Your Intro Guide to a Plant-Based Diet: Flexitarian, Vegan, Vegetarian and More
Plant-based diets are not just a passing fad, they're here to stay. The reason: If everyone started eating less meat it would dramatically slow down our planet's climate change, help alleviate chronic health issues such as heart disease and diabetes, and change the way farming is practiced. More people are eating less meat now than ever before, but there's still confusion about the difference between plant-based, vegan, flexitarian, and "less meat" diets.
Many people who want to go meat-free, or mostly so, wonder where to start? If you're tempted to try it, this is as good a moment as any, since it's easier today than in years past, as choices of plant-based meat substitutes abound, and every week there are new plant-based alternatives to chicken, pork, and fish products hitting the market, along with non-dairy ice cream, cheese, and coffee creamers. The market for plant-based food is products is growing at nearly twice as fast as overall food sales, and the rise of plant-centric eating is rising with it.
Not sure whether to try plant-based, flexitarian, vegan, or reducetarian? Read on
If you're interested in going plant-based but are still hesitant to try going without meat – or cutting way down – you may worry about what you will eat. Starting any new diet (whether for health, weight loss or to benefit the planet) is challenging since it requires you to try a new way of eating, but plant-based diets are especially so because there are so many different ways to start, and not everyone wants the same level of restriction. The first step is to understand the difference between plant-based and vegan, or flexitarian, and vegetarian or reducetarian, which is essentially just eating less meat.
If you're contemplating going plant-based, you likely have questions! As in: What will you be able to eat? And, Do you have to give up your favorite meals? Or the biggest question many people have: How you'll get your protein? One major concern for many contemplating starting a plant-based diet is whether it's possible to feel full and satisfied without meat. The answer is that there are plenty of choices on a plant-based diet, tons of protein to be had, and it can be delicious. Plus you'll start to feel better, less bloated, and more energetic, in just a matter of days.
If you're wondering how to take the first step toward transitioning to eating less meat, we've got you covered — and you don't have to cut out meat all at once – since every meal without meat is a move in the right direction, for your health and the planet. There are many ways to start a plant-based diet or skip meat, even if you only want to do it some of the time. Here are easy tips to help you start going more plant-based – for your health, the planet, and any other reason.
The Difference Between Plant-Based vs. Vegan
Let's clear up the difference between a plant-based diet and going vegan. A plant-based diet is one that either exclusively or mainly includes foods that grow as plants, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes while avoiding animal products such as meat, fish, dairy, and eggs.
Vegan diets eliminate all meat, dairy, fish, eggs, and also animal products such as honey since the vegan approach is to not harm or exploit animals in the process of food production. Veganism is an ethical approach based on animal welfare, whereas someone who is 'plant-based may choose to avoid meat and dairy for health or environmental reasons.
While people may adhere to a plant-based diet to varying degrees, vegans strictly avoid anything that involves harming, killing, or exploiting animals of any kind, even insects.
Can you eat meat on a plant-based diet?
In a word, No. While people define plant-based in many different ways, the one thing that they all try to avoid is meat. Even if they occasionally will eat fish or allow a little dairy such as cheese onto their salad, avoiding meat is the primary goal. The reason to ditch meat and dairy is that it's healthier for you and better for the planet, and for many people, animal welfare is yet another reason to take all meat out of the equation.
Meat is out. That's the point. One caveat? No one is telling you to do this. If you want to dip back into a burger or only go plant-based on Mondays, or before 6 p.m., or for one meal a day, or when not having Sunday dinner at Nana's house, that's your choice. You're a grownup and only you know why you are trying to eat plant-based. It's your diet, it's your body, and it is up to you. We are just defining terms and trying to help you figure out how to go more plant-based, so you can be the version of yourself that you want to be.
Transitioning to a vegetarian diet
Some people leap into a fully plant-based approach but many choose to ease their way toward it by first going vegetarian on their way to fully vegan. (Or they stick with vegetarianism and are fully happy with that choice.) The difference between vegetarian and plant-based is that vegetarians still eat dairy such as milk, cheese, and yogurt as well as eggs. But most vegetarians do not eat fish unless they define themselves as pescatarians.
For people who want to take the first step by going vegetarian, it can be a helpful way to eliminate meat, poultry, and pork – and then make a decision as to whether to take the next step and remove all dairy and go fully plant-based. For others, it's simply easier to make the jump to a fully plant-based diet by cutting out meat, dairy, and all animal products at once.
Whichever way you choose to do it, these are personal decisions. Edging toward plant-based or diving headfirst into the pool is up to your personality, your motivations, and your ultimate goal. You never have to even assign a label to your efforts. "Mostly plant-based" can cover a lot of ground. But if you want to know what the labels mean, here is an outline of who's who:
Most vegans avoid:
- meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, and eggs
- foods that contain animal products, such as gelatin, beeswax, and honey
- leather, suede, wool, feathers, down, and silk
- animal entertainment such as zoos, aquariums, or dolphin shows
- cosmetics or any product tested on animals
- palm oil due to the harvesting impact on deforestation and biodiversity
Are vegan or plant-based diets healthy?
There's growing evidence that points to the health benefits of eating more plant-based. Results from the National Institute of Health-sponsored study revealed that those who ate the most plant-based food had a 16 percent lower risk for cardiovascular disease, 32 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease, and 25 percent lower risk of dying from all-cause mortality.
A systematic review in 2019 concluded that a plant-based diet benefits you by lowering your risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes. And another meta-analysis of 40 studies showed that in most countries a vegan diet contains fewer calories and less saturated fat compared to omnivorous diets, and is associated with lower body weight, lower blood pressure, and healthier levels of fasting blood glucose, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides —all risk factors for chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
A vegan diet is not automatically healthy. Vegan is synonymous with staying away from animal products, but it is not interchangeable with healthy whole foods. You can eat candy and chips and still be vegan. If someone eats too many refined and processed foods, added sugar, and fewer whole foods such as vegetables, whole grains, beans, and legumes, then they may end up less healthy, raise their risk of disease and gain weight. Whether you're choosing a plant-based diet for animal welfare or environmental reasons, it's essential for your health to prioritize eating whole foods, and a nutrient-dense diet. That means mostly filling your plate with vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Other types of plant-based diets
Along with being plant-based or vegan, there are other approaches to eating less meat and more plant foods. Here are different ways to avoid animal products to varying degrees:
- Whole food, Plant-Based: Eats plant foods in their whole and natural form or as minimally processed as possible. Avoids processed and refined foods such as fake meats or artificial sweeteners.
- Vegetarian: Avoids meat, fish, and animal products but eat dairy, eggs, and honey
- Flexitarian: A more "flexible" in their approach. Flexitarians are semi-vegetarian, and eat mostly vegetarian but sometimes include small amounts of meat, poultry, and fish
- Pescatarian: Avoid meat and poultry but eat fish, and occasionally dairy, and eggs
- Reducetarian: Cut down on eating meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. This can mean going meat-free on Mondays or eating vegan before six (as Mark Bittman recommends)
- Pegan: A combination of paleo and vegan, eat mostly plant foods and minimal amounts of animal products. Pegans eat whole grains, vegetables, and beans while avoiding added sugar and processed foods
- Raw Vegan: Eat a vegan diet with plant-based foods that are uncooked or only minimally heated to low temperatures
Nutrients to prioritize on a plant-based diet
Depending on how strict your plant-based diet is, there are some important nutrients that you should be aware of, as research indicates they may be lower in vegan diets. According to a 2021 review, a vegan diet is generally rich in complex carbohydrates, omega-6 fatty acids, dietary fibers, carotenoids, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, and magnesium, all critical in a healthy immune system, cell function, and promoting gut health (which is critical to all health).
However, some nutrients may be relatively low in these foods, so people who go plant-based need to ensure they are eating enough varied food sources or consider taking a supplement. It's important to note that there are no reliable food sources of vitamin B12 on a vegan diet, so people going plant-based should take B12 since it is essential to prevent anemia, and reduces the risk for cardiovascular disease. The Vegan Society recommends taking 10 micrograms (mcg) daily or 2.000 mcg weekly.
Nutrients that may be lower on a vegan diet:
- vitamin B12
- omega 3 fatty acids
- vitamin D
Before you start, consult a registered dietitian or doctor to help plan how to get healthy levels of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients, including protein. One note on protein, which everyone worries about: Women need about 45 to 50 grams of protein a day, depending on age and activity levels, and men need 55 to 70 (depending on whether they are trying to build muscle).
Most Americans get too much protein in their diet, which can lead to weight gain and other health conditions. Eating plant sources of protein is a cleaner way to get the protein your body needs since it doesn't come with saturated fat (from animals), and can be considered a cleaner source of protein.
How to start eating less meat and dairy
Some people jump right in and go plant-based, ditching animal products, and find this all-or-nothing is easier than half measures or small steps. For others, a more gradual approach is best and the following tips may help you to phase out meat and become more plant-based.
- Start with one meat-free day like Meatless Mondays, and work up to more days as you get used it this way of eating. This idea was first introduced by Sir Paul McCartney, his daughters Stella and Mary, in honor of the late Linda McCartney, and it's caught on.
- Cut out red and processed meat first and gradually take out of your diet chicken, then eggs, then dairy, to gradually transition to a more plant-based diet.
- Replace meat with plant-based alternatives to allow yourself plant-based burgers, grounds, chicken, or fish. These non-meat alternatives have come under fire for containing unnatural ingredients, high sodium and saturated fat, but a new study found that eating just five plant-based meals a week can improve your gut health.
- Substitute beans and lentils for meat in your recipes such as tacos, chilis, curries, and stir-fries, since legumes are great for your gut, help lower blood sugar, and fight heart disease.
- Add more fiber, plant-based proteins, and heart-healthy fats to every meal to feel fuller and have more energy. It's as easy as adding hummus, chickpeas or avocado to a mixed salad or wrap. Or make a colorful and filling buddha bowl with quinoa or other grains and a rainbow of vegetables.
- Substitute dairy-free milk, and find non-dairy cheese, creamers, and spreads like vegan butter, cream cheese or sour cream. Use cashew nuts to make dairy-free creamy sauces such as cashew alfredo sauce for pasta or cheese sauce recipe. Mix nutritional yeast with walnuts in a blender for a healthy dairy-free parmesan. (For a review of the best tasting and healthiest dairy-free cheeses check out The Beet Meters and add your own rating as well.)
- Swap out eggs for substitutes. Some people prefer to scramble up tofu or use store-bought alternatives on the market such as JUST Eggs, made of mung bean protein. There are 9 egg alternatives for baking that work in most traditional recipes.
- Eat more ethnic cuisine, since Indian, Mexican, and Chinese traditions all rely heavily on vegetables and bean curd, or tofu, chickpeas, and rice and beans for delicious plant-based protein. Use a variety of flavorings and herbs and spices in your recipes.
- Fill your refrigerator with colorful vegetables, and buy seasonal fruit. The more you stock your kitchen and pantry with products such as tofu, nutritional yeast, dried spices, tamari, olive oil, whole grains, passata, and canned beans or legumes, the easier it is to rustle up a quick plant-based meal. See our plant-based shopping list for inspiration.
- Cook More. It's easier to be plant-based in your own kitchen, and control the ingredients that get into your food. Try any of the hundreds of recipes on The Beet for inspiration, and then make (or makeover) some of your own.
The bottom line: Try a more plant-based diet at your own pace
Instead of worrying about what to call your personal diet, think about it as a journey or evolution toward eating less meat and dairy and more plant-based foods, using the available resources to start your culinary adventure to a healthier and more sustainable way of eating.
Aim to eat whole food nutrient-dense diet, avoiding too many refined or processed products and ensuring you consume essential nutrients such as vitamin B12. Take a look at our seven-day plant-based beginner's guide to help you on the right track and our plant-based recipes page.