How to Switch to a Plant-Based Diet

So you’re interested in switching over to a plant-based diet? Good idea.

Chickpea and spinach curry held in a bowl by a woman
Photo: Joan Ransley / Getty Images

Maybe a plant-based diet means reducing the amount of meat you're currently eating. Or maybe it means completely cutting out all meat and meat-related products -- like cheeses, eggs, yogurt, and cream. Either way, you'll want to follow these tips for switching over pain-free.

A plant-based diet comes as advertised. It's focused on fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, legumes, seeds, whole grains, and vegetable oils like olive oil. You can certainly reorient your diet primarily toward plants and still eat some meat and dairy, including eggs. A lot of people do. For example, people who enjoy the Mediterranean diet are still said to be following a plant-based diet, which includes some fish and lean meats.

Plant-Based Diet Salad
A quick healthy lunch | Photo by Meredith.

What are the health benefits of a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet has many well-known health benefits. It may help keep you slim, while holding off chronic diseases, including heart disease, hypertension, and stroke. Indeed, a Harvard study on plant-based diets and the risk of heart disease, published in 2017, found that eating slightly less animal foods while increasing the intake of healthy plants was associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

A plant-based diet lines up nicely with recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released by the USDA and Health and Human Services, which recommends eating a variety of nutrient-rich fruits and veggies, whole grains, and heart-healthy vegetable oils, and limiting saturated fats. What's more, eating a plant-based diet may be a good overall weight-loss strategy. As reported in The New York Times, a recent study in JAMA found that people who ate lots of vegetables and other whole foods and cut back on added sugars and processed foods (including refined grains) lost significant weight.

And there's an additional way that plant-based diets are good for the gut. They help nourish a broad range of healthy gut bacteria, which can ease gastrointestinal problems. The diet is also environmentally sustainable, so it's healthy for the planet, too.

So good, you're ready to go. Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind as you're switching to a healthy plant-based diet:

1. Ease into it.

The first thing you'll want to do is...not do it all at once. If you've been a strictly meat-and-potatoes kinda guy, don't go cold tofurkey. Start off with a single meatless dinner during the week, and when you feel comfortable expand to two dinners, and so on. You'll want to build up a repertoire of vegetarian recipes that you can rely on.

Here's a great transition recipe. These Meatless Meatballs mimic the texture of meat wonderfully. The key to making these super-savory meatless meatballs is to thoroughly brown the mushrooms. "The garlic, cheese, and parsley do the rest," says Chef John.

Chef John's Meatless Meatballs
Chef John's Meatless Meatballs | Photo by catherine.drew.

2. Sneak in more veggies.

At the same time, increase the portion sizes of the vegetables on your plate while minimizing the meat. Go large on the salads and the healthy vegetable- , bean-, and grain-based side dishes.

Another trick is to replace some of the ground meat with beans. Over time, you can increase the beans-to-meat ratio until you're ready to pitch the meat completely. If you like, you can also switch to plant-based meatless crumbles, which mimic the texture of meat.

This recipe has the right idea. Taco Mix with Black Beans calls for a half-and-half mix of ground beef and black beans. It's healthier and more economical, too!

Taco Mix with Black Beans
Photo by moaa.

3. Go easy on yourself.

A veggie-centric diet can require additional prep time, as you peel and chop and prep. Finding shortcuts can be helpful, particularly as you're getting started on the diet. If you like, buy pre-prepped vegetables and packaged salad greens to cut down on prep time and make it easier to eat more fresh vegetables. Of course, this suggestion presents a packaging waste issue, which may trump the time-saving benefits of bagged and pre-prepped veggies and lettuces. You can also find mixed greens in bulk in some grocery stores.

Salad Greens
Photo by Meredith.

Also, for quick weeknight meals, you can't beat canned beans and canned vegetables, like corn, and jarred fermented vegetables. In fact, a can or two of beans can be your secret weapon for fast, healthy dinners.

4. Switch your snacks.

This is an easy one. Instead of packaged snacks, head to the bulk section of the grocery store and load up on roasted nuts and seeds, and dried fruits, and make your own healthy snack mix. Toss some dark chocolate nibs in there for the occasional bonus bite!

This healthy trail mix combines nuts, seeds, dried cranberries, raisins, goji berries, and chocolate chips. "It will give you a boost of energy to start your day," says srtickle, "or keep you going if you're on the go!"

Antioxidant Trail Mix
Photo by Buckwheat Queen.

5. Own the produce section.

A plant-based diet is a whole-food approach. And the home base is the produce section of the grocery store. Wander around it, being open to discovering new delights. Keep your phone handy -- and search for recipes as ingredients come into season or you stumble across unexpected, interesting ingredients.

Plant-Based Recipe Collections

These collections feature recipes that are produce friendly. They call for loads of fresh vegetables and fruits. Let them guide you to a new and healthy plant-based diet.

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