how to start eating a whole-food plant-based diet
If you're reading this with the intent to implement, congratulations! A whole-food, plant-based diet (abbreviated as WFPB) is one of the most powerful ways to improve your health. It centers whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices, and coupled with exercise, stress reduction techniques, and social support, it can be truly transformative. In one of the most concise and comprehensive passages on plant-based nutrition that I've come across, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn says:
It's no secret that I'm a huge advocate for WFPB nutrition. I champion it primarily for its health benefits, especially because people I've known and loved have been touched by diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, but it's also great for the planet and can be accessible to everyone if the right tools are in place. Like any lifestyle change, it does require some effort and planning, and this piece serves as a good springboard off which you can take on the challenge. So how can you get started?
make a change as soon as you can
The moment you start thinking of making the change, it's time to begin. There is no need to go cold turkey on day one if you're not prepared to (although I think that can be one of the best ways to get the change to stick). Here are some quick and straightforward ways to start:
Switch out one meal a day with a healthier option: for example, whole grain, unsweetened oats with fruit for breakfast instead of a sugary cereal, or a lentil soup with brown rice for dinner instead of steak/chicken
Pick something you want to cut out, and draw a line in the sand. For me personally, under no circumstances do I drink soda or eat meat. Having strong boundaries simplifies decision-making, and even just a small change acts as a catalyst for larger ones
Start your meals with something healthy (i.e. whole plants) first. This satisfies appetite so that you're less inclined to eat as large a quantity of the unhealthy part of the meal
Switch out sugary drinks for water or tea
Practice meatless Mondays consistently, and expand to other days of the week when you're ready
I stress this first because WFPB nutrition shouldn't be about restriction, calorie counting or macro counting, and it's important to shed the anxiety and restrictive behaviors associated with other diets in order to successfully follow through with this lifestyle change. Enjoy oil-free, unprocessed whole meals in abundance. Check out this short video by Dr. Michael Greger, where he uses an easy traffic-light system to explain how to structure our diets. "As far as I can figure, the best available balance of evidence suggests the healthiest diet is one that maximizes the intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes (which are beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils), whole grains, nuts and seeds, mushrooms, herbs, and spices. Basically, real food that grows out of the ground—these are our healthiest choices. In general, the more whole plant foods and the fewer processed and animal foods, the better. So, more green light foods and less yellow and red. Like running red lights in the real world: you may be able to get away with it once in a while, but I wouldn’t recommend making a habit out of it." The closer you get to a 100% WFPB diet, the more you crowd out unhealthy choices, and the better you'll feel. Eating intuitively will eventually come easily, as these fiber-rich and nutrient-dense foods are satiating, enjoyable, and health-promoting.
build your arsenal of recipes
Key to my being able to eat healthier was finding recipes I enjoyed and could feel good about. While I'm all about simple, quick meals (like oatmeal for breakfast, or salad for lunch), it's important to have a list of go-to recipe sources so that options feel plentiful and within reach. My absolute favorites and recommendations are Minimalist Baker, Oh She Glows, Vegan Richa, and Veggies Don't Bite. These websites all have WFPB-friendly recipes from an assortment of cuisines that range in difficulty from quick, one-pot recipes to lengthier ones. The cookbooks I use on rotation at the moment are the Oh She Glows Cookbook, How Not To Die Cookbook, and Vegan Burgers and Burritos. I sympathize with the sentiment that eating healthier can be boring. I used to have a very short list of healthy foods I could prepare, and when I got started, the idea of centering my meals on whole foods was daunting and seemed uninspired. Now, that couldn't be further from my reality - I love home-cooked meals, it's exciting to happen upon a recipe that's a win for my family and I, and I never feel like there's a shortage of options.
download the mobile app "dr. greger's daily dozen"
I'm a big fan of Dr. Michael Greger's work and NutritionFacts.org, especially because the resources he provides are so accessible. One incredibly helpful tool on your journey to better health is Dr. Greger's Daily Dozen. The application is free, it has no ads, and it's straightforward to use. It's a list of a dozen foods (with examples) one should include in a healthy daily diet that you can not only check off, but delve into (via links to NutritionFacts videos) to understand exactly why each item was included. It looks like this:
I use it regularly, and even on days that I don't it has helped me be mindful of how diverse and nutrient dense my meals are. You’ll notice that the Daily Dozen includes vitamin D and vitamin B12 as categories; for a list of supplements to take on a plant-based diet, click here.
plan in advance when eating out
It's important for us all to be aware that willpower isn't what makes for successful and long-lasting life changes - planning does. The less you have to engage your willpower every time you're making a decision, small or large, about your lifestyle, the better. The way forward isn't to avoid restaurants, dinner parties and events, but to plan accordingly. Before you go to an eatery, check the menu online and choose what you want to order. If there's nothing totally to your liking, ask your server if it's possible to customize something - often it is, and in my experience they don't mind doing it. If you're attending a dinner party, offer to bring your own dish, and if you're going to an event, consider packing something. If all else fails, it's okay to enjoy the occasion, because one-in-a-while celebrations or gatherings aren't deal breakers! There is no need to feel guilty or ashamed: negative emotions are dangerous seeds of sabotage. Take pleasure in the moment and move on!
don’t use oil
The very best source of fat are nuts and seeds. Oil is high calorie and tends to be low nutrient density - even popular "healthy" oils like coconut, avocado, and olive oil. The concern about calories isn't for calories' sake, it's about the nutritional benefit you get from what you eat relative to the number of calories in the food. A 3000-calorie diet of whole foods is unquestionably better than a 1500-calorie diet of processed foods, even when the goal is weight loss. Fats boost the bioavailability of fat-soluble phytonutrients, so no one is advocating for eliminating them - just be choosy about where they come from. I saute vegetables, onions and garlic in water and add flavor with spices. In place of oily salad dressing, I add nuts or seeds directly, or use nut- or seed-based dressing (with a cashews, sesame seeds, or macadamia nuts, for example). When it comes to baking, many have successfully started using aquafaba in place of oil, which is the liquid in a can of chickpeas. I've yet to try this myself, but it's something to consider trying if you're looking for a replacement. Finally, try an air fryer. I hesitate to recommend this because I understand it's expensive (~$100 USD) and not everyone will be able to purchase it. If you can afford it, however, it's a great way to cook low- or no-oil. To be clear, I almost never use one and have found it easy to bypass oil in my meals, so know that you don't need fancy equipment to do it!
The better you understand for yourself what to eat and why, the easier the changes will be to make. The science behind a WFPB lifestyle is strong, and luckily for us, has been made accessible by so many incredible pioneers. Check my Resources section for people to follow, books to read and websites to check out. Just following a plant-based practitioner on Instagram, for example, is a low-effort way to increase your exposure to literally life-saving information - not just for you, but the people around you. Hopefully, understanding more of the "why" will further strengthen your resolve to make the right changes. Right now, your motivation may be to lose weight (I encourage you to find another, more lasting and intrinsically motivating reason!), but in future, the knowledge you have could be instrumental to healing a loved one, and nothing is more powerful than that.
The foundation for a better world is accessibility to good health, and practical implementation tips are just as key to making positive changes as the information itself. The information is getting out there, and there's a growing consciousness of plant-based nutrition, but you may still be unsure of how to begin. The above tips are sure to get you started! Remember, the journey is about love: love for yourself, the community, and the planet, and if we move and act with that belief and purpose, we play an instrumental role in creating the better world. Let me know your thoughts, and feel free to ask questions below!