Post written by Leo Babauta.
If I could make a single dietary recommendation to people looking to get healthier, it would be to move to a plant-based diet.
Eating plants has been the best change I’ve made in my diet — and I’ve made a bunch of them, from intermittent fasting to low-carb experiments to eating 6 meals a day to eating almost all protein to eliminating sugar (all at various times).
Plants have made me slimmer, healthier, stronger, more energetic — and have increased my life expectancy (more on all this below).
Of course, the diet is simple, but moving away from the Standard American Diet to a plant-based one isn’t always so simple for most people.
Changing your diet can be difficult, but in this guide I’ll share a bit about how to change, talk a bit about why, and what you might eat.
What’s a Plant-Based Diet?
The simple answer, of course, is that you eat plants. You eliminate animals and (eventually) animal products like dairy and eggs.
The less simple answer is there is an abundance of plant foods that most people never eat, and eating a plant-based diet means you might widen the variety of foods you eat. For example, some of my favorite foods include: tempeh, seitan, tofu, kale, broccoli, quinoa, ground flaxseeds, ground chia seeds, raw almonds and walnuts, raw almond butter, olive oil, all kinds of berries, figs, avocados, tomatoes, lentils, black beans, spirulina, hemp seeds, nutritional yeast, organic soymilk, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, apples, peaches, mangoes, pineapple, garlic, red wine, green tea, brown rice, sprouted (flourless) bread, brown rice, steel-cut oats.
A “plant-based diet” is basically another way to say “vegan”, though in my definition it’s a little looser than “vegan” — you might eat some cheese on a salad if it’s been served by your gracious host, for example. So “plant-based” means you eat almost all plants, but depending on your preferences, you might eat something with eggs in it now and then without having a cow. My preference, though, would be to eat vegan all the time, ideally.
Why Should I Change?
There are a few important reasons to eat plants:
- Health. The basis of this guide is health, and many people switch to eating plants because they want to lose weight, improve their heart health, stay healthy as they age, improve blood pressure or deal with diabetes. A plant-based diet has been shown to help with all of these things — if you also stay away from the processed foods. A diet of processed flour and sugar and fried foods isn’t healthy even if it’s all plants (more on this below). The healthiest populations in the world are plant based: the Okinawans (traditionally at almost all plants such as sweet potatoes, soybeans, lots of veggies, with a little fish and occasional pork), the Sardinians (beans & veggies, red wine, some cheese, meat only once a week), and the vegan Seventh-Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California who are the longest-living Americans. Eating plants is the best thing you can do to reduce your risk of the leading causes of death.
- Environment. Honestly, while this is very important to me, it’s probably the least important of the three reasons on this list (for me personally, that is). But it’s huge: the biggest way to reduce your carbon footprint is to stop eating animal products — better than giving up a car (next best) or using less energy in your home or traveling by plane less or recycling or using solar energy or driving an electric car or buying fewer things. The animals we raise for food production use a ton of resources, eat way more plants than we do (which in turn also require resources to be grown), give off huge amounts of planet-warming methane, breathe out a lot of carbon dioxide, and create a lot of pollution. This 2006 United Nations report concludes that “Livestock have a substantial impact on the world’s water, land and biodiversity resources and contribute significantly to climate change. Animal agriculture produces 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (CO2 equivalents), compared with 13.5 percent from all forms of transportation combined.” And it takes 4,000 to 18,000 gallons of water to make the beef for one hamburger, according to a recent report from the U.S. geological survey.
- Compassion. For me, this is the most important reason to move away from eating animals. I’ve talked a lot about compassion on this site, but by far the most cruel thing any of us does each day is consume animals (and their products). The cruelty that is perpetuated on these living, feeling, suffering beings on our behalf is enormous and undeniable. If you don’t believe me, watch this video with Sir Paul McCartney. While I became vegan for health reasons, I stick with it for reasons of compassion — wanting to reduce the suffering of other sentient beings.
But … if you don’t do it to avoid pollution, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, increased death rates, animal cruelty, global warming, deforestation, and higher costs … maybe weight loss would do it. Vegetarians and vegans weigh less on average than meat eaters. That’s even after adjusting for things like fibre, alcohol, smoking … and calorie intake! Half of Americans are obese, but vegans tend to be much less obese (with exceptions of course).
That said, just going vegan will not necessarily cause you to lose weight. You could easily eat a lot of sugar, white flour, fake meats and fried foods and gain weight. If you eat whole plant foods, you’re likely to lose weight. Plant foods, for starters, have pretty much no saturated fat, low calories and tons of fiber, while animal foods all have saturated fat, lots of calories and zero fiber.
Beating Death: I highly recommend watching this video on uprooting the causes of death using a plant-based diet. It’s a bit long, but well worth the time.
How to Change
It will be no surprise that I recommend people start small and change slowly. A good plan is to make the change in stages:
- Slowly cut out meat. This stage is actually several smaller stages. You might try starting with Meatless Mondays and then, over time, expanding to other days of the week. Another common idea is to start by cutting out red meat, and then poultry, then seafood, in gradual stages of a month or even six months. There is no rush — do it at the pace that feels good to you. Another important point is that, as you eliminate meat, don’t just fill it with starches (which don’t have that much nutrition). Try new foods, experiment with ethic recipes, and explore different nutrients as you make these changes.
- Eliminate eggs. After you cut out red meat and poultry, you’ll be pescatarian (seafood). When you eliminate seafood, you’re vegetarian! If you’re eating eggs and dairy, that’s called a “lacto-ovo” vegetarian. You can then eliminate eggs — and no, they’re not cruelty-free. This is one of the easier stages, in my experience.
- Cut out dairy. This tends to be harder for most people. Not because of milk (soymilk and almond milk are good alternatives that just take a few days to adjust to) … but because of cheese. I hear a lot of people say, “I can’t give up my cheese!” — and I empathize, as this was a sticking point for me too. It helps that there are better and better cheese alternatives these days (Daiya being a favorite of many). But for me, what made all the difference is not focusing on what I was giving up, but on the good things I could eat!
- Eat whole, unprocessed foods. This is the phase that I’m in, and I wholly recommend it. You can go straight here if you have no problems changing your diet, but people eating the Standard American Diet will find it difficult, because the foods are very different than what most people eat. For example, most people in the U.S. don’t eat many vegetables, and find them distasteful, especially dark green leafy veggies, which are the best. I now love vegetables, and kale is my best friend. Most people dislike protein-rich plant foods like tempeh, tofu, seitan, and beans. Most people don’t eat raw nuts — they eat roasted and salted nuts. However, all of this can change over time, which is why I recommend that you move into this slowly. What exactly is this phase? See the next section for details.
What to Eat
So what do you eat when you’re on a plant-based diet that focuses on whole foods? Lots!
A few categories of foods to include regularly:
- Beans and other protein. This means the regular kinds of beans, like lentils, black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, etc. But it can also mean soybeans (edamame), tofu, tempeh, and seitan (protein from wheat, not good for gluten-intolerant people). It can also mean soymilk, soy yogurt, and the like, which are often fortified. Get organic, non-GMO soy.
- Nuts and seeds. My favorites include raw almonds and walnuts, along with ground flaxseeds and chia seeds, and hemp seed protein powder. Almond milk is also good. And quinoa — it’s like a grain, but really a seed, and full of nutrition.
- Good fats. Fats aren’t bad for you — you should just look to avoid saturated fats. Luckily, not many plant foods have saturated fats. Plants with good fats include avocados, nuts and seeds mentioned above, olive oil and canola oil.
- Greens. This is one of the most important and nutritious group of all. Dark, leafy green veggies are awesome, and full of calcium, iron and a ton of vitamins. My favorites: kale, spinach, broccoli, collards. Eat lots of them daily! They also have very few calories, meaning they pack a ton of nutrition in a small caloric package.
- Other fruits and veggies. Get a variety — I love berries of all kinds, figs, apples, citrus fruits, peaches, mangoes, bananas, pears, bell peppers, garlic, beets, celery, cauliflower … I could go on all day! Get lots of different colors.
- Good starches. Starches are not bad for you — but ones that have little calories aren’t great. So find starches that give you lots of nutrition. Sweet potatoes, red potatoes, squash, brown rice, sprouted whole wheat, steel-cut oats, among others.
- Some other healthy stuff. I love red wine, green tea, cinnamon, turmeric, spirulina and nutritional yeast.
OK, by now you might be overwhelmed by all of this. How do you put it together? It’s not that hard once you get used to it. Start learning some recipes that combine some of these foods into meals, and over time, you’ll have a few go-to meals that you love that are full of nutrition.
Some examples that I like (but don’t limit yourself to these!):
- Tofu scramble w/ veggies: some organic high-protein tofu crumbled and stir-fried with olive oil, garlic, diced carrots and tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms, and spiced with tamari, turmeric, sea salt and coarse black pepper.
- Steel-cut oats: cook some steel-cut oats, then add ground flaxseeds, raw nuts, berries, cinnamon.
- Stir-fry: Here’s my secret … you can make an endless combo of meals by cooking some garlic in olive oil, then cooking some veggies (carrots, bell peppers, mushrooms, etc.) and some protein (tofu, tempeh, seitan, etc.) and some greens (kale, broccoli, spinach, etc.) and some spices (turmeric or coconut milk or tamari & sesame oil, black pepper, salt).
- Veggie chili over quinoa: Black beans, kidney beans, pinto beans with olive oil, garlic, onions, tomatoes, bell pepper, diced kale, diced carrots, tomato sauce, chili powder, salt, pepper. Maybe some beer for flavor. Serve over quinoa or brown rice.
- One-pot meal: Quinoa, lentils, greens, olive oil, tempeh (or a bunch of other variations). Read Tynan’s post on cooking this all in one pot.
- Whole-wheat pasta: Serve with a sauce — some tomato sauce with olive oil, garlic, onions, bell peppers, diced kale and carrots, diced tomatoes, fresh basil, oregano.
- Big-ass Salad: Start with a bed of kale & spinach, throw on other veggies such as carrots, mushrooms, cauliflower, snow peas, green beans, tomatoes … then some beans, nuts and/or seeds … top with avocado. Mix balsamic vinegar and olive oil, or red wine vinegar and olive oil, sprinkle on the salad. Yum.
- Smoothies: Blend some almond or soy milk with frozen berries, greens, ground chia or flaxseeds, hemp or spirulina protein powder. Lots of nutrition in one drink!
- Snacks: I often snack on fruits and berries, raw almonds or walnuts, carrots with hummus.
- Drinks: I tend to drink water all day, some coffee (without sugar) in the morning, tea in the afternoon, and red wine in the evening.
My Food Journal: If you’d like to see my food journal (admittedly not always perfectly healthy), I’ve started one that you can see here.