animal product—butter or eggs, or both, in cookies, cakes and ice cream. Switching over to fruit sometimes can satisfy your sweet tooth with a whole food, and also give you an extra serving of plants.
5. Try one new-to-you plant food a week.
If this is your goal, you're not just increasing the amount of plants you're eating, but you're also adding variety to your diet, which means you'll be getting a different balance of good-for-you vitamins and minerals. Some less-common veggies to try: bok choy, rutabaga, squash blossoms, celeriac, kohlrabi.
You'll likely reap benefits from cutting down on meat (plant foods have less saturated fat and usually fewer calories), but it goes beyond what you're limiting. What you're eating and adding to your diet is significant too. Eating more plants means getting more of those good-for-you vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber—many of which are nutrients we typically fall short on.