With stars like Venus Williams and Jason Mraz singing its praises and research consistently confirming its health benefits, plant-based eating is definitely in the spotlight right now. One recent Massachusetts General Hospital study even associated high-plant-protein diets with a lower mortality rate than high-animal-protein diets.
Eating less meat and other animal products isn’t automatically healthier, though. Here, top nutrition experts explain the four biggest mistakes people make when going plant-based.
1. Getting Too Restrictive
Once you start cutting certain foods from your diet (or at least cutting back on them), it’s easy to get carried away.
“I often see people eliminating many foods, such as soy or gluten, needlessly,” says plant-based dietitian Sharon Palmer, R.D.N. “There is no reason to eliminate these unless you have a true allergy or sensitivity.”
If you think you do have a food sensitivity (symptoms range from brain fog and joint pain to digestive issues), check in with your doctor or a registered dietitian. They’ll likely suggest an elimination diet, in which you’ll eliminate common inflammatory foods from your diet for a set period of time. Then, you’ll monitor any reactions as you slowly introduce them.
Otherwise, eliminating foods needlessly restricts your ability to take in a variety of nutrients and achieve proper, balanced nutrition. Plus, mixing up your eats also helps stave off boredom. “Embrace a variety of grains, beans, and fruits,” says Palmer. “Each offers different flavors and a different range of nutrients.”
2. Not Planning Ahead
“A lack of planning your meals and snacks ahead of time can be the pitfall of any new diet,” says Jessica Alvarez, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. “When you suddenly find yourself hungry, there often aren’t a lot of quick, healthy food options at your disposal.”
Alvarez recommends choosing one day over the weekend to plan out your meals for the week. Then, create a grocery list based off your menu so you’ll have everything you need heading into the work week.
3. Falling Short On Protein
One major concern when following a plant-based diet is getting enough protein, since rich sources like chicken and meat have left center stage. Thing is, going plant-based doesn’t mean you can never touch another animal protein. Plant-based is just about eating fewer animal products and more plants, so you can still turn to animal proteins like meat and eggs from time to time.
Otherwise, know that “there’s plenty of protein in plant-based foods,” says Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D., of Nutrition à la Natalie. Incorporate foods like soy, tempeh, beans, lentils, and whole grains (particularly quinoa, faro, freekeh, or sorghum) into your diet daily and you’ll meet your needs.
When you’re crunched for time or about to run out the door, though, a plant-based protein supplement can help you fuel up quick. Another time that shaker cup comes in handy: post-workout, when your body needs a solid dose of protein to kick-start protein synthesis and muscle repair.
4. Assuming Products Labeled ‘Vegan’ Are Healthy
As the plant-based eating trend grows, so does the number of vegan products lining supermarket shelves. Though these pre-made foods may be tempting, they’re not necessarily healthy.
“Sometimes vegan and vegetarian alternative foods are just as unhealthy as their animal-containing counterparts,” says Alvarez. Often, their calorie, sodium, fat, and added sugar content are identical. If you are going to put a pre-made plant-based food product in your shopping cart, make sure it’s made with minimal, easy-to-recognize ingredients first.
Ideally, a healthy diet—plant-based or not—is rooted in homemade food and limits processed products as much as possible. When you’re in a pinch, try to reach for whole-food snacks like nuts (cashews or almonds are good picks), a piece of fruit and nut butter, or some vegetables and hummus, recommends Alvarez.