Plant-Based Diet: What to Eat, Avoid, Meal Plan, & More
At Global Healing Center, we believe the foundation for health and wellness is a whole food, plant-based diet, with fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and grains that come directly from nature. After twenty years in the natural health industry, I know that following a plant-based diet that’s free of processed and packaged foods — and adding in exercise and a positive attitude — will bring you the best results for your health and happiness. As the famous Greek philosopher Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
I have tried many diets, including raw vegan, gluten-free, fruitarian, and plant-based Keto. Currently, I follow a plant-based diet, focusing on organic whole food. I believe that being too strict in one’s diet may lead to some challenges and even unhappiness, so I follow the 90/10 rule, eating strictly plant-based 90 percent of the time, with 10 percent allowed for the occasional consumption of raw goat or sheep cheese, but never meat or eggs. I also engage in intermittent fasting, and of course, regular exercise, meditation, and supplements to balance out my nutrition.
Quick Tips to Start a Plant-Based Diet
- Keep it simple: choose foods free of additives, preservatives, or synthetic ingredients. Better yet, make everything from scratch.
- Buy healthy snacks for when you get the munchies — carrot sticks, sugar snap peas, bananas with almond butter, nuts, or a homemade trail mix.
- Replace cane sugar with raw honey, pure maple syrup, or Stevia leaf in recipes, coffee, or tea.
- Rotate new vegetables and fruits into your diet to keep your taste buds excited and more importantly, to maximize your nutrient intake.
- Try a weekly meal prep: set aside a few hours per week to prepare food in bulk so that you always have clean, healthy options on hand.
- Mind your micros: certain vitamins are harder to get enough of on a plant-based diet (e.g., iron, B-12). Add foods high in those nutrients to your menu, or add in high-quality supplements to reap all the benefits of plant-based eating.
What Is a Plant-Based Diet?
A plant-based diet emphasizes eating anything derived from plants — vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds — while minimizing or excluding animal-derived products. While some may think a plant-based diet is merely another term for a vegetarian or even vegan diet, there’s a key difference. Plant-based diets underscore eating whole, natural foods and avoiding processed foods like tofu, seitan, or packaged items — even if they’re technically vegan or vegetarian.
Plant-Based vs. Vegan & Vegetarian
Plant-based diets differ from vegan or vegetarian diets in a few key ways. First, let me define the difference between vegans and vegetarians, though. Lacto-ovo vegetarians eat dairy and eggs, while vegans avoid all animal products and also usually avoid purchasing, using, and wearing products made from or tested on animals. Vegans and vegetarians may eat processed foods, like tofu and packaged foods, and may not even end up eating a healthy diet if too many of those packaged, processed foods end up on the menu. People eating a plant-based diet, in contrast, eat whole foods in a form as close to nature as possible — vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and the like. Someone following a plant-based diet may choose to eat vegan or vegetarian and may choose either to use animal-based products or not. Some people following a generally plant-based diet may consume some animal products, but it comprises a very small portion of their diet.
Processed vs. Unprocessed Food
One source of confusion is whether you can eat processed food on a plant-based diet. Vegetarians and vegans often include processed food like store-bought pasta, bread, crackers, or soy-based meat replacements in their diet. Those foods are not categorized as whole foods and therefore are not a central part of a plant-based diet.
Instead, a plant-based diet focuses on getting calories from unprocessed, whole foods, rather than processed ones. When eating a whole food plant-based diet, you should also avoid anything with added sugar, although you can eat items — especially homemade recipes — with raw honey, pure maple syrup, and Stevia leaf.
What Should You Eat?
Not all plant-based diets are created equal. When following a whole food plant-based diet, you should try to eat foods in their natural state. Cooked foods or foods made from whole grains are acceptable — like whole grain sprouted bread. Always check the ingredients list and avoid chemicals, additives, colorings, and artificial flavorings. Choose organic whenever possible. If buying organic is too expensive to do with every food, refer to the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15, a list of the worst and best fruits and vegetables. Below are some specific foods I recommend for a plant-based diet:
Vegetables should be the foundation of any plant-based diet. Some of the most nutrient-dense vegetables include:
- Leafy greens: Kale, spinach, mustard greens, collard greens, Swiss chard, arugula, lettuce, microgreens (sprouted shoots of various kinds)
- Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, radishes
- Other non-starchy vegetables: Eggplants, bell peppers, avocado, okra
- Squashes: Zucchini, pumpkin, winter squash, butternut squash
- Tubers and starchy vegetables: Sweet potatoes, parsnips, cassava, daikon, Jerusalem artichoke, ginger, beets
Fruit, including juices, dried fruit, and fresh fruit, also form an important part of a plant-based diet. You can drink fruit juice, especially if you juice the fruits yourself or avoid anything with added sugar. But if you choose whole fruit over juice, you’ll reap the benefits of heart-healthy fiber. You can also eat dried whole fruit, but if you are looking to reduce your sugar intake or lose weight, limit their consumption. Although you may eat all fruit on a plant-based diet, here is a list of fruits with a low sugar content:
- Beans: Black beans, kidney beans, lima beans, chickpeas, adzuki beans
- Peas: Green peas, snap peas, split peas, snow peas, black-eyed peas
- Lentils: Red lentils, yellow lentils, green lentils, orange lentils, black lentils
All grains start whole, but processing strips one or more parts of the seed or kernel, as well as protein from the grain. White flour and white rice are missing both the bran and germ of the grain and thus many micronutrients as well. Enriched or fortified grains have had previously stripped nutrients added back in — but these are not as healthy as those that retained their natural nutrients. I recommend the following whole grains (which are also gluten-free):
- Wild or brown rice
- All unrefined flours from these whole grain sources
There are many healthy fats and oils that can form an important part of your plant-based diet. Always look for organic options.
Nuts & Seeds
Nuts and seeds are a great snack on a plant-based diet, and seeds like quinoa can be served as a healthy grain in your meal plans.
- Seeds: Quinoa, chia, sesame, flaxseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds
- Nuts: Pecans, walnuts, pine nuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, cacao, hazelnuts, coconut
Foods to Avoid
To reap the maximum benefits that whole, plant-derived nutrition can provide your body, mind, and spirit, eliminate these foods:
Dairy & Eggs
- Soda and energy drinks
- Food with added sugar
- Refined flour
- Hydrogenated oil and trans-fats such as margarine
- Refined, highly processed oils with high omega-6 levels (soybean, canola, corn, cottonseed oils)
- Processed “vegan cheese”
Plant-Based Food to Avoid
Although these are technically allowed on a plant-based diet, I have found avoiding them leads to better overall health and well-being. Limit or avoid the following foods:
- Corn and white potatoes
- White rice
- Grains containing gluten such as barley, rye, wheat
- All genetically modified (GMO) foods
Example Plant-Based Diet Meal Plan
The following meal plan is an example of what following a plant-based diet could look like.
Breakfast: Fresh fruit topped with coconut flakes
Lunch: Spinach salad with sliced almonds, olives, and sun-dried tomatoes served with homemade vinaigrette dressing
Dinner: Spicy mushroom stir-fry
Breakfast: Oatmeal with fruit and nuts.
Lunch: Quinoa salad with lemon basil dressing; fresh fruit
Dinner: Green lentil salad with spiced carrots; side salad
Breakfast: Whole grain sprouted bread with homemade sunflower butter
Lunch: Coconut chickpea curry
Dinner: Vegan chili; paprika parsnip fries with lemon cashew cream
Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Not everyone follows a plant-based diet for weight loss, although that may happen if you continue eating this way. People often start a plant-based diet for health reasons — decreasing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, for example — or to support a more sustainable planet. Below are some of the benefits you might find after adopting this incredible way of eating.
Following a plant-based diet can help you lose weight. An oft-touted fact is that vegetarians generally have a lower body weight than people who eat both meat and vegetables. One review of 15 studies found that people who followed a vegetarian diet on doctor’s orders lost an average of 7.5 pounds. Men who started heavier and those who followed this way of eating for a longer period lost even more weight. Overweight adults who ate various plant-based diets for six months lost more weight than those who ate meat. Vegans lost twice the weight of pescatarian (people who eat fish but no other meat), meat eaters, and even vegetarians who ate eggs and dairy — and decreased their levels of saturated fats to boot. People on vegetarian weight-loss diets also felt equally full after a meal as those on meat-inclusive diets.
Improve Your Heart Health
Plant-based diets may improve your cardiovascular health by lowering your cholesterol levels and balancing your blood pressure. While diets high in meat, dairy and unhealthy fats may clog arteries,vegetarian diets, in contrast, can lower blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad” cholesterol). People eating low-carb, high-protein plant-based diets with healthy fats may see even more pronounced heart health benefits. Low-carb vegetarian diets may also lower blood sugar and blood pressure.[1, 10]
Boost Your Energy
Some people following a plant-based diet report feeling more energy and vitality. The more alert you feel, the more you can do the things you love and the more fully you can live your life. One study found that people with osteoarthritis had significantly more energy, greater mobility, and less daily pain after eating a plant-based diet for just two weeks compared with people eating a standard omnivorous American diet.
Make Your Belly Happy
The term microbiome describes the trillions of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, and viruses) housed within the gut. You can actually cultivate your microbiome to have depression-busting, obesity-fighting probiotics — good microbes — by changing your diet to plant-based foods. Fermented sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and non-dairy yogurt are packed with healthy strains of intestinal bacteria that, with regular consumption, will help develop your microbiome in a positive direction. To feed the probiotics, you need prebiotics — fibers from foods like garlic, bananas, onions, and radishes. A plant-based diet can include all these foods, improving your gut with every bite.
Help Planet Earth
Eating a plant-based diet is gentler on the planet. Rearing livestock leads to deforestation, which not only eliminates wildlife habitat but also worsens climate change by emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Livestock account for one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions on the planet — more than all global transportation combined — cars, trucks, trains, and planes. Eating meat also exposes humans to bovine antibiotics, hormones, and other unnecessary chemicals. Reducing meat consumption lowers resource consumption.
Nutrients to Be Aware of on a Plant-Based Diet
Eating a plant-based diet has so many benefits that it’s hard to believe it could do any wrong. However, when you avoid meat and dairy, you have to make sure you get enough of certain nutrients, or you could experience deficiencies.
According to Harvard Medical School, most vegetarians (including people who follow a plant-based diet) get adequate daily protein. Many elite athletes and Olympians have trained and competed — and won — while subscribing to a healthy, plant-based diet. You can get the protein your body needs from plant-based sources including legumes, nuts, and whole grains.
Vitamin B-12 is found only in animal products. If you eat a plant-based diet, you could end up with a B-12 deficiency unless you take a supplement. Research shows that more than half of vegans and 7 percent of vegetarians are B-12 deficient. Since dairy and eggs contain B-12, lacto-ovo vegetarians may get enough — or may not. To be sure, all vegans and vegetarians should get their blood levels tested regularly and consume a highly absorbable B-12 supplement.
Since meat contains high levels of iron, when you avoid it instead of plant fare, you could end up with an iron deficiency, which can cause anemia. Some plant foods contain iron, but you may need to seek them out — along with foods that boost iron absorption. Phytic acid, a compound in some plant seeds, can prevent the body from absorbing certain essential minerals such as iron, zinc, and calcium. Phytic acid attaches to micronutrients, preventing the body from using them. Taking an enzyme supplement that contains the enzyme phytase can help break down phytic acid.
Most people who eat a plant-based diet tend to get plenty of calcium, especially if they eat calcium-rich dark green leafy vegetables, like spinach and kale. But if you’re not a fan of these, or you fall into a category of people who need more of this mineral, calcium orotate is your best choice with 90 to 95 percent absorption. Calcium should always be taken with magnesium, which further aids its use and absorption in the body. Vitamin D3 is also needed for optimal calcium absorption.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids (DHA)
Although plant-based diets and omnivorous diets tend to have equal intakes of α-linolenic acid (ALA) fatty acids, plant-based diets tend to provide less of two other omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) which are critical to preventing and managing certain chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease. Make sure you get enough in your diet.
Vitamin D3 is actually a hormone that maintains strong bones and balances calcium levels in the body, among other things. And while our bodies produce it when exposed to the ultraviolet B rays of the sun, people farther from the equator are often vitamin D-deficient. People eating a plant-based diet tend to have lower levels of D3, since this vitamin is mainly found in fortified, processed food, like breakfast cereal, juices, and margarine, or soy and cow’s milk — all things you’ll avoid on a plant-based diet.
Is a Plant-Based Diet Right for You?
There are countless reasons to follow a plant-based diet. For starters, you may lose weight, reduce your risk of metabolic disorders and other health ailments, and you’ll steer clear of food additives and chemical preservatives.
I recommend starting slowly. Gradually eliminate dairy and meat over six months to one year. This slow process allows your body to adjust and helps you avoid side effects, which may include fatigue or weakness due to the initial detoxification process of ridding the body of meat and animal products.
People taking medications should take extra precautions since diet changes can affect how your body processes these pharmaceuticals. Plus, slowly introducing high fiber-foods like those in the plant-based diet can help offset a potential upset stomach that could arise from a more sudden shift. If possible, consult your physician and seek the help of a nutritionist before changing your diet.
Points to Remember
A whole food plant-based diet includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and grains that come directly from nature and is the foundation for optimal health and wellness. While vegetarians may eat processed and packaged foods, plant-based diets focus instead on eating whole foods, making recipes from scratch, and eating as close to a food’s natural form as possible.
Benefits of a plant-based diet include improving your heart health, losing weight, boosting your energy levels, and improving digestion. A plant-based diet is also friendlier to the planet and animals. On a plant-based diet, you may need to seek out certain nutrients, including B-12, iron, and vitamin D. Adopting a plant-based diet is the best choice for your health and well-being, and for the environment.
Have you tried a plant-based diet? Share your experience in the comments below!
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. Global Healing Center does not dispense medical advice, prescribe, or diagnose illness. The views and nutritional advice expressed by Global Healing Center are not intended to be a substitute for conventional medical service. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.