What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

In This Article

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A plant-based diet is one that focuses on plants, such as fruits, vegetables, tubers, seeds, legumes, and grains. People on plant-based diets typically avoid beef, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy, or eat them only in small quantities.

There is no official set of rules for how to follow a plant-based diet and there are several different varieties of eating plans. Vegetarian, vegan, raw food, Flexitarian, Fruitarian, and Mediterranean diets all fall under the plant-based diet umbrella, even though some may allow for small portions of fish, poultry, or dairy.

One popular form is the whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diet, which combines a plant-based diet with a whole-foods diet that avoids processed foods, added sugar, artificial sweeteners, refined grains, and hydrogenated oils.

Research has repeatedly shown that diets high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains can improve heart health and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity. A WFPB diet that is low in animal protein, fat, sugar, and processed foods is considered a healthy way to eat.

What Experts Say

"A plant-based diet sounds like it’d be inherently healthy, but that’s not always the case. Refined grains, added sugars, and vegan fast-food are all plant-based—but not the healthiest. Fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and some proteins make for more nutritionally sound choices."

Kelly Plowe, MS, RD

Background

Plant-based diets have a long history. The first recorded vegetarian diet dates back to the seventh century BCE, though the term vegetarian wasn't used until the mid-1800s. Several religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, advocate a vegetarian diet.

Some people choose to follow an animal-free diet for ethical reasons, while others do so for the health benefits. A WFPB diet, for example, was highlighted in the 2011 documentary "Forks Over Knives," which promotes avoiding meat, dairy, oil, and sugar, and eating whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plant-based foods.

How It Works

The WFPB diet focuses on whole grains, legumes, tubers, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. It minimizes or excludes animal-based protein and fat sources, including dairy, and highly refined foods.

Adopting a plant-based lifestyle does not necessarily mean you need to give up meat, fish, and dairy for good. Plant-based diets are more of an overall goal than a set of strict rules.

A plant-based eating plan simply asks that you prioritize plant-derived foods over meat, fish, and dairy, while a whole-food diet aims to eat foods as close to their natural state as possible, avoiding processed foods, added sugars, and chemicals.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology compared the effects of a healthy WFPB diet to a plant-based diet that includes more processed foods. Researchers found WFPB diets are associated with a significantly lower risk of heart disease, while a plant-based diet that is heavy in processed food increases the risk of heart disease.

Additional research has shown following a WFPB diet can reduce or eliminate the need for medications including statins, blood pressure medication, and certain diabetes drugs. Always check with your doctor before making any changes to your medications.

Here's a closer look at the research:

Heart Health

Plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and numerous studies link vegetarian diets, vegan diets, and other plant-based eating plans to improved heart-related outcomes.

A 2018 study in the journal Clinical Cardiology found a plant-based diet reduces risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

In the study, subjects following a four-week regimen of raw fruits, vegetables, seeds, and avocado saw improved blood pressure, with systolic readings dropping 16.6 mmHg and diastolic reading lowering by 9.1 mmHg. Patients also had significant reductions in cholesterol levels.

Diabetes

Research shows eating a plant-based diet may lower your risk of type 2 diabetes and improve blood glucose control in people with diabetes.

A 2017 research review found plant-based diets reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, may help to treat diabetes, and may reduce complications.

According to the study authors, the research shows eating a diet focused on unrefined carbohydrate, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, and plant-based protein can reduce insulin resistance, promote a healthy body weight, and improve blood sugar levels. 

Cancer

Studies show people who follow vegetarian and vegan diets have lower rates of cancer; some researchers cite a 10 percent to 12 percent reduction in overall cancer risk.

In addition, consumption of certain meat products (such as processed meat) is linked to higher rates of cancer.

A 2016 review of 42 meta-analyses found a significant association between increased consumption of red meat and cancer, especially with colorectal, lung, esophageal, and gastric malignancies.

The study authors also found the consumption of processed meats—such as hot dogs, cold cuts, sausage, and jerky—is associated with colorectal, esophageal, gastric, and bladder cancers.

Researchers found no association between white meat, including chicken and pork, and increased cancer risk. 

Weight Loss

Following a WFPB diet is also likely to help you lose weight and many physicians recommend plant-based eating for their patients who need to slim down.

In the 2017 BROAD study, researchers assigned 65 subjects at high risk for cardiovascular disease to either a WFPB diet or normal care for six months.

Over that time, subjects following a WFPB reduced body mass index (BMI) by almost 4 points on average and saw slight reductions in cholesterol levels. And after 12 months on the diet, subjects' BMI dropped almost 5 points on average.

The study authors concluded, "To the best of our knowledge, this research has achieved greater weight loss at 6 and 12 months than any other trial that does not limit energy intake or mandate regular exercise."

Some of the weight loss may occur simply because changing your eating pattern requires you to become more thoughtful about your food choices. It helps you to learn eating practices that are helpful for weight loss, like meal planning and increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables.

What to Eat

There is no one standard diet blueprint for following a WFPB diet, but the overall theme is the diet is rich in plant-based foods and low in animal-based foods.

While foods can be eaten either raw or cooked into soups, smoothies, casseroles, baked goods, pizza, meatless burgers, and more, the less processing involved the better.

Compliant Foods

  • Vegetables

  • Fruits

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Legumes

  • Whole grains

  • Tubers

  • Avocado

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Beef

  • Poultry

  • Dairy

  • Seafood

  • Eggs

  • Refined grains, like white flour and white rice

  • Added sugars

  • Food additives

Some versions of WFPB diets are more strict than others. For example, the diet outlined in "Forks Over Knives" does not allow any oils, while other proponents of the diet allow for small amounts of healthier oils, like olive oil and coconut oil.

Meal Ideas

If you are used to a diet rich in meat and dairy, it may be hard to imagine meals without them. However, there are plenty of options. Here are a few suggestions for meals you might enjoy:

Breakfast Ideas

  • Oatmeal with nuts and bananas
  • Avocado toast with a bowl of berries
  • Vegan zucchini bread
  • Tofu scramble with sautéed veggies

Lunch Ideas

  • Creamy broccoli soup (made with white beans instead of dairy)
  • Dairy-free corn chowder
  • Mixed grain salad with grilled vegetables
  • Whole-grain wrap sandwich with avocado and sliced veggies
  • Portobello mushroom burger

Dinner Ideas

  • Three-bean chili
  • Zucchini noodles with tomatoes
  • Spaghetti and meatless-balls (made with mushrooms)
  • Eggplant lasagna with dairy-free cheese
  • Loaded sweet potatoes

You'll find more plant-based meal plans online at sites like Forks Over Knives (for a membership fee) or the Center for Nutrition Studies (free).

Plant-Based Recipes

If you are just starting out with a WFPB diet, give these delicious plant-based recipes a try. If you choose to follow a stricter version, as outlined in "Forks Over Knives," omit the oil in these recipes.

Recommended Timing

There is no fasting required or special meal timing for following a WFPB diet. Some people who are trying to lose weight on a WFPB diet choose to limit carbs after dinner or eat only raw food until 4 p.m.

Resources and Tips

If you are new to the WFPB lifestyle, there's no need to be intimidated as meatless diets are easier to follow than ever. The key is to stock your kitchen with healthy plant-based foods so you don't feel deprived.

  • Take it one step at a time: If you're not sure if you're ready for the full commitment, take small steps to eat less meat. Take advantage of Meatless Mondays or challenge yourself to eat two to three meals each week that do not include meat or dairy.
  • Make healthy swaps: You can still eat almost all of your favorite foods when you follow a WFPB diet. You just have to make a few clever swaps. Love burgers? Grill a portobello mushroom and place it on a bun with your favorite toppings. Enjoy pizza with a whole-wheat crust and colorful veggies instead of meat and cheese.
  • Learn to love legumes: Beans are your friends on a WFPB program. Legumes provide protein and fiber which gives you the sense of fullness and satiety that you may have enjoyed when you ate meat. Stock up on a variety of canned or dried beans.
  • Save money with frozen and bulk foods: Plant-based eating doesn't have to be expensive. Fresh fruits and vegetables are flavorful and have the best texture. But frozen foods are usually just as nutritious. Keep frozen berries, peas, corn, and other veggies on hand to throw into recipes. Buy seeds and nuts in bulk to save money.

    Pros and Cons

    For the many health benefits of a WFPB diet, there are a few downsides. Like any whole-food diet, avoiding processed foods requires more meal planning and preparation than pre-packaged foods.

    In addition, not eating meat can make it tricky to get enough protein and certain nutrients. Although, with careful planning and attention, nutritionists say you can get most of the nutrients you need from plants.

    Pros

    • Improved heart health

    • Reduced risk of diabetes and diabetic complications

    • Reduced risk of cancer

    • Lower Body Mass Index (BMI)

    • Wide variety of foods

    • No weighing or measuring

    Cons

    • Difficult to ensure enough protein

    • Possible nutrient deficiencies including calcium, iron, and B12

    • Meal planning and preparation

    Pros

    A plant-based diet—in particular, one focused on whole, unprocessed foods—offers many health benefits, including improved heart health and decreased risks of diabetes, cancer, and obesity.

    Many people following this way of eating report more energy, fewer aches and pains, and an overall sense of well-being.

    Research shows that following a WFPB diet can be an effective weight-loss strategy. A 2016 meta-analysis of more than 1,151 subjects found individuals assigned to the vegetarian diet groups lost significantly more weight than those assigned to the non-vegetarian diet groups.

    Additional research suggests the diet is effective for weight loss without needing to restrict calories, measure portions, or exercise.

    While following a whole-foods, plant-based diet is considered a healthy way to eat, simply following a plant-based or vegetarian diet often includes processed foods that are not healthy. Without proper planning, it can be difficult to get enough protein and other nutrients needed for good health.

    Cons

    The biggest challenge of following a WFPB diet is making sure you get enough of key nutrients. People on vegetarian diets need to pay extra attention to ensure they get enough protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12.

    According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a well-planned plant-based diet can provide adequate nutrition. Vegetarian diets may lead to a reduced intake of certain nutrients, the report states, but deficiencies can be avoided by appropriate planning.

    Protein

    Protein is made up of a chain of amino acids, which the body needs in certain proportions to utilize the protein.

    Amino acids are found in meats, milk, fish, eggs, nuts, legumes and grains. Animal products are a complete protein source because they contain all the necessary amino acids. Plant-based protein, however, is incomplete.

    In the past, it was believed that in order for the body to utilize the amino acids in plants, foods need to be eaten in the right combination, for example, beans and rice.

    However, in 2016 the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics updated its recommendations to state that protein from a variety of plant foods eaten throughout the day works together to supply enough amino acids. In addition, the regular consumption of legumes and soy products will ensure adequate protein intake.

    Iron

    While people following a plant-based diet have similar iron intakes as meat eaters, vegetarians typically have lower blood levels of iron. This is because plant-based iron (or non-heme iron) is not as bioavailable as animal-based heme iron.

    Due to this, the Institute of Medicine recommends people following a vegetarian diet aim to consume additional dietary iron and have iron levels monitored by a doctor. Taking iron supplements is not recommended unless advised by your doctor.

    Calcium

    Getting enough calcium can also be difficult on a plant-based diet. While many vegetables are high in calcium, other components in plants—namely oxalate, phytate, and fiber—block their bioavailability.

    Nutritionists recommend eating low-oxalate vegetables, such as kale, turnip greens, Chinese cabbage, and bok choy, calcium-set tofu (made with a calcium salt), and fortified plant milk, like almond or soy milk.

    Vitamin B12

    Plants do not contain vitamin B12, which is needed for healthy blood cells and energy. People who follow a plant-based diet are unlikely to get adequate vitamin B12 without eating foods fortified in B12, such as breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast, or taking a B12 supplement. The recommended daily amount of B12 for adults is 2.4 mcg.

    How It Compares

    The WFPB diet contains a wide variety of nutritious foods. With proper planning, it is possible to get all the necessary vitamins and nutrients with this way of eating.

    However, many people following a plant-based diet that is not based on whole foods may end up eating unhealthy processed foods, which do not provide proper nutrition.

    USDA Recommendations

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines include calorie recommendations and tips for a healthy, balanced diet. The following nutrient-dense foods are recommended as part of a healthy diet:

    • Vegetables and dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach, broccoli, Swiss chard, green beans) 
    • Fruits (apples, berries, melon)
    • Grains (quinoa, brown rice, oats)
    • Lean meats (chicken breast, fish, turkey breast)
    • Beans and legumes (all beans, lentils, peas)
    • Nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds)
    • Dairy (reduced fat milk, cheese, yogurt) 
    • Oils (olive oil, avocado oil) 

    Due to the elimination of meat and dairy, a plant-based diet does not meet the USDA guidelines, however, with proper planning, it is possible to get all the necessary nutrients through plants or with dietary supplements.

    The USDA recommends consuming roughly 1,500 calories per day for weight loss, but this number varies based on age, sex, weight, and activity level. Use this calculator to determine the right number of calories for you.

    Similar Diets

    There are several variations of plant-based diets and some allow for animal products. Common plant-based diets include:

    • Vegetarian diet: This plan avoids meat, seafood, and poultry, but eggs and dairy may be eaten (lacto-ovo vegetarians). People would not necessarily be considered plant-based eaters unless they limit their consumption.
    • Vegan diet: On this diet, you avoid meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products or any food made with those ingredients. The diet does not restrict processed foods, added sugars, or fat. It does not require the consumption of whole foods.
    • Mediterranean diet: This diet emphasizes plant-based eating but encourages consumption of fish and allows for small amounts of chicken, dairy products, eggs, and red meat.
    • Flexitarian diet: Also known as a "flexible vegetarian" diet, this eating plan emphasizes plant-based foods but allows for occasional allowances of foods that are not typically considered vegetarian.
    • Raw food diet: Usually a vegan diet, you'd avoid all foods that you avoid on the vegan eating plan along with any foods cooked at temperatures greater than 118 degrees F.
    • Fruitarian diet: This comprises a vegan diet that is mostly fruit.
    • Macrobiotic diet: This is usually a vegan diet that emphasizes natural, organic whole foods that are grown locally. Plant-based foods are emphasized, but meat and seafood may be consumed occasionally.

    A Word From Verywell

    Plant-based diets have gained popularity not only in the health and medical community, but also among fitness fanatics, athletes, and environmentalists. If you adopt the eating plan, you are likely to see improvement in the way you look or feel. But remember that the quality of your diet matters most.

    A plant-based diet full of processed foods, added sugars, and sodium is probably not going to give you the results you desire. The best diet is a healthy diet that you can stick to for the long-term. Make gradual changes and enlist the help of a registered dietitian if necessary to put together a plan that keeps you healthy and satisfied.

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