The Beginner’s Guide to a Plant-Based Diet

plant-based diet

If you look to the Blue Zones across the world, where people live to 100 and beyond, you’ll notice they all have one thing in common — while most consume meat or fish, they do so only sparingly or as a complement to their meals. Increasingly, this approach has become a blueprint for a new, but very traditional, way of eating: the plant-based diet. By putting more emphasis on filling your plate with whole, plant-derived foods, you crowd out the highly processed and highly refined, reducing the number of animal products, and reaping many health-boosting rewards.

Eating plant-based is better for you 

When we consume a predominantly plant-based diet, we create a solid foundation for our long-term health and vitality. Studies show that eating plant-based extends our life expectancy, can reduce the risk of heart disease, help individuals overcome or prevent type 2 diabetes,  lower blood pressure, and reduce obesity rates by supporting weight loss and regulating metabolism.

And it’s also better for the environment 

Our food choices affect not only our internal state of health but also the health of the planet. Reducing the consumption of processed foods and animal products, especially those produced by large scale factory farms, also reduces your carbon footprint and drastically benefits the environment. By supporting local, organic farms, you’re also helping return soils to their proper, nutrient-dense states, and eliminating the excess amount of transportation and machinery used to support your diet. Less forest is cleared every year to make way for animals and their food, so the forest can thrive, removing carbon dioxide emissions, and producing oxygen necessary for all life. Hitting the weekly farmer’s market may seem like such a small step, but every little bit counts.

(But don’t confuse it with going vegan or vegetarian)

Eating plant-based does not necessarily mean omitting animal products entirely, it’s just that your focus is predominantly on plants. Many people think of their main source of protein as meat and assume it’s the best option, however, plant-based foods provide plenty of protein for creating a balanced plate. Sources of plant protein include: lentils and legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains like quinoa, rice, millet, and oats, and dark leafy greens. And there are also small amounts of protein in broccoli, brussels sprouts, and asparagus.

Try making one meal a day entirely plants

This is a an easy step to take toward a more plant-based diet. Create a balanced bowl filled with a variety of seasonal produce, greens, grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds—plus a yummy sauce, dressing, pesto, or hummus for texture and flavor diversity. 

plant-based
The author’s (mouth-watering) sprouted grain salad, featuring: radicchio, sweet potatoes, sprouted brown rice, chickpeas, herbs, olives, and micro greens.

Watch your plate proportions

Whether you’re eating meat or not at a meal, dedicate at least 50% of your plate to plant foods—with seasonal vegetables, sautéed greens, and salad. For the other half, add whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice (or starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes) along with proteins like lentils, nuts, seeds or wild-caught fish or pasture-raised poultry.

Nutrient-dense plants to incorporate

When preparing and stocking ingredients for your plant-based cuisine, focus on what’s in season. The farmer’s market is the perfect place for this, or look for a local co-op — most carry a great variety of farm-fresh produce to spruce up your plant-based palate. There are also incredible CSA options in almost every area that will deliver farm boxes straight to your door.

  • Leafy greens: Green vegetables such as kale, spinach, broccoli, and bok choy are rich in a wide variety of nutrients, including vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, and magnesium. They’re also high in fiber, which helps support elimination and balance blood sugar levels. 
  • Legumes: Chickpeas and lentils are high in protein and fiber, and contain important nutrients such as folate and iron.
  • Nuts and seeds: Chia, flax, and hemp contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which help to reduce inflammation. Nuts are also rich in fiber and protein, which make them the perfect snack option or complement to any plant-based dish.
  • Whole grains: Oats, quinoa, and rice provide a high amount of fiber and contain vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, iron, zinc, and magnesium. 
  • Fruits: High in nutrients including potassium, folic acid, and vitamin C, fruits support many functions within the body. They’re also rich in antioxidants, which are important to fight against free radical damage.

What to avoid 

  • Commercial animal products: Animal products from large scale factory farms have catastrophic impacts on the environment, due to a wide range of factors from water usage to lands burning in the Amazon. In the USA, Bovine Growth Hormone is used regularly to increase the size and amount of milk produced, and the long-term health consequences of this hormone are unknown. Antibiotics used on cows in the meat industry can contribute to antibiotic-resistant bugs, which are becoming untreatable.
  • Processed foods: Animal products themselves aren’t the only issue; processed foods have a huge negative impact on the environment. The biggest culprits are plastic. The packaging used for many processed foods is made entirely of single-use plastics, contributing to 300 million tons of plastic produced each year. Most plastics (79%) end up in landfills or in bodies of water, where they slowly break down into smaller pieces, being consumed by animals and distributing toxic chemicals into the environment. They’re also full of sugar and salt, which have many negative impacts on our health. And their lack of fiber slows down digestion, spikes blood sugar, and causes bloat and water retention within the body (among other things).

 Kristin Dahl, CNP, is an LA-based holistic and functional nutritionist, trained herbalist, and founder of The Women’s Wellness Collective.