Danielle Belardo M.D.

Jan 1

9 min read

Top tips for transitioning to a Plant-Based Diet (or how to just eat more plants!)

So you have decided you want to eat a plant-based diet, or just start eating more plant-based meals, but you have no idea where to start? I can help.

First: start by learning the difference between plant-based and vegan, here.

Incorporating more plants into your diet, and reducing animal products, can be healthful for both human and planetary health. So congrats on making this step!

Even though you are here, reading this, you may be wondering, is eating a plant-based diet healthy? Don’t we need meat? A well planned, healthful plant-based or plant-predominant diet is not only incredibly healthy, but reduces your risk of developing various chronic diseases, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.

“It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”

We do not “need” meat to be healthy. In fact, both the guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and the American Cancer Society emphasize plant predominant diets, filled with fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, plant protein, and limiting red meat. That being said, a diet does not have to be 100% plant-based to be healthy. A healthful diet can be fully plant-based, or plant-predominant including some animal products.

A Plant-Based diet can help you maintain a healthy weight. How can a plant-based diet help with weight loss or weight maintenance?

Energy density: Plant-based diets emphasize foods that have fewer calories per gram. This stretches your stomach to feel full for fewer calories.

Hyperpalatable foods: Plant-based diets eschew most ultra-processed foods that promote overconsumption

Social Support: A feeling of support and community helps individuals adhere to dietary patterns. Plant-based diets offer in person and online social support.

But one of the most important parts of this discussion is that a healthful plant-based diet must be “well planned.”

Important* this is not individualized medical/nutrition advice. These general recommendations are meant as a broad overview of plant-based nutrition. Individual needs may vary. Always discuss any dietary change with your healthcare provider first. Working with your physician/healthcare provider and a registered dietitian can be beneficial in any dietary transition.

Special thanks to Kevin Klatt, PhD, RD, for his help with this post.

TOP Tips for Transitioning to a Plant-Based Diet

1. Formulate a well-planned Plant-Based diet, that meets your nutrient needs!

Plant-based diets can be flexible, adequate, and healthful when well-planned.

Key Nutrients to Plan For:

Protein

Why do we need it? Provides the building blocks for our cells. Provides 9 essential amino acids our bodies can’t make. Although all 9 amino acids are present in most animal foods, different plant foods are missing different essential amino acids.

Protein Tips:

Eat a variety of plant-based foods to get all 9 essential amino acids. Choose several servings of high protein foods, such as beans/legumes, grains, nuts/seeds. Aim for ~20g protein per meal. *Individual protein needs will vary. For example, athletes may require as high as 1.6 g/kg body weight per day. Although older literature suggested that you need to be eating “complementary amino acids” at the same meal, this is no longer accurate. You want to diversify your protein intake overall, but you don’t *need* to plan complementary protein types at each meal.

Minerals: Calcium, Iron, Iodine

Calcium:

Why do we need it? Calcium is required to maintain the health of our bones, in addition to many other signaling functions in our body. Abundant in dark leafy greens, some nuts and legumes, in addition to fortified foods such as plant-based milks

Calcium tips:

Calcium can be bound to oxalate in foods and cannot be absorbed in our guts. Choosing low oxalate plant foods (like using kale instead of spinach) improves calcium absorption. Consume plant-based fortified plant-milks. Aim for ~1000 mg/day.

Iron:

Why do we need it? Iron is required to make red blood cells and to derive energy from foods. We lose at least 1–2 mg/d that must be replaced by absorbing iron.Whereas red meat contains iron in heme, which is a highly bioavailable source, iron-rich plant foods, like beans, nuts/seeds, and dark leafy greens contain non-heme iron.

Iron tips:

Pairing vitamin c-rich foods with non-heme iron can increase iron absorption. Choose fortified foods, like breakfast cereals with iron. Talk with your healthcare provider to monitor your iron status.

Iodine:

Why do we need it? Iodine is required for the proper function of our thyroid and for fetal brain development. Some food sources include seaweed and iodized salt.

Iodine tips:

Check your multivitamin to make sure it contains iodine! Be aware that sea salts are *not* fortified with iodine. Incorporate seaweed/kelp into your diet.

Fatty Acids: Omega 3 fatty acids

Why do we need it? Important structural component of our cells. Precursors to anti-inflammatory compounds in the body. Where as fatty fish like salmon contain large quantities of the omega3s EPA & DHA (which they get from algae!), plant-foods like flax, chia, and canola oil contain the omega 3 ALA.

Omega 3 Tips:

While the body can convert some ALA to EPA, the conversion to DHA is inefficient. Choose algae oil supplements or foods fortified with algae oil to consume a plant-based source of DHA. Dietary guidelines recommend ~1–1.6 ALA/D and 200mg DHA/day

Vitamins: Vitamin B-12, Vitamin D

Vitamin B-12:

Why do we need it? B-12 is required for 2 important enzymes to work correctly. Without B-12, there is a slowing down of DNA synthesis and this can result in megaloblastic anemia. B12 interacts with folate to make our DNA. It is also required to metabolize some amino acids and fats. All vitamin B-12 in the food supply is sourced from bacteria. Animal foods are the only reliable dietary sources without fortification. Plant-foods, like plant milks and cereals, are commonly fortified with B-12.

B-12 tips:

Taking a daily supplement of vitamin B-12 is recommended to maintain adequate B-12 status. Eat fortified foods + nutritional yeast. No need to spend extra money on special B-12 forms (cyanocobalamin is just fine!)

Vitamin D:

Why do we need it? Vitamin D helps our body absorb and maintain healthy levels of minerals, and helps our bones stay healthy. It is also important for the immune system. Vitamin D is made in our bodies in response to sunlight/UV rays. The best plant based food sources are fortified plant milks (D2)

Vitamin D Tips:

Read labels to see if Vitamin D has been added/fortified in your plant-based milks and plant-based yogurts. Ask your doctor to measure your vitamin D status and give you recommendations for vitamin D2.

Overall tips for a well-planned Plant-Based Diet:

Eat from a variety of food groups:

Beans, legumes, soy products, nuts & seeds, fruits & vegetables, whole grains

Emphasize foods rich in key nutrients to plan for:

Protein, Calcium, Iron, Omega 3’s, Vitamin B-12, Vitamin D

Focus on high fiber and low saturated fat foods.

Smart Supplementation and Fortification: Talk with your physician and a registered dietitian to address your individual health needs!

2. Take inventory of your current diet

What foods do you already like? Which foods fit your plant-based parameters? Aim to incorporate these foods, along with a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans, into your eating plan.

What will you miss? You can “veganize” just about anything! A simple google search of your favorite food + “vegan recipe” will yield hundreds of recipe options

3. Incorporate more legumes in your diet: try to get in 3 servings per day!

Even if you aren’t planning on going fully plant-based, incorporating more legumes in your diet can be incredibly beneficial to your health. Legumes are a great source of protein, fiber, and iron.

This includes:

Soy foods: tempeh, tofu, soybeans, soymilk

Beans (black beans, white beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, lima, navy, pinto), peas, lentils

Peanuts

Typical serving of legumes include:

¼ cup peanuts/soy nuts

½ cup cooked beans, tempeh, tofu

1 cup soymilk

Pro Tip: Try Legume-Based Pastas!

Legume-based pastas are an excellent source of protein and fiber. They are commonly made from chickpeas (most common), lentils, mung bean, or edamame.

4. Eat a lot of vegetables, especially dark leafy greens!

Cruciferous leafy greens have tons of nutrients: fiber, calcium, iron, vitamins A,C,K, folate, potassium, manganese, phytonutrients.

Try to maximize your intake of leafy greens/cruciferous vegetables: kale, mustard greens, collard greens, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, swiss chard, arugula, bok choy, endive, mixed greens, red and green romaine

5. Eat healthy fats!

Omega-3s: Plant-foods contain alpha linolenic acid (ALA). Find them in chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, hemp seeds, canola oil, flaxseed oil, hempseed oil, soybean oil

Other healthy fats (but low in omega3s): avocado, nuts, nut butters, tofu, olive oil

6. Get into a relationship with fiber! But take it slow

Sometimes a patient wants to jump right into a 100% plant-based diet, and they increase their fiber content 10 fold overnight, and while some individuals may tolerate this without issue, others may experience gas, bloating, and stomach upset from the rapid jump in fiber intake.

Some tips to incorporate more fiber into your diet without the bloating:

Start by incorporating more vegetables that you already eat, are used to, and tolerate.

Work your way up slowly, increasing your total fiber intake only 5 g per day.

That being said, it is *always* important to speak with your doctor to rule out any underlying food allergies/GI/medical issues that may be the cause of any symptoms

7. You can make any dietary pattern plant-based, or more plant-forward (including keto!)

Do you like eating high carb? how about low carb/keto? You can eat a plant-based or plant-predominant high carb diet, low carb diet, Paleo, Mediterranean, high protein, any dietary pattern you enjoy can be filled with more plants.

8. Swap in Plant-Based alternatives

Although a diet filled with whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, is very healthful, plant-based alternatives can be a healthful addition to any diet.

Swap in plant-based alternatives such as fortified plant milks, plant-based burgers, hotdogs, sausages, and plant-based eggs. Remember, that just because a food doesn’t contain animal products, does not mean that a food is necessarily healthful, so reading labels is important. Look for plant-based alternatives that are low in saturated fat. Many plant-based meats, cheeses, and eggs are low in saturated fat, and have heart healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. In fact, in the “SWAP-MEAT” trial, participants randomized to the Beyond Meat plant-based burger, versus a regular meat burger, found that individuals randomized to the Beyond Meat plant-based burger lowered their weight, cholesterol, and various other cardiometabolic risk factors when compared to the traditional meat burger.

Additionally, plant-based egg alternative JUST Egg, made from mung beans, has an impressive fatty acid profile compared to traditional chicken eggs. JUST Egg has zero dietary cholesterol and over 3X lower saturated fat when compared to chicken eggs. With regards to the highly beneficial polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, JUST Egg has over 2X PUFA per calorie and almost 2X MUFA compared with chicken egg. And per calorie, JUST Egg and traditional chicken eggs have very similar protein content.

So when swapping in plant-based alternatives: read labels, focus on low saturated fat items, and be mindful of added sodium and sugar.

9. Keep it Simple and Enjoyable!

Prioritize enjoying your food. Find plant swaps that you enjoy. Explore and try new plant-based foods. Expand your palette. Try to cook more at home. “Veganize” your favorite recipes. Go at your own pace, this is not a race. You do not need to go 100% plant-based overnight! You are doing GREAT, whether you are swapping in one plant-based meal per day, or going 100% plant-based. Take your time, and enjoy the process. Feel out what works for you. And enjoy a plant-based treat every so often! Remember, no one food, in one dose, will cause disease, it’s overall dietary pattern that matters.

10. Progress over Perfection

Remember, don’t make perfect the enemy of good.

Dr. Belardo is a cardiologist in a multidisciplinary practice in Newport Beach, California. Dr. Belardo sees patients for cardiovascular disease, preventive cardiology, advanced lipidology, cardiometabolic health, and weight loss. She is the co-chair of the American Society of Preventive Cardiology Nutrition Committee, a member of the American College of Cardiology Nutrition and Lifestyle Committee, and the Communications Catalyst for the California Chapter of American College of Cardiology.

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