What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

Plant based diet

Verywell / Debbie Burkhoff 

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

Plant-based diets focus on eating mostly plants such as fruits, vegetables, tubers, seeds, legumes, and grains. People following a plant-based diet typically avoid animal products such as beef, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy—or eat them only in small quantities.

The whole-food, plant-based (WFPB) diet is a popular choice for the plant-based lifestyle. The WFPB eating plan combines a plant-based diet with a whole-foods diet by avoiding animal products as well as processed foods, added sugar, artificial sweeteners, refined grains, and hydrogenated oils.

A WFPB diet was highlighted in the 2011 documentary "Forks Over Knives," which promotes the avoidance of meat, dairy, oil, and sugar and advocates eating whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plant-based foods.

But there is no official set of rules for how to follow a plant-based diet as there are several iterations. Vegetarian, vegan, raw food, flexitarian, pescatarian, fruitarian, Engine 2 diet, and Mediterranean diets also fall under the plant-based diet umbrella, even though some will allow the occasional serving of fish, poultry, or dairy.

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. Followers of several world religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, adhere to a vegetarian diet. Some people choose to follow an animal product-free diet for ethical reasons, while others may do so for health benefits.

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 generally considered a healthy way to eat. 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.

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

What Can You Eat?

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.

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. This means that adopting a plant-based lifestyle does not necessarily require you to give up meat, fish, and dairy for good. Plant-based diets often are more of an overall goal than a set of strict rules.

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.

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

What You Need to Know

Given the wide variety of plant-based foods available, not all plant-based diets are considered healthy. For example, 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 included more processed foods. Researchers found the WFPB diets were associated with a significantly lower risk of heart disease, while the plant-based diets that were heavy in processed food actually increased the risk of heart disease.

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 and animal products. Give Meatless Mondays a try 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.

There is no fasting required or special meal timing for following a WFPB diet, though some people choose to implement special guidelines, particularly when weight loss is a primary goal. For example, some people who are trying to lose weight on a WFPB diet may choose to limit carbs after dinner or eat only raw foods until 4 p.m.

What to Eat
  • Vegetables

  • Fruits

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Legumes

  • Whole grains

  • Tubers

What Not to Eat
  • 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. Some plant-based diets do not allow any oils while others allow for small amounts of healthier oils, like olive oil and coconut oil.

Sample Shopping List

A WFPB diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based protein. The following shopping list offers suggestions for getting started with this eating plan. Note that this is not a definitive shopping list and you may find other foods that work better for you.

  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, arugula)
  • Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, carrots)
  • Fruits (grapefruit, oranges, berries, bananas, apples, avocados)
  • Whole grains (oats, quinoa, barley, amaranth, brown rice)
  • Dried or canned legumes (black beans, lentils, chickpeas)
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Nuts and seeds (walnuts, almonds, cashews, chia seeds, flax seeds)
  • Nondairy milk (oat, almond, soy)
  • Tahini

Sample Meal Plan

If you are accustomed to a meat- and dairy-centric diet, it may be hard to imagine meals without them. Fortunately, there are plenty of delicious and creative plant-based recipes to try. The following five-day meal plan offers suggestions for getting started with a WFPB diet. Note this plan is not all-inclusive and there may be other meals that are more suitable for your tastes and preferences. If you're interested in following a stricter version such as "Forks Over Knives," omit the oil in the suggested recipes.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

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).

Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Proven health benefits

  • Wide variety of compliant foods

  • No weighing or measuring

  • May aid sustainable weight loss

Cons
  • May be challenging to ensure enough protein

  • Potential for some nutrient deficiencies including calcium, iron, and B12

  • Requires meal planning and preparation

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 like vitamin B12. With careful planning and attention, however, nutritionists say you can get most of the nutrients you need from plants.

Pros

  • Health benefits: 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.
  • Improved well-being: Many people following this way of eating report more energy, fewer aches and pains, and an overall sense of well-being.
  • Weight loss: 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.
  • Less restrictive: Additional research suggests the diet is effective for weight loss without needing to restrict calories, measure portions, or exercise.

Cons

  • Potential for nutrient deficiencies: The biggest challenge of following a WFPB diet is making sure you get enough of certain key nutrients. People on vegetarian diets need to pay extra attention to ensure they get enough protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B12.
  • "Incomplete" protein source: 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 considered "complete" protein sources because they contain all of the essential amino acids. Plant-based protein, however, is considered "incomplete" as they contain less of one or two of the nine essential amino acids. With careful planning, however, plant-based protein can provide the amino acids your body needs.

A whole-food, plant-based diet is considered a healthy way to eat, but as with other diets, it can still include less healthy processed food—and without careful planning, it can be difficult to get enough protein and other nutrients necessary for good health.

Is a Plant-Based Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

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

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

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.

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

Health Benefits

There are many good reasons to try a whole-food, plant-based diet. Here's a closer look at the research on the health benefits associated with a plant-based diet.

Promotes 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 Prevention and Treatment

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 carbohydrates, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, and plant-based protein can reduce insulin resistance, promote a healthy body weight, and improve blood sugar levels.

Reduces the Risk of Cancer

Studies show people who follow vegetarian and vegan diets have lower rates of cancer; some researchers cite a 10% to 12% 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.

However, the researchers found no association between white meat, including chicken and pork, and increased cancer risk. 

Promotes Weight Loss

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

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. A WFPB diet can also help you learn eating practices that are helpful for weight loss, like meal planning and increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables.

Health Risks

Though a plant-based diet is generally considered to be healthy, it depends on what you eat. Research shows the potential for the following nutrient deficiencies on a plant-based diet.

Iron Deficiencies

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

Blocked Calcium Bioavailability

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 its 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.

Low in 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.

Inadequate Protein

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.

According to a position paper from 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.

A Word From Verywell

Plant-based diets have gained popularity not only in the health and medical community, but also among fitness enthusiasts, athletes, and environmentalists. If you adopt the eating plan, you are likely to feel the benefits. But remember that it's the quality of your diet that matters most.

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

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, and budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

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