What is a plant-based diet and why should you try it?

Plant-based or plant-forward eating patterns focus on foods primarily from plants. This includes not only fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. It doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy. Rather, you are proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources.

Mediterranean and vegetarian diets

What is the evidence that plant-based eating patterns are healthy? Much nutrition research has examined plant-based eating patterns such as the Mediterranean diet and a vegetarian diet. The Mediterranean diet has a foundation of plant-based foods; it also includes fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt a few times a week, with meats and sweets less often.

The Mediterranean diet has been shown in both large population studies and randomized clinical trials to reduce risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, certain cancers (specifically colon, breast, and prostate cancer), depression, and in older adults, a decreased risk of frailty, along with better mental and physical function.

Vegetarian diets have also been shown to support health, including a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and increased longevity.

Plant-based diets offer all the necessary protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals for optimal health, and are often higher in fiber and phytonutrients. However, some vegans may need to add a supplement (specifically vitamin B12) to ensure they receive all the nutrients required.

Vegetarian diet variety

Vegetarian diets come in lots of shapes and sizes, and you should choose the version that works best for you.

  • 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.

8 ways to get started with a plant-based diet

Here are some tips to help you get started on a plant-based diet.

  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.

Inspiration for plant-based eating throughout the day

Over time, eating a plant-based diet will become second nature. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Breakfast:

  • Rolled oats with walnuts, banana, and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
  • Breakfast wrap: Fill a whole-wheat tortilla with scrambled egg, black beans, peppers, onions, Monterey jack cheese, and a splash of hot sauce or salsa.
  • Whole-wheat English muffin topped with fresh tomato and avocado slices, and blueberries.

Lunch:

  • Greek salad: Chopped mixed greens with fresh tomato, Kalamata olives, fresh parsley, crumbled feta cheese, extra virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Whole-wheat pita on the side, fresh melon for dessert.
  • Tomato basil soup, whole-grain crackers with tabbouleh, and an apple.
  • Vegetarian pizza topped with mozzarella cheese, tomatoes, broccoli, onions, peppers, and mushroom. Fresh strawberries for dessert.

Dinner:

  • Grilled vegetable kabobs with grilled tofu, and a quinoa and spinach salad.
  • Whole-wheat pasta with cannellini beans and peas, and a romaine salad with cherry tomatoes, dressed with extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
  • Vegetarian chili with a spinach-orzo salad.

Comments:

  1. Yogachick

    Dr. T Colin Campbell coined the term “whole food, plant based diet” and he did define it as meaning only plant based foods and no animal products so I think the author incorrectly defines the term “plant based” which is confusing. Plant based does mean vegan.

  2. Lakdasa Dassanayaka

    I have one question to ask you

    Tomatoes are very easy to prepare. You don’t have to cook them, you can eat it as a salad , raw…..But easy things have adverse side effects. Does tomatoes cause kidney stones?

    Please reply.

    Lakdasa

  3. Lakdasa Dassanayake

    Your dietary advise was very valuable. I am only a vegetarian ( I thought vegan and vegetarian meant the same) . I think people eat meat more for its taste than for its nutrition. Unfortunately taste and nutrition seem to be going in opposite directions. I became a diabetic before becoming a vegetarian .I also have a bit of cholesterol. I have been able to reduce same by frequently taking green tea, roasted peanuts and olive oil. I have the following questions to ask you?

    1) Your article mentioned barley. Does barley give the same amount of carbohydrates /energy/nutrition as Oates does for breakfast? can it replace Oates at least once a weak? 2) Your article also mentioned feta cheese. Is this the same as cottage cheese for people with cholesterol? 3) Doctors now say coconut milk is okay for cholesterol. I now take tea and even Oates with coconut milk. It tastes relay good and my cholesterol level has not gone up due to it either. Please answer the above.

    Lakdasa

    • Kathy McManus

      Barley and oats are both whole grains. The nutritional content is somewhat different. Comparing 2 oz. raw : barley is higher in total carbohydrate (44 g) vs. oats (38 g) ; higher in fiber (9 g) vs. (6g) , but lower in protein (6 g) vs. (10 g). Both are low in saturated fat, sodium and sugar. Barley can be used as a replacement for oats.
      Comparing feta cheese with low fat (1%) cottage cheese: (~ 1/4 cup) feta cheese is significantly higher in saturated fat (5 g) vs. (1g) so when looking for heart healthy food choices to help reduce LDL cholesterol – low fat cottage cheese has the edge. However – feta cheese does not need to be avoided – it has a wonderful taste and can be used in moderation.
      Coconut milk is high in saturated fat and therefore a low fat milk is a better choice to use on a daily basis. However, for special occasions – using coconut milk in recipes that traditionally call for its inclusion is fine.

  4. NatarajanSangiah

    Harvard’s healthy eating is the most reliable. I sincerely follow the suggestions for a better health. Apart from the Mediterranean diet
    Could you please tell us about the Nordic diet as well. Thank you for your admirable service to the community

  5. Rafael Pelegrina Pieroni

    Could you please comment, maybe in a future post, a bit about on the epidemiological meta-analyses that show how animal protein can really affect human health even in small amount? Great post. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  6. Don Bougher

    Regarding the first paragraph…
    I thought beans were legumes. Your posting says….”legumes and beans.” ???

  7. Dawn Cooper

    Is this like the Zane method whitch I underdatand you approve?

  8. John

    This flexible, plant based approach to diet makes it easy to eat in restaurants and for family members that may not share your diet ideas to dine with you. I especially like the flexitarian diet. Above all, I personally avoid refined sugar and flour, but never explain to others why because either they will feel bad or not understand anyway. Instead, Just joke about it, like, never on Mondays.

  9. joseph novakovich

    I am surprised that you offer so many grilled menus, when grilling has been associated with cancer acceleration. You can eat plant based dishes without charcoal.

  10. Clifton Rothman, M.D.

    As a retired physician I can not determine which grains are whole grains because of labeling of breads etc. Multigrain, whole wheat, but other grains are listed etc. Help me.

    • Kathy McManus

      In reviewing bread labels – look for breads that have “whole” as the first ingredient. I also suggest that consumers choose breads that have only a few ingredients and are without additives and sugar.

  11. Dr David Drake, PhD

    I’d caution readers to view the claims that olive oil is “heart healthy” with a bit of scepticism. Ask the question of “healthy compared to what”. That said, I’m really pleased that Harvard is showing that a plant-based diet leads to healthy long term outcomes. I’d add that if you want to lose weight fast, go vegan, exercise, and avoid sugary snacks. I lost 40 pounds in one year by ditching dairy products. Now 75 years old, I can hike any rugged trail I want. Before losing the excess weight, I found hiking mountains to be very challenging.

  12. Betty Anne winstone

    This is one of the most important and informative blogs I have received from Harvard. Thank you!

  13. Kelly

    Great information; thank you!

  14. Tom David

    Just interested in your thoughts about milk, I try to have about a cup a day, drink more water than anything else, no coffee, tea on occasion and like sparkling water that comes from machine that I put CO2 cartridges in. Occasional diet cola from can or in restaurant for convenience mostly.

    • Kathy McManus

      A cup of milk a day is reasonable. I would recommend low fat since it is lower in saturated fat than whole milk. Diets high in saturated fat can increased LDL cholesterol, a risk for cardiovascular disease.

  15. David

    Having a problem with your plant-based meal examples. The following are NOT plants: scrambled eggs, Monterey jack cheese, feta cheese, olive oil, mozzarella cheese, and more oil.

    True plant-based diets have no dairy, no meat or eggs, and no oil. All of these things cause stiffening of the arteries and lead to heart disease, including the olive oil. Eggs (which are meat) and dairy encourage cancer growth and other diseases.

    The rest of the meals are nice ideas, but meat and dairy in moderation cause disease in moderation.

    • Dr. J C Garcia-Alonso

      I think you have a misconception or two. Oil do come from plants, canola, olives, sunflowers and avocados. Second oils are needed to absorb some vitamines like A, D, E and K.
      On the other hand, moderate organic (here the key) dairy consumption have been proven beneficial in muscle building, lowering blood pressure and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and preventing tooth decay, diabetes, cancer, and obesity.
      Now take all this milk full of antibiotics and hormones to keep the cow producing, add preservative to make it long lasting milk and on top add a couple of spoons of sugar, and you will have all the previous mention diseases. Similar with eggs and cheeses.

    • Kathy McManus

      Thanks for your comment. The blog was aimed at directing consumers toward a more plant based diet – not exclusively vegan. There is much research to support the reduced risk of chronic disease with healthy dietary patterns such as the Mediterranean Diet and DASH (Diet Approaches to Stop Hypertension) that are predominately plant based, but do include some animal products.

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