Plant-Based Diets 101: How to Start a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet Plan

Starting a vegetarian diet is easier than you think. In this guide, we'll cover the basics of a vegetarian meal plan, how to keep your macros in check, and everything else you need to know to start a plant-based lifestyle.

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Good for You, Good for the Planet: a Plant-Based Diet Plan

You’ve certainly heard all the buzz around plant-based eating. From vegan and vegetarian diet plans, to “meatless Mondays” for those who don’t want to completely forgo meat, plant-based diets are growing in popularity. Why? Not only can switching to a plant focused diet help you drop a few pounds, it’s also a more environmentally friendly option. But what exactly does “plant-based” mean? Do you have to completely eliminate meat and dairy? Does it just mean eating less meat? Read on to find out more!

Vegetarian vs. Vegan: What’s the Difference?

Going plant-based doesn't necessarily mean saying goodbye to meat forever. That is, unless you have decided to start a vegan diet plan. Vegans do not eat any type of meat, including fish, nor do they consume eggs, dairy, or any other animal product or by-product. A vegan diet is the strictest plant-based diet plan out there. Thankfully, it is easier than ever to go vegan these days. There are plenty of vegan alternatives in the supermarket, like vegan cheese and vegan butter, and it’s simple to find a multitude of delicious vegan recipes.

If, though, going vegan isn’t something you want to do, you can simply go vegetarian! The term “vegetarian” is quite broad. Traditionally, a vegetarian diet plan means eating no meat, but there are several subsets of the term. It can mean completely eliminating all meat and fish, but still eating eggs and dairy (a so-called lacto-ovo vegetarian), eating no meat but occasionally eating fish (a pescatarian), or simply focusing on eating more plant-based foods and less meat (a semi-vegetarian or flexitarian).

The Basics of a Vegetarian Diet Plan

The vegetarian diet has become increasingly popular in the past few years. With increased research coming out about the health and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, it’s no wonder. So, what is a vegetarian diet? A vegetarian diet is a plant-focused, plant-based diet. Traditionally, vegetarian diets exclude meat of all kinds, including poultry, and fish. Within that broader definition, there are 4 main types of “no meat” vegetarian diets:

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian: eggs and dairy are allowed, but no meat, fish, or poultry
  • Lacto-vegetarian: dairy is allowed, but no eggs, meat, fish, or poultry
  • Ovo-vegetarian: eggs are allowed, but no dairy, meat, fish, or poultry
  • Vegan: no animal products whatsoever, including honey, dairy, and eggs
  • Pescatarians: fish is occasionally allowed but no meat or poultry. Whether eggs and dairy are allowed is a personal choice
  • Flexitarians: nothing is completely eliminated, but consumption of meat, fish, and poultry is limited

Pescatarians and flexitarians usually adopt an 80/20 approach: 80% of meals and snacks are plant-based and just 20% include meat and/or fish. This type of “semi-vegetarianism” is good for those who need extra protein in their diet. It’s best to choose organic, wild, and ethically sourced meat and fish products, if possible.

Ideas for Your Vegetarian Diet Plan

Now that you know the basics, let’s take a look at a one-day vegetarian diet example so you can see for yourself how delicious and easy it is to go vegetarian:

  • Breakfast: two egg omelet with green peppers and onions or hot oatmeal with peanut butter and bananas
  • Lunch: quinoa cranberry salad with slivered almonds, spinach and a soft boiled egg or pan-seared tofu
  • Dinner: whole wheat pasta with red pepper pesto and a big side salad dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar
  • Dessert: raspberry sorbet

And that’s just a start! As you can see, a vegetarian diet can be multi-faceted and delicious.

A Sample Vegan Diet Plan for Beginners

Take a look at a simple two day vegan diet example, perfect for beginners:

Monday

  • Breakfast: chia seed pudding made with almond milk, topped with strawberries and toasted coconut
  • Lunch: whole-grain pasta with pesto and a side salad of leafy greens with tomato and cucumber
  • Dinner: roasted chickpea and cauliflower tacos with fresh guacamole and salsa
  • Snacks: carrot sticks with hummus, trail mix

Tuesday

  • Breakfast: whole wheat toast topped with almond butter and sliced bananas
  • Lunch: traditional tabbouleh with lemony bulgur, tomatoes, cucumbers, fresh mint, and parsley
  • Dinner: vegan 5 bean chili with cornbread
  • Snacks: an apple with peanut butter, kale chips

Most of these ingredients are easy to find at your local supermarket, and none require any fancy cooking techniques or crazy substitutes. When starting out, focus on easy to prepare meals with whole, natural ingredients you know and like.

What Are the Pros and Cons of a Plant-Based Diet?

With the basics of plant-based lifestyles covered, let’s talk about the why. People opt for a plant-based diet for many reasons. For some, eating fewer animal products is a way to gain overall better health and maybe lose a little weight. For others, it’s a necessary step for heart health and recovery. And some choose to go vegan for animal rights and environmental reasons. Whatever your reason may be, be sure to choose a version that is right for you.

Whether you’re a flexitarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, pescatarian, or vegan, a plant-based diet comes with a host of benefits. Yes, there are few minor disadvantages, too, but nothing you can’t manage!

Pro: A Plant-Based Diet Is Good for Your Overall Health

Countless studies have proven that a plant-based diet can improve your overall health. A diet that relies heavily on fruits, veggies, buts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, two contributing factors in heart disease. On top of that, a plant-based diet can help you lose weight, and with obesity being the number one cause of heart disease in America, weight loss is definitely on the “pro” list!

Con: A Plant-Based Diet Is Lacking in Certain Nutrients

As we previously covered, it can be hard for vegans and vegetarians to get enough protein. Why? Meat, eggs, and dairy are all protein powerhouses, meaning they pack more protein per gram than plant-based protein sources. However, getting enough protein is more than doable. Enjoy quinoa, beans, tofu, and seitan to get your daily ration of protein. Vegetarians and vegans are also at risk of developing deficiencies in B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. Thankfully, supplements can help with all of that.

Pro: A Plant-Based Diet Is Good for Your Overall Health

Countless studies have proven that a plant-based diet can improve your overall health. A diet that relies heavily on fruits, veggies, buts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes can lower cholesterol and blood pressure, two contributing factors in heart disease. On top of that, a plant-based diet can help you lose weight, and with obesity being the number one cause of heart disease in America, weight loss is definitely on the “pro” list!

Con: A Plant-Based Diet Is Lacking in Certain Nutrients

As we previously covered, it can be hard for vegans and vegetarians to get enough protein. Why? Meat, eggs, and dairy are all protein powerhouses, meaning they pack more protein per gram than plant-based protein sources. However, getting enough protein is more than doable. Enjoy quinoa, beans, tofu, and seitan to get your daily ration of protein. Vegetarians and vegans are also at risk of developing deficiencies in B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. Thankfully, supplements can help with all of that.

What are Macros and How Much Do I Need?

Let’s take a moment to cover macros and why they’re an important part of a healthy diet. Macronutrients, or “macros,” as they are commonly called, are the big three nutrients your body needs to function at its best: fats, carbs, and protein. Typically, you need 45–65% of your total daily calories to come from carbohydrates, 25–35% from fat, and 20–30% from protein.

Carbohydrates give us quick, usable energy and are easy to get enough of on a plant-based diet like veganism. Healthy, complex carbs are found in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and legumes. Stay away from “simple” carbs like sugar. You may get a quick surge of energy, but it will only leave you hungry again! Plus, sugar provides “empty” calories. You want to get as much nutritional bang for your buck, so choose an apple instead of a sugary donut – even if it is vegan!

Fats are vital for organ protection, healthy hair, and also help you get – and stay – satiated. Sources of healthy, unsaturated fat include vegan diet staples like avocados, almonds, and other nuts, as well as seeds.

Protein is the building block for muscles and overall strength. We need protein to get and stay strong! Plant-based proteins include soy products like tofu, edamame, and tempeh, as well as lentils, quinoa, and beans. It can be difficult for vegans to get enough protein since meat contains significantly higher protein per gram. With planning, though, it is possible!

Pro: A Plant-Based Diet Is Better for the Environment

For many, vegetarianism and veganism is about more than just personal health. There is increased concern worldwide about the impact of livestock farming on the planet. It is said that the farming plants requires fewer resources than the production of meat, poultry, and dairy. On top of that, cows produce more methane (a greenhouse gas) than plants do. And for many, they feel it is simply unethical to eat animals.

Con: It Can Be Hard to Stick To It

Though more and more people are vegans and vegetarian than ever, it can still be hard to find healthy, nutritious vegan and vegetarian options, especially when eating out. You’ll also have to say good-bye to certain foods that you may love. However, with a little patience, perseverance, and planning, it is more than possible!

Pro: A Plant-Based Diet Is Better for the Environment

For many, vegetarianism and veganism is about more than just personal health. There is increased concern worldwide about the impact of livestock farming on the planet. It is said that the farming plants requires fewer resources than the production of meat, poultry, and dairy. On top of that, cows produce more methane (a greenhouse gas) than plants do. And for many, they feel it is simply unethical to eat animals.

Con: It Can Be Hard to Stick To It

Though more and more people are vegans and vegetarian than ever, it can still be hard to find healthy, nutritious vegan and vegetarian options, especially when eating out. You’ll also have to say good-bye to certain foods that you may love. However, with a little patience, perseverance, and planning, it is more than possible!

Pro: A Plant-Based Diet Can Improve Your Skin

While there isn’t much conclusive evidence to prove it, many believe that because a vegan diet ups your intake of vegetables and fruits and cuts out dairy, meat, and processed snacks, the natural antioxidants can help your skin. Simply put, you’ll be healthier inside and out! Give it a try and do your own plant-based diet before and after skin analysis to see the results for yourself.

What Other “Cons” Do I Need to Watch Out for?

The evidence strongly suggests that there are more “pros” than “cons” to a plant-based or vegan diet. That being said, there are a few side effects you may see if you don’t get enough nutrients. For example, a deficiency in protein, iron, or zinc can cause increased hair shedding. Not eating red meat—a massive source of iron and vitamin B12—can also lead to headaches, fatigue, and dizziness. The solution to these? Eat a varied diet that gives you all the nutrients you need to stay healthy!

Pro: A Plant-Based Diet Can Improve Your Skin

While there isn’t much conclusive evidence to prove it, many believe that because a vegan diet ups your intake of vegetables and fruits and cuts out dairy, meat, and processed snacks, the natural antioxidants can help your skin. Simply put, you’ll be healthier inside and out! Give it a try and do your own plant-based diet before and after skin analysis to see the results for yourself.

What Other “Cons” Do I Need to Watch Out for?

The evidence strongly suggests that there are more “pros” than “cons” to a plant-based or vegan diet. That being said, there are a few side effects you may see if you don’t get enough nutrients. For example, a deficiency in protein, iron, or zinc can cause increased hair shedding. Not eating red meat—a massive source of iron and vitamin B12—can also lead to headaches, fatigue, and dizziness. The solution to these? Eat a varied diet that gives you all the nutrients you need to stay healthy!

Making a Plant-Based Diet for Athletes

A well-balanced diet is important for everyone. Athletes, though, have to pay particular attention to their diet in order to improve performance and build muscle. One of the biggest concerns for athletes is getting the right nutrition to fuel their bodies. Can a plant-based diet provide the necessary nutrition for athletes, including bodybuilders? Yes! The truth is, any kind of diet will work if you are making conscious, healthy choices. A vegan or vegetarian diet for athletes is no different! For a vegetarian or vegan diet for athletes to be healthy, it must have a solid foundation in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Carbohydrates and Protein: The Building Blocks of a Plant-Based Diet for Athletes

Even more so than others, it’s important for athletes to get enough protein in their diet. This helps with building muscle. The right kind of carbohydrates are also important to give you the proper energy to not only get through your workout, but also to help you build endurance. Fruits like apples, bananas, and pears provide quick but healthy carbohydrates that give you the boost you need before or after your trip to the gym. Try a fruit smoothie with an alternative milk or simply nosh on a fruit salad. After your workout, having a healthy bowl with quinoa, leafy greens, nuts, and a light dressing will do the trick.

When it comes to protein, what you can eat before and after your workout depends on what kind of vegetarian you are. For lacto-ovo vegetarians, eggs as well as cheese and milk are wonderful sources of protein. If you’re on a pescatarian diet for athletes, add tuna or salmon to your morning omelet or afternoon salad. Adapting a flexitarian diet for athletes means you can occasionally have chicken or even a steak. However, since the point of adapting a plant-based diet is to consume fewer (or no) animal products, everyone can fill up on high protein vegan foods like tofu, seitan, quinoa, lentils, and beans to meet protein requirements and gain muscle.

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