Researchers, dietitians, and influencers alike are all about plant-based diets, which emphasize eating more plants and less animal products (think meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy). Why? Research shows that plant-based diets are good for us: Consider this study about its connection to lower rates of type 2 diabetes, or this review supporting its ability to support weight loss, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, potentially even lessening the need for certain medications.
And the best part is, you don’t have to go full-on vegan—or even vegetarian—to hop on the plant-based train (though you totally can if you want to)! Plenty of plant-based eaters enjoy eggs, meat, and dairy every once in a while, but the whole notion of ‘plant-based’ is simply that plants are top priority.
Still, skeptics worry that a plant-based diet means missing out on certain nutrients. That could be the case, sure, if your version of a plant-based diet is only bread and bananas and peanut butter. But with these seven nutritionist-backed tips, you can create yourself a plant-based diet that’s nutritionally-balanced and sustainable.
1. Prioritize Protein
You may think of protein as the nutrient that builds and repairs your muscles and bones—but it does a whole lot more than that. “You also need protein to make hair, blood, enzymes, connective tissue, antibodies, and hormones,” says culinary nutrition expert Jessica Levinson, R.D., founder of Small Bites by Jessica. And in a plant-based diet, you’ll have to venture beyond chicken breast to get that precious protein.
Most people need 0.8 to one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, which is about 70 grams for someone who weighs 150 pounds. If you’re an athlete or working to build muscle, you’ll need more like 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight, which is about 82 to 95 grams for someone who weighs 150 pounds.
And, yes, that’s totally doable on a plant-based diet. Center every meal around protein by filling at least a quarter of your plate with a plant-based protein source, like beans, legumes, tofu, tempeh, or edamame, says Stephanie Mendez, R.D., a nutritionist with NY Nutrition Group and co-founder of women’s fitness and nutrition program Matriarch. All of these options offer upwards of 12 grams of protein per serving. Nuts and high-protein grains (like quinoa and amaranth) also offer some protein.
Related: 7 Meat-Free Protein Sources
You can even plantify your go-to protein shake by adding a plant-based protein supplement like soy, pea, rice, or hemp protein powder. Many plant-based proteins include a blend of these in order to provide the best mix of amino acids (the molecules in protein) possible.
When you do incorporate animal-based proteins, limit them to less than half of your total protein intake, suggests Christy Brisette, R.D., of 80 Twenty Nutrition. Try to stick to fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna (which are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids), poultry, and lean meats, all of which are all lower in saturated fats, she says.
2. Keep Carbs In Check
When you cut back on foods like dairy, eggs, and meat, it’s easy to replace them with carbs, says Mendez. And even if you’re eating all healthy foods, a diet too high in carbs and too low in healthy fats and proteins may leave you feeling unsatisfied.
Avoid this mishap by making sure one half of your plate is filled with non-starchy veggies (like spinach, carrots, mushrooms, cauliflower, or broccoli), one quarter with protein, and one quarter with carbs (either from starchy veggies like potatoes, corn, peas, and squash, or whole grains like brown rice, oats, or bulgur), according to Mendez. (Most dietitians recommend about 30 to 45 grams of carbs per meal, which would be about a cup of cooked whole grains or starchy veggies.)
And, like with any healthy diet, you’ll want to limit baked goods, added sugars, white bread, and pasta, and choose less-processed, whole-grain carbs. Refined carbs are stripped of their fiber, protein, and other nutrients (including vitamin E and vitamin K, B vitamins, selenium, and magnesium), says Levinson. Meanwhile, whole grains, starchy vegetables and more wholesome products like whole-wheat bread contain fiber and nutrients to fill you up and keep your blood sugar stable and healthy, says Mendez. “Just make sure the first ingredient says ‘whole grain’ and there are no added sugars,” says Mendez.
3. Keep An Eye On Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 helps your body form red blood cells and DNA, and plays an important role in brain and nerve function, says Levinson. And because it binds to proteins and is found mostly in non-veggie sources like fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and milk, plant-based eaters have a harder time eating their fill. (Adults need about 2.4 micrograms a day.)
Incorporating one serving of eggs, dairy, or seafood a day can bump up your B12 intake. Otherwise, you can find it in nutritional yeast, and some fortified cereals, grains, and nut milks.
If you’re going plant-based long-term, Mendez recommends having your B12 levels checked regularly. Your doctor can let you know if a B12 supplement is necessary with a simple blood test, she says.
4. Eat Your Spinach (And Other Iron Sources)
This is a big one. Iron helps your body transport the oxygen you breathe to all of your tissues. It also supports your metabolism, your hormones, and connective tissue. The average woman needs about 18 milligrams per day, while the average man needs eight.
There are two types of iron: heme iron, which comes from animal proteins, and non-heme iron, which comes from plants. Non-heme iron isn’t absorbed as easily as heme iron, so you need to eat more of it to hit your goals. To do so, make sure your diet contains a variety of sources, like beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, fortified grains and cereals, and (of course!) dark, leafy greens like spinach. One cup of beans contains about eight milligrams of iron, while a cup of boiled spinach contains about four.
Women, especially, should try to have a serving of iron-rich plant foods at every meal of the day, Mendez says.
Levinson also recommends pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods (vitamin C boosts your absorption of iron) and avoiding eating iron foods with calcium-rich foods (calcium limits absorption). For example, try pairing spinach with tomato sauce or fresh tomatoes.
5. Don’t Forget About Omega-3s
Omega-3s (like EPA and DHA) are a type of fatty acid that supports brain, eye, and heart health. Tricky thing is, they’re primarily found in fatty fish and eggs, says Mendez.
Featured Plant-Based Omega Supplements
But fear not! There are plenty of plant foods that help you stock up on these important omegas, like flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. These plant sources contain an essential fatty acid called ALA, which is used to produce EPA and DHA. Feature these foods on your plate regularly so your body can produce enough of the omega-3s it needs, says Mendez.
6. Plan Ahead For Snacking, Travel, And Meals Out
If you’ll be out and about—and potentially without veggie-friendly options—packing snacks and small meals can keep your plant-based eating possible and keep you from making an impulsive, imbalanced food choice. Pizza and pasta are tasty, sure, but they often contain lots of fats and carbs without much protein, so you don’t want to rely on them when you’re out, says Mendez.
Meal planning and prepping on the weekends (breakfast and snacks included) can go a long way in making plant-based dieting easy throughout busy weeks. If you know you’re going to be on the run, stash healthy, portable snacks to tide you over. Choose something that’s about 50 percent protein and 50 percent carbs, like a handful of nuts and an apple.
7. Don’t Assume Vegetarian Or Vegan Products Are Healthier
Ooh, vegan cookies? Something about ‘em just seems healthier, right? But don’t be fooled.
Highly processed vegetarian foods—especially meat replacements like burgers or nuggets—are still highly-processed. “When you look at food labels for things like veggie chicken, they have a lot of other ingredients, including preservatives and chemicals added to get the texture and taste of meat,” says Mendez. And vegan cookies, though they may not contain dairy, are usually still high in calories, fat, and sugar, she adds.
So limit the premade, processed foods as much as possible. After all, a brownie is still a brownie. Focus your meals and snacks on whole foods, and consider meat-free and vegan packaged foods with the same skepticism you’d consider any other foods.
Pin this infographic to keep these plant-based eating guidelines handy: