Plant-based diet for beginners: How to change your diet safely

Someone holds various plant foods
(Image credit: Getty)

A plant-based diet for beginners might be a good start if you’ve been tempted to eat less meat or want to get more fruit and vegetables into your diet. Being plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean giving us meat or animal products completely, but it does mean concentrating more on plant-based foods, including whole grains, nuts, legumes and beans. 

A plant-based diet is also beneficial if you want to lead a healthier lifestyle or lose weight. Studies have shown that those on a plant-based diet tend to have a lower BMI and are less at risk of heart disease or developing chronic health conditions.

Changing to a plant-based diet can be difficult to navigate, so we’ll look at what foods you can eat, along with the best vegan protein powders to give you a helping hand. We also chat to nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert (opens in new tab) about how transitioning to a plant-based diet can be beneficial for the environment and our health.

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet is one that concentrates on eating foods that are derived from plants, such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and seeds. Whether you opt to follow a plant-based diet for just a few months, or you want to cut out meat and eat more plant-based food to feel healthier, this way of eating is different to a vegan diet. Plant-based diets normally cut out processed foods and focus on plant-based whole foods, but you also have the option of eating some foods from animals. Vegans cut out anything that has come from an animal, including meat, poultry and dairy products, while not necessarily cutting out processed foods from their diets.  

vegan buddah bowl

(Image credit: Getty Images)

“A plant-based diet focuses on foods primarily from plants,” says Lambert. “This includes not only fruits and vegetables, but also nuts, seeds, oils, wholegrains, legumes and beans. It doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy. Rather, you are proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources.”

Rhiannon Lambert registered nutritionist
Rhiannon Lambert, BSc MSc RNutr

Registered with the Association for Nutrition, Lambert has obtained a first-class degree in Nutrition and Health, a Master’s degree in Obesity, Risks and Prevention, and diplomas in sports nutrition, pre- and post-natal nutrition. She is a Master Practitioner in Eating Disorders, accredited by The British Psychological Society, and founded her own clinic, Rhitrition, based on Harley Street in London.

Of course, one plant-based diet may differ to the other, depending on what your food preferences are. However, Lambert says to take it slowly if you’re changing your diet to a plant-based one. “Small and gradual change is often the best way to avoid any nutritional deficiencies or digestive discomfort from a potential increase of fiber,” she says. “Try swapping animal-derived produce for plant protein alternatives such as beans, pulses, and tofu, and gradually introduce different types of vegetables to each meal.”

Why consider a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet can have many benefits for our overall health. According to US dietary guidelines, eating a diet derived from plants, and eating lean meats occasionally, can help you to lose or maintain weight. If losing weight is a concern, one study (opens in new tab) showed that those who didn’t eat meat had a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) than those who consumed meat. 

“A well-balanced plant-based diet that is low in saturated fats can contribute towards managing a healthy weight,” adds Lambert. “This can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even some cancers.” 

Saturated fats are found not only in meats such as bacon and sausages, but dairy products such as cheese and butter. The last few years have seen many studies undertaken on how saturated fats affect our health, but results are mixed. Some say that overeating saturated fats can raise our cholesterol, which could lead to heart problems, but other studies (opens in new tab) state that when saturated fats are eaten in moderation, such as on a plant-based diet, it can cut your health risks down considerably. 

“There is also a lot of evidence that points towards reduced blood pressure when omitting animal products from our diets,” adds Lambert.  One 2018 study (opens in new tab) found that plant-based diets, which included some animal products, were the most effective at reducing blood pressure, while another similar study saw blood pressure reduce considerably in two weeks when participants followed a plant-based diet.

Of course, cutting animal products from our diet and changing to a plant-based diet can also be good for our surroundings. “These diets are also beneficial for the planet, suggesting that a reduction in animal products will help reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Lambert.

In fact, a 2019 report (opens in new tab) by the United Nations suggested that our obsession with meat and dairy products was fuelling global warming. The research, prepared by 107 scientists for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that if we used land more efficiently, rather for livestock, we could store more of the carbon emitted by humans.

Sarah is a freelance writer - writing across titles including Woman&Home, Fit&Well, The Independent, LiveScience, and the BBC in the UK. She covers a variety of subjects, including trends in beauty, business, and wellness - but her biggest passions are health and fitness. She can normally be found trying out the trendiest fitness class or interviewing an expert about the latest health trends.