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What is a plant-based diet, exactly? The easy guide for plant-based newbies

Written by Ali Donahue
What is a plant-based diet, exactly? The easy guide for plant-based newbies

Quick Take

It’s been said you are what you eat. And while this may not be literally true (something we can all be thankful for), it is true that the food we consume plays a vital role in our health, appearance, and even our mood. That’s why it’s so important to adopt a diet that is high in vitamins and nutrients, and that rejects all the junk your body doesn’t need. And the best diet for optimal health? A whole food plant-based diet. What is a plant-based diet? We'll cover that and more below – from what to eat, limit, and avoid to how you can get started today.

FREE DOWNLOAD: Ultimate Little Guide to Plant-Based Eating

Heard a plant-based diet could improve your life and health but need help getting started? This free guide will help you navigate the ins and outs of plant-based eating, answering your all your beginner questions, from "what is a plant-based diet?" to "how the heck do I bake without eggs?" 

On this page

No more macro-managing your meals

What is a plant-based diet?

What is a whole food plant-based diet?

The beginner's guide to plant-based foods

Plant-based foods to add to your plate

Foods to limit or avoid

How to read nutrition labels

Eat to be 100!

Key takeaways

No more macro-managing your meals?

Want to eat well and think that means it's time to break out the calculator and start tracking every calorie, carb, and nutrient that enters your body? We're here to set the record straight on macro-managing your meals – and how it's really not necessary on a healthy plant-based diet.

We’re talking about fundamental behavioral changes — learning how to identify which foods are best for your body, and building a daily meal plan around those foods.

And studies show the best way to do that is with a whole food plant-based diet (more on that in a minute).

First, what is a plant-based diet?

You’ve probably heard of the vegan diet, where one avoids any foods that contain any sort of animal products. This means no meat, dairy, fish, eggs, or bee products (such as honey).

A vegan diet is a great way to cut out a lot of unhealthy food from daily routine, potentially lowering your blood sugar levels, improving your kidney functions and reducing your risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and certain forms of cancer

But being vegan and avoiding animal products doesn’t necessarily mean eating healthy. There are plenty of processed vegan snacks, which can lead to  junk food veganism. After all, you could down Oreos all day long and not violate the basic tenets of veganism, but that doesn’t mean you’d be doing your body any favors.

At the same time, if all you’re doing is abstaining from animal products but not necessarily eating nutrient-dense foods, you might end up experiencing certain nutritional deficiencies; vitamin b12 only occurs naturally in animal sources, and protein, iron, zinc, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids can likewise be difficult to come by on a junk food diet.   

OK, so what is a plant-based diet though?

A plant-based diet is like a vegan diet, except it's more than avoiding animal products; it means eating mostly plants (fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds, whole grains, etc.)

What is a whole food plant-based diet?

Benefits of WFPB diet

The whole food plant-based diet picks up where the vegan diet leaves off, nutritionally speaking.

A whole food plant-based diet, like a vegan diet, does not include meat, dairy, eggs, or other animal products. However, it also steers clear from refined and processed foods (including foods that contain refined sugar or white flour). That said, instead of thinking about what you shouldn’t eat, we like to focus on what you can add to your plate.

The whole point of eating this way is to give your body whole, high quality, plant-based options that are rich in vital nutrients — including the ones junk-food vegans tend to miss. Essentially, with the whole-food plant-based diet, you get all of the aforementioned health advantages of a vegan diet without the problems. It’s the best of both worlds.  

Of course, all of that begs the question: What are plant-based foods?

The Beginner's Guide to Plant-Based Food

The whole food plant-based diet focuses on natural, unrefined foods, with a heavy emphasis on (you guessed it) plants.

To help get you on the right track, we’ve prepared a short crash course in plant-based whole foods to answer your question: what is a plant-based diet, really?

Take a look at this whole foods diet list, and start giving your body the nutrition it craves.

What is a plant-based diet: foods to add to your plate 

The whole food plant-based diet is about lifestyle, not about counting calories or dieting. And nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to the foods listed in this section. These are the foods you can chow down on with reckless abandon, because the options in this category a chock full of the stuff that does a body good. We’re talking about:

* Whole fruits

* 100% Whole grains

* Legumes

* Vegetables (both starchy and non starchy)

* Plant-based Omega-3 sources (like flax seed and chia seeds)

* Water

* Unsweetened plant milks (like almond milk, cashew milk, etc.)

* Unsweetened coffee

* Unsweetened tea


Plant-Based Protein

What about protein?

A common concern when switching to a whole food plant-based lifestyle is that you won’t get all the macronutrients your body needs, especially protein. But you do not need to down protein shakes when you move to a whole food plant-based diet.  There are plenty of healthy plant-based protein sources. Examples of plant protein include nuts, lentils, chickpeas, tempeh, and edamame.

A varied whole food plant-based diet will likely cover all of your nutritional needs — with the exception of vitamin b12. For that, you’ll need to either take supplements or eat b12 fortified foods.

What is a plant-based diet: foods to limit or avoid 

Animal products are not included in a whole food plant-based diet. The good news is that most animal products are pretty easy to spot at a distance. The bad news is that some animal products are used as ingredients in other foods, which can make things downright difficult.

The solution? Keep away from the obvious animal foods, and do the same for heavily processed and prepackaged foods. Here are some of the foods you’ll want to say limit or avoid for optimal health:







*Processed foods

*refined flour (anything that isn’t 100% whole wheat)

*Fruit juice (even unsweetened)

*Soft drinks

*Fats and oil (margarine, butter, and liquid oils)

*Any foods containing refined sugar

How to read nutrition labels

Now, we know what you’re thinking: you're going to have to to check nutrition labels constantly as your transition whole food plant-based diet. But here’s the thing: the best whole foods are fresh and unprocessed, and that means they usually don’t have nutrition labels.

Nutrition Label

Hang out in the produce section! Focus on meals made from fresh fruit, vegetables, and legumes and you won’t have to worry about mystery ingredients sneaking their way into your diet.

That said, there are some great whole food plant-based brands available prepackaged at the grocery store. And if you do find yourself needing to read nutrition labels, here are some easy hacks for reading nutrition labels correctly.

Need more grocery shopping tips? Check out our whole food plant-based shopping guide here.

Toss the Calculator

What we eat defines us, and that’s why it’s so important to take only the best foods into our bodies. The whole-food plant-based diet focuses on natural, nutritionally dense foods perfect for helping you look and feel great. So stop counting those calories; build your diet around the right foods, and you’ll never have to worry about nutrition labels again.

Eat to be 100!

And if you’re worried this is a restrictive way to eat, keep in mind that Blue Zones, the 5 areas in the world where people live the longest, all have rich (anything-but-boring) culinary traditions -- and they all follow a mostly plant-based diet!

Don't forget your FREE download!

Key takeaways

  • Want to eat for optimal health? Choose a plant-based diet! Specifically, a whole food plant-based diet.
  • What is a plant-based diet? It's a diet that's made up of mostly or entirely plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes) and avoids or limits animal products.
  • You can absolutely get enough protein on a plant-based diet!
  • You don't need to macro-manage your nutrients or calories when you eat a well-rounded whole food plant-based diet.


Updated 8/26/21

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