From Beyoncé to Ellen DeGeneres, more and more people are fuelling their busy lives with plants. Whether your goal is to manage weight, focus on your athletic performance or just increase the amount of fruit and veggies in your diet, you may be curious about how a plant-based diet might fit your life. If your interest in nutrition—and especially plant-based nutrition—is ready to sprout, a little education can help you find your own path for why (and how) to make plant-based eating work for you. This get-started guide is our way of helping out.
What is a plant-based diet?
At first glance, the term “plant-based diet” might seem self-explanatory—to eat a diet based on plant foods (in contrast to the standard North American diet that’s largely focused on animal-based foods). As a term, “plant-based diet” is often used interchangeably with “vegan” (a diet and lifestyle that avoids all animal products in food, cosmetics, and apparel). But while those who identify as vegan eat an exclusively plant-based diet by definition, eating a plant-based diet can fall along a spectrum with as many variations as there are people to make choices about food.
Participating in Meatless Monday, or going plant-based before 6 PM is one end of the plant-based eating spectrum. The spectrum continues to those who follow Michael Pollan’s mantra of: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Many people in this group consider themselves plant-based flexitarians, or even vegetarians. The furthest end of the spectrum is those who commit to a completely vegan diet, eschewing all animal products. We’re not fans of narrow definitions and welcome everyone—no matter where you fall on the spectrum of a plant-based diet. Because whether you’re adding one new plant-based food or 20, there are benefits to be found from making plant-based foods a bigger part of your life.
Reasons for choosing a plant-based diet
While there are many reasons why you may decide to add more plant power to your diet, health and sustainability are two of the largest benefits.
Go plant-based for your health
Compared to the average North American diet, plant-based diets are rich in everything you’ve been told to eat more of: fiber from fruits and vegetables, and good fats from nuts and seeds—while also low in the saturated fat and cholesterol that’s found in meat and dairy. Eating more plant-based food may help reduce the likelihood of many chronic diseases, including high cholesterol, hypertension1 and type 2 diabetes.2
Worried about your waistline? Those who stick to a plant-based diet tend to have lower body weights and body mass indexes (BMIs).3 That’s great news, since obesity is associated with many chronic diseases, including hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and certain types of cancer. For everyone, plant foods contain many beneficial compounds that support all parts of your body—including your immune system, and healthy heart function.4
Go plant-based for the planet’s health
While you’re feeling good about treating your body well, go ahead and give yourself another pat on the back for helping out planet Earth as well. While using reusable bags, recycling and walking more are now almost (wonderfully) cliché, not everyone realizes the impact diet has on the planet.
Worldwide, livestock is one of the largest contributors to environmental problems, due to deforestation, desertification, overuse of freshwater, inefficient use of energy, diverting food for use as feed and emission of greenhouse gases.5 Plant-based diets require less arable land and are more sustainable—an equivalent amount of animal-based protein requires 6 to 17 times the amount of land,6 26 times as much water,7 and 2.5 to 50 times the fossil fuels7 of plant-based protein.
Simply put, swapping out some animal protein staples for plant-based beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains can have huge impact on your carbon footprint. While eating locally and seasonally is important, incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet has an even greater environmental impact.8
Meet your nutritional needs with a plant-based diet
If the many benefits of a plant-based diet have inspired you to step into the spectrum of cleaner eating, you may still have some questions about whether or not you can meet your nutrient needs from plant-based foods. Let’s face it, you’re going to get the “how do you get enough protein?” question, whether you like it or not. Dismiss the naysayers by showing them you have a firm grasp of nutrition know-how. They might even learn a thing or two! Now to be clear, while French fries are vegan, when we say plant-based, we’re (usually) talking about nutrient dense, whole foods.
What types of protein, carbohydrates and fats should I eat?
Protein (specifically, the amino acids it delivers) plays many structural roles in your body, for all cells and enzymes, beyond just being the building blocks of muscle.9 Meat, eggs and dairy may be your current protein staples, but it’s time to let nuts, seeds, and legumes have their day.
You can also stop worrying about not getting complete protein. While not all plant-based sources of protein contain all essential amino acids, if you eat a variety of foods, you can sleep soundly at night knowing that you are getting all of the essential amino acids. Choose sprouted organic soy (tofu or tempeh), beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. If you’re looking to boost your protein intake, supplement with Vega One, Protein Smoothie or Vega Sport Protein for a complete multisource plant-based protein.
Vegans are famous for being carbotarians for good reason. From grains to root vegetables to fruit, the plant kingdom has many carbohydrates to choose from. Luckily, if you’re choosing nutrient dense whole foods, you’re getting the best type of carbohydrates—carbs that are minimally-refined and (generally) have a lower glycemic index than their more refined counterparts.
Fruit provides instant bursts of energy, while whole grains provide more even energy. Fiber helps to lower the glycemic index of a food, while improving digestive health. It’s recommended that you eat at least 14 grams of fiber per 1000 calories in your diet.9 If you eat an average of 2000 calories, your goals should be 28 grams of fiber each day. Vega One provides 6 grams of fiber, and you can easily reach 28 with whole grains, fruit and vegetables.
Make “fat doesn’t make me fat” your new mantra. While dietary fat is rich in calories, it’s also a key component of hormone function, as well as playing an important role in the digestion and absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K).9 What matters is the type of fat you consume.
Plant-based sources of dietary fat are richer in unsaturated fat. Nuts, avocados, seeds and cold-pressed oils have unsaturated fat. Another important type of fat is the essential Omega oils. Omega-3 in particular has benefits to both your brain and cardiovascular system.10 Omega-3s also may help to decrease inflammation11 and improve the appearance of your skin.12 We call fats like Omega-3 essential because they cannot be synthesized by your body, so you must consume them through food. While salmon may be the first food that comes to mind when you think of Omega-3, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds and walnuts are all sources of this good (and essential!) fat.
Vitamins and minerals of importance for plant-based diet
While required in much smaller amounts than macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins), micronutrients are vital to health. Luckily, almost all vitamins and minerals are easy to find on a balanced plant-based diet. For those who are completely plant-based, vitamins B12 and D, calcium, and iron are usually the nutrients of concern, since they are only found in a handful of plant-based foods. But no need to worry—with awareness and a little planning, deficiencies will be the last thing you need to fret about.
Vitamin B 12(9)
Slightly harder to find on a plant-based diet than other micronutrients, vitamin B12 is important for nerve function. Luckily, you can find B12 in nutritional yeast, and nutritional supplements like Vega One, and Vega Maca.
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, build strong bones, and contract your muscles. Your body can synthesize its own vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. But if you’re working in an office all day, or live at northern latitudes, it’s best to supplement your diet. Vitamin D is found in nutritional yeast, chlorella, and UV-exposed mushrooms, but you may need to supplement additionally.
Iron forms your red blood cells, which deliver oxygen throughout your body. Symptoms of low iron levels are fatigue, difficulty concentrating and reduced athletic performance. Spinach, legumes, and pumpkin seeds are plant-based sources of iron, and all are best paired with vitamin C-rich foods to support iron absorption. If you have chronically low levels of iron, you should speak to a health professional about supplementing further
You don’t need dairy to get enough calcium in your diet to build and maintain strong bones. Not only are most non-dairy milks and yogurts fortified with calcium, there are plenty of vegetables that contain calcium. Check out this infographic for how much calcium you need and which plant-based foods to find it in.
Supplements for a plant-based diet
Whether you should (or can) get all your micronutrients from food is up for debate. While a varied diet should provide enough of all the micronutrients, there are some exceptions. With careful inclusion of a variety of plant-based foods, you can have a balanced diet and no nutritional deficiencies. If you’re on a calorically-restricted diet, you will want to supplement with a multivitamin blend. If you’re worried you aren’t getting enough of certain micronutrients, Vega One contains 50% of your daily value for all of these vitamins and minerals.
Plant-based nutrition for athletes
The macho guy at your gym may seem skeptical that grains and greens can really fuel an active lifestyle. Present day plant-based athletes such as Tony Gonzales, Mac Danzig, Brendan Brazier, Karl Lewis and numerous others in the NHL, NBA, UFC and PGA provide evidence that high-level athletic performance can be achieved while consuming only a plant-based diet. Here’s two reasons why:
Nutrient dense recovery
Exercise recovery includes muscle building, replacing energy stores, and helping reduce post-workout fatigue and muscle soreness. Eating carbohydrates in a 4:1 ratio with protein after a workout is the fastest way to replenish muscle glycogen stores.13 A plant-based diet offers clean, easily-digestible sources of complex carbohydrates, such as pseudograins (like quinoa, amaranth and millet), and starchy vegetables (such as squash or sweet potatoes). Plant-based proteins are nutrient dense and include not only protein but also antioxidants and vitamins and minerals that help to support rebuilding cellular tissue.
While exercise provides many benefits, it does stress your body by causing acute inflammation and an increase in cortisol levels. A single bout of exercise induces oxidative stress in both skeletal muscle and blood, lasting up to several days.14 A diet rich in fruits, vegetables and polyunsaturated fats helps to lower the generation of inflammation.15
Making it work: add, don’t subtract
Remember, plant-based eating falls on a spectrum. You don’t have to do a dietary-180 today to see benefits. Start small by adding just one new plant-based food or meal. Next time you’re in the grocery store pick up a new non-dairy milk alternative, grab a fruit or vegetable you’ve never tried, or think about how you can spice up a plain block of organic tofu. Small changes lead to the biggest results.
Easy plant-based meals
It’s easier to get started when you have an arsenal of recipes at your disposal. For recipe inspiration, visit the Vega Recipe Center or Thrive Forward Recipe Center. You may also want to investigate our meal plans designed to meet a variety of needs, from optimal wellness to strength and endurance athletes. When baking, it is easy to find simple substitutions for common ingredients like butter, milk and eggs. For example, a mixture of 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed or chia seeds with 3 tablespoons of water is equivalent to one egg.
Finding plant-based options while dining out
Once you have a good base when eating from home, you may encounter the challenge of dining out with friends as someone choosing to eat plant-based. Don’t get stuck on just ordering salads. If no plant-based entrées are available, look at side dishes which often require only minimal tweaks—like asking for it to be cooked in oil instead of butter, or holding the cheese. Also, consider a cuisine where clean, plant-based options are regular menu items, like Middle Eastern, Japanese, Mexican, or Ethiopian. The good news is that clean, plant-based diets have gained a lot of attention recently, making it easier to find suitable menu options. Find more plant-based restaurants by using a website such as Happy Cow.
Connect for support
Once you’ve taken the plunge and started adding more plant-based foods into your diet, you may want to learn more. Check out Thrive Forward, Brendan Brazier’s free online wellness program, and from there connect with our community on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Have a question we didn’t answer? Ask away!
- Craig, WJ., Mangels, AR, (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 109 (7).1266-1282. Accessed on 5/13/13 from http://www.eatright.org/About/Content.aspx?id=8357
- Tonstad, S, Butler, T, Yan, R, Fraser, G. (2009). Type of Vegetarian Diet, Body Weight and Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes. Diabetes Care.32(5). 791-796. Accessed on 5/13/13 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2671114/
- Newby, PK, Tucker, KL, Wolk, A. (2005). Risk of overweight and obesity among semivegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81 (6). 1267-1274. Accessed on 5/13/13 from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/81/6/1267.full.pdf+html
- Rao, V, Al-Weshahy A. Plant-based diets and control of lipids and coronary heart disease risk. Current Atherosclerosis Reports. 2008 Dec;10(6):478-85. Accessed on 5/13/13 from http://www.veg.ca/images/doctors/heartdisease.pdf
- United Nations Environment Programme (2012). Growing greenhouse gas emissions due to meat production. Accessed 6/5/13 from http://www.unep.org/pdf/UNEP-GEAS_OCT_2012.pdf
- Koneswaran G, Nierbenberg D. (2008). Global Farm Animal Production and Global Warming: Impacting and Mitigating Climate Change. Environmental Health Perspectives. 116(5): 578–582. Accessed 2/13/14 from http://www.n cbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2367646/pdf/ehp0116-000578.pdf
- Reijnders, L., & Soret, S. (2003). Quantification of the environmental impact of different dietary proteins. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Accessed on 2/13/14 from: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/66 4S.full.pdf+html
- Weber CL. Matthews HS. (2008). Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States. Environmental Science and Technology. 42, 3508–3513. Accessed on 11/8/13 from http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/es702969f
- Mahan LK, Escott-Stump S. (2008). Krause’s Food and Nutrition Therapy. Saunders Elsevier. 12th ed.
- Richardson A.(2003) The Importance of omega-3 fatty acids for behavior, cognition and mood. Scandinavian Journal of Nutrition 47 (2): 92 /98.
- Calder, P., (2006) n–3 Polyunsaturated fatty acids, inflammation, and inflammatory diseases. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 83, No. 6, S1505-1519S
- Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University (2012). Micronutrient Information Center: Essential Fatty Acids and Skin Health. Accessed on March 29,2013 from: http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/skin/EFA/index.html
- Kerksick et al. (2008). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: Nutrient Timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 5(17). Accessed 5/20/13 from http://www.jissn.com/content/5/1/17
- Powers SK, Jackson MJ. (2008). Exercise induces oxidative stress: cellular mechanisms and impact on muscle force production. Physiological Reviews. 88; 1243-76 Accessed on 9/12/13 from http://physrev.physiology.org/content/88/4/1243.long
- Giugliana D, Ceriello A, Esposita K. (2006). The Effects of Diet on Inflammation. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 48(4):677-685 Accessed 9/11/13 from http://content.onlinejacc.org/article.aspx?articleid=1137818