With Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and NBA star Kyrie Irving amongst its rumored followers, plant-based diets are gaining some major clout. With good reason, too. A diet high in plant protein is associated with a lower mortality rate than one that includes animal protein, according to one Massachusetts General Hospital study. Research also shows that following a plant-based diet can lower risk of heart disease. But what does being plant-based really mean, aside from eating a whole lot of greens?
“Loosely, a plant-based diet does not include large amounts of animal foods,” says plant-powered dietitian Sharon Palmer, RDN. “If you define it as a diet that is vegan, it eliminates all animal foods, including animal flesh, dairy products, eggs, and honey—and ingredients made from these things.”
So it starts, firstly, with upping your fruit and vegetable intake. What else should someone know if they’re interested in going plant-based? Here are five rules for plant-based diet newbies:
1. Avoid a “junky” plant-based diet. There is such a thing as being a junk-food plant-based eater. In a Harvard analysis of weight gain and loss among more than 125,000 adults over a 4-year period, plant-based diets rich in high-quality plant-based foods (such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) were associated with less weight gain when compared to those who ate unhealthy plant-based foods (including refined grains, fries, and other sweets).
“Technically french fries from potatoes fried in corn oil is plant-based but it provides a high level of saturated fat that have no health benefits,” says Tara DelloIacono Thies, RD and nutrition strategist at Summit Nutrition Strategy. “So the watch out is to consume foods that have high nutritional value plant-based fats that are monounsaturated. Avocados, olives, and nut butters are great starters.”
2. Incorporate protein with every meal. It’s one thing to eat kale, Brussels sprouts, and carrots for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But a plant-based is only truly sustainable if you’re incorporating protein on the regular, especially while maintaining an active lifestyle. Good news: You don’t need meat to meet your daily protein needs. “Protein comes from pulses (beans, lentils, peas), tofu, soy milk, nuts, and seeds. It also comes from whole grains and vegetables—which can add more to your diet,” says Palmer.
How much protein is the right amount of protein? Endurance athletes should aim to refuel at about 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight [Studies also suggest they should aim for .8 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight],” suggests Jonathan Valdez, Owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (That’s roughly between 97 and 114 grams of protein daily for a 180-pound guy.)
3. Not every plant-based dieter is going to complete cut out animal products. The term is “plant-based,” which means that it’s based on plants. However, some people go the plant-based route and stick to vegetarian eats, you have to do what feels right for you. “It’s an individual decision,” says DelloIacono Thies. “You don’t have to completely exclude animal proteins. Having smaller portions of animal-based picks such as beef, chicken, or fish can totally be part of a healthy diet.”
4. Plan ahead and do your research. You wouldn’t start a new job or begin a lifting program without doing your homework on what they entail. Same with what you’re putting into your body. Knowing the staples of a plant-based diet are critical to executing it appropriately, including what you’ll do in public setting—like grabbing eats with friends after a long day at the office. “Eating poorly makes people feel ‘bad’ and they often give up,”says Palmer. “The last thing you want is to feel uncomfortable in social situations.”
Avoid unnecessary anxiety by doing 5 minutes of leg work before hitting the town. Check out a few menus, and breathe. The good news? Every day is your chance to start fresh. If one night out doesn’t go as planned, you have the opportunity to begin again whenever you’re ready. “You’re the boss of your own body,” she says.
5. When in doubt, supplements can be your friend. While you should be making a big effort to get a lot of your nutrition from whole food sources, reaching for supplements (especially post-workout) can be a major help when you’re rushing from point A to point B. “I you have higher protein needs (this includes guys that workout often) or you are having trouble fitting in balanced meal times, you can consider a plant-based supplement,” says Palmer. “Look for one that offers nutrients that are important to your diet, outside of the protein boost.”