Understanding and Transitioning to Plant Based Diet: Tips From a Registered Dietitian

What Is a Plant-Based Diet Plan?

There is no clear definition of what constitutes a whole-food, plant-based diet.  I define a plant-based or plant-forward eating pattern as one that focuses on foods primarily from plants.  This includes not only fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, whole grains, legumes, and beans.  It doesn’t mean that you are a vegetarian and never eat meat or dairy.  Rather, you are proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources.

I view this plant-based program as a category of diets that have this in common: All plant-based diets limit animal-derived foods in favor of plants.  This means that instead of a diet centered on meat and dairy, the starring roles are played by vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Though these programs include vegetarians (see list below), they are not exclusively a vegetarian diet.  Plant-based diets do not have to eliminate animal sources.  

Think of plant-based as a broad category of diets, with other more specific diets falling under its umbrella (such as the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, the Mind diet).  Whichever meal plan you choose, your diet should consist of 50% vegetables, 25% whole grains or starchy vegetables, and 25% protein from vegetable or lean animal sources.  Fruit is an addition – as a dessert or snack.  

When switching to a plant-based diet, foods like dairy, eggs, poultry, meat, and seafood should be used more as a complement, not as the main focal point.  In other words, the composition is mostly, but not necessarily entirely, of plant foods.  You can decide whether or not you want to consume animal products.  And of course, which animal products (red meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs), your portion size, and frequency are relevant. 

A plant-based diet plan emphasizes the selection of whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants, excluding or minimizing highly refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil (see the next blog defining whole foods).  It also encourages diversity within all food groups.

Tips to help you transition to a plan-based diet program

  1. Eat lots of vegetables. Fill half your plate with vegetables at lunch and dinner. Make sure you include plenty of colors in choosing your vegetables. Enjoy vegetables as a snack with hummus, salsa, or guacamole.
  2. Change the way you think about meat. Have smaller amounts. Use it as a garnish instead of a centerpiece.
  3. Choose good fats. Fats in olive oil, olives, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and avocados are particularly healthy choices.
  4. Cook a vegetarian meal at least one night a week. Build these meals around beans, whole grains, and vegetables.
  5. Include whole grains for breakfast. Start with oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat, or barley. Then add some nuts or seeds along with fresh fruit.
  6. Go for greens. Try a variety of green leafy vegetables such as kale, collards, Swiss chard, spinach, and other greens each day. Steam, grill, braise, or stir-fry to preserve their flavor and nutrients.
  7. Build a meal around a salad. Fill a bowl with salad greens such as romaine, spinach, Bibb, or red leafy greens. Add an assortment of other vegetables along with fresh herbs, beans, peas, or tofu.
  8. Eat fruit for dessert. A ripe, juicy peach, a refreshing slice of watermelon, or a crisp apple will satisfy your craving for a sweet bite after a meal.

Vegetarian diets come in lots of shapes and sizes:

  • Semi-vegetarian or flexitarian includes eggs, dairy foods, and occasionally meat, poultry, fish, and seafood.
  • Pescatarian includes eggs, dairy foods, fish, and seafood, but no meat or poultry.
  • Vegetarian (sometimes referred to as lacto-ovo vegetarian) includes eggs and dairy foods, but no meat, poultry, fish, or seafood.
  • Vegan includes no animal foods.

As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I work with many clients who want to transition to a plant-based diet (whether you want to include more veggies and grains in your diet or want to transition to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle).