Should you switch to a plant-based diet? Here's what you need to know

Intrigued by the benefits of eating more plants, but not sure if you can cut out the Manchengo and go vegan? Consider this less-strict, plant-based approach.
keto paleo zoodles bolognese: zucchini noodles with meat sauce and parmesan
A plant-based eating approach allows for small amounts of meat and cheese, while keeping veggies front and center.OlgaMiltsova / Getty Images stock

As the name implies, plant-based eating is all about getting most of your calories and nutrients from plants. But there’s room for the meat and animal products you love (sparingly).

Given the fairly wide parameters, a lot of healthy diets that focus on whole foods and fruits and vegetables are plant-based, explained Gabrielle Turner-McGrievy, Ph.D., RD, associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior in the Arnold School of Public Health at University of South Carolina (who studies how diet choices affect chronic disease risk). Some of the diets that fall under the plant-based umbrella include:

  • Semi-vegetarian diets, like the Mediterranean Diet or the DASH Diet (that limit red meat and allow for some white meat, fish, dairy and eggs)
  • Pesco-vegetarian diet (one where you avoid any meat, but fish, dairy and eggs are allowed)
  • Vegetarian diet (one where you avoid meat and fish, but dairy and eggs are allowed)
  • Vegan diet (no animal products)

How does a plant-based diet work?

Plant-based eating is generally a healthy dietary approach, but beware that nearly any diet can become an unhealthy one depending on which specific foods you’re choosing, explained Amy Shapiro, RD, founder and director of Real Nutrition in New York City. If you’re following a vegetarian diet, but your meals include mostly white carbohydrates and cheese, that’s not necessarily a healthy, nutrient-dense one, she said. White carbohydrates have much of the fiber processed right out of them and cheese is very high in saturated fat and salt.

To reap the health benefits of plant-based eating, pay attention to proportions, Shapiro said. Fill half your plate (for meals and snacks) with non-starchy vegetables and fresh fruits; think leafy greens, carrots, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, berries, grapes, apples, pears and melons. Fill the rest of your plate or snack bowl with lean proteins (chicken, tofu, beans or yogurt), complex carbohydrates (ones high in fiber like whole wheat pastas, farro, quinoa and other whole grains or starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes), and healthy fats (avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive and other oils).

You can eat splurge foods, like cheese, red meat and sweets, Shaprio said. But limit them and choose high-quality options, she recommended: “When you eat cheese, make sure it’s the star of the show.”

Who is a plant-based diet good for?

Plant-based eating is a healthy diet for just about anyone to follow, as long as you don’t have a digestive issue that would limit the amount of fiber that’s good for you or an issue (such as kidney disease) that would limit the amount of potassium (readily available in plant foods) you should be eating, Shapiro said.

A lot of major health groups consider it a healthy diet for people of all ages and stages of life.

If you do it in a healthy way (filling about half your plate with fresh fruits and vegetables), you’re likely to get all of the vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients and micronutrients you need, Shapiro explained. You’re also automatically portion-controlling the foods that tend to be less healthy for us, like saturated fats and sugars, so you’re lowering risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and other health problems.

Because you’re also automatically portion controlling the more nutrient-dense (high-calorie) foods, like complex carbohydrates, fats and animal proteins, it can be effective for weight loss, Shapiro said. It can also be a good diet for people managing many chronic conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes, because you’re limiting the foods that are high in saturated fats and sugars (which you should be limiting or avoiding if you have those conditions).

Plant-based eating is also good for the planet, given that farming animals for food is known to be one of the big contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

What does the science say about eating more plants?

Research shows plant-based eating can be a good diet for weight loss. A 2015 review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that according to data from 15 studies, people prescribed a plant-based eating plan for weight loss on average lost the equivalent of 7.5-10 pounds.

A 2015 randomized controlled trial published in the journal Nutrition (in which Turner-McGrievy was the lead author) that compared weight lost over 6 months for people on vegan, vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian or omnivorous diets found that people on vegan diets lost by far the most weight over the course of the trial (7.5 percent of their baseline body weight). But those on all four other types of diets (including the omnivorous diet) lost just more than 3 percent of baseline body weight. Another analysis of that same data showed that those on the vegan, vegetarian and pesco-vegetarian diets were better able to improve the quality of their diets compared with those on the omnivorous and semi-vegetarian diets, Turner-McGrievy said.

And according to a 2016 review article published in The Permanente Journal, plant-based eating can support weight management, reduce medication needs, lower risk for most chronic diseases (including obesity, hypertension, hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes) and lower heart disease deaths.

What a day of eating might look like on a plant-based diet:

Here’s a sample menu created by Shapiro:

  • Breakfast: Smoothie (1 banana, 1 tablespoon peanut [or any other nut or seed] butter, 1 cup almond milk, 1/2 cup frozen cauliflower, 1 serving chocolate vegan protein powder, cinnamon)
  • Lunch: Large salad with quinoa, beans, olives, avocado and veggies
  • Snack: Pineapple slices with coconut yogurt and hemp seeds
  • Dinner: Zoodles with chickpeas and shrimp in a tomato based sauce
  • Dessert: Oatmeal cookies with dark chocolate chips

What are the pros and cons?

The pros are the health benefits and the flexibility, Shapiro said. You’re focusing on foods that will serve up a lot of the vitamins and nutrients your body needs. And while you’re limiting certain foods (like meat and cheese), you don’t have to give them up entirely.

One con is that prepping fresh fruits and vegetables (which should be the mainstay of your meals and snacks) can be time-consuming. On-the-go, easy-to-grab options might be limited, Shapiro said. Her advice: Plan ahead. Roast vegetables (ahead of time when you have time) that can quickly become a salad or sandwich. Wash and cut fruit that can easily be tossed with yogurt and nuts or into a smoothie. And keep frozen fruits and vegetables on hand.

Bottom line

Plant-based eating is linked to a lot of health (and environmental) benefits, and it’s not as restrictive as a diet where you cut out animal products all together (like a vegan diet). This makes the eating approach accessible and a healthy choice for anyone to adopt.