7 Tips for Moving Toward a More Plant-Based Diet

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Revamp your diet

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With New Year's resolutions just around the corner, you may be looking to revamp your diet. One popular change is to move toward a more plant-based eating regimen. Whether you want to strictly follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, or just make your existing diet more plant-based, nutritionists can offer tips for eating more vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains and other plant-based goodies.

Live Science spoke with certified clinical nutritionist Gena Hamshaw, author of the popular plant-based diet blog The Full Helping and two vegan cookbooks. Here are seven of her best tips for how to move toward a whole-food, plant-based diet.

Start slowly

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Although the new year is filled with momentum and energy, it's better to make small, incremental changes than to get caught up in revamping your entire diet overnight, Hamshaw said. Remember that changing your diet is not like doing a short cleanse or a weeklong detox; rather, it's setting up a new lifestyle. Trying to make too many changes too quickly could set you up for failure and frustration later on.

"If you're curious about a plant-based diet, it's important to not have this sort of short-term, how-extreme-can-I-go attitude," Hamshaw told Live Science. Instead, you should try to gradually explore how to incorporate changes into your lifestyle, she said.

Don't forget the major macronutrients

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"The mistake I see most often is that people are really psyched about eating veggies but don't focus enough on complex carbs, proteins and fats," Hamshaw said. Surprisingly, people can get so excited about making positive changes that they forget to eat a balanced diet, she said.

For example, Hamshaw said that sometimes, clients will tell her they made a giant salad with 10 different vegetables and a tahini dressing. While "that's super awesome," Hamshaw said, "I don't see where the protein or complex carbs in that meal is to help keep you full for 4 hours." People need to make sure to get enough proteins, carbohydrates and fats to fuel them and help satiate their appetites. Try adding roasted sweet potatoes, pepitas [i.e., pumpkin/squash seeds] or marinated tempeh to a salad, she recommended.

Have some fun grocery shopping

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The bulk of your grocery budget should go toward the essentials, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, Hamshaw said. However, "the rest can be discretionary," she added.

Hamshaw encourages her clients to experiment and have fun, trying new foods that may not fit into any standard category. For instance, Hamshaw said she often picks up a new artisanal vegan cheese to try, or an interesting faux meat product. Others may prefer to buy a bar of dark chocolate or a decadent new almond milk.

The takeaway? Make sure to have fun and keep things interesting on your shopping trips, and don't put too much pressure on yourself to stick to only the ultrahealthy staples.

Use leftovers for lunches

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For lunch, "leftovers are really the easiest," Hamshaw said. Ideally, you can make enough food in the evening for dinner to have leftovers for the next day's lunch.

If you live by yourself, you may be reluctant to make recipes that serve four to six people. "But you can freeze almost anything," Hamshaw said. "Make the whole portion, and freeze half in individual serving bags — and you'll have instant lunches and dinners the next time you need one in a pinch."

Make sure to batch cook

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Similarly, Hamshaw encourages her clients to batch cook, or to pick one day of the week and spend a good amount of time in the kitchen preparing important staples for the week. This might include boiling one or two pots of whole grains, marinating tempeh cubes and baking them in the oven, cooking up some beans or making a big pot of lentils, and preparing a few dressings or a batch of hummus in advance.

Then, Hamshaw said, you'll be able to put together quick, easy bowls during the week using different combinations of these ingredients.

Plus, with this strategy, you won't be facing a fridge full of unprepared veggies late on Wednesday night, when your creativity and energy levels may not be high.

Use dressings for instant variety

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Sometimes, it can be easy to fall into cooking ruts, especially if you're moving toward a new diet and aren't yet comfortable with a wide variety of dishes. One solution is to try out new dressings.

"Dressings are sort of my little secret weapon for avoiding food boredom," Hamshaw told Live Science. She recommended having a few flavorful dressings on hand — for example, a garlic tahini dressing, a tart vinaigrette and a creamy ginger dressing. Then, you can put these on the very same rice and beans, and the dish will taste totally different, she said. Using a variety of dressings is a good way to take the same base ingredients and make them feel different, Hamshaw said.

Ease in with foods you already know and love

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You may feel that making the transition to a more plant-based diet means entering an exotic, unknown land. However, it's important to remember that you probably already eat a lot of vegan or vegetarian staples, such as spaghetti with tomato sauce, hummus wraps or oatmeal, Hamshaw said.

"Most of us know and love a lot of plant-based food already," Hamshaw said. Start with these foods as your diet background, and little by little, start exploring new food to add to your diet. That way, you'll be able to ease into your new diet with confidence.

Live Science Contributor