The Beginner’s Guide to a Plant-Based Diet
You’re probably thinking that moving to a plant-based diet sounds like a great idea, but you don’t know where to start. Don’t worry, you’re in the right place—we’ve got the tools, insight, and expertise to make the change easy and enjoyable. We’ll answer your questions, provide helpful advice, and share the techniques you need.
How a Plant-Based Diet Can Boost Your Health
One of the most powerful steps you can take to improve your health, boost energy levels, and prevent chronic diseases is to move to a plant-based diet. If you’ve seen Forks Over Knives, you know that science shows changing your nutrition is a powerful way to live longer, help the environment, and reduce your risk of getting sick.
There’s excellent scientific evidence that many chronic diseases can be prevented, controlled, or even reversed with a whole-food, plant-based diet. Scientific research highlighted in the landmark book The China Study shows that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and other major illnesses. Many people also report bigger fitness payoffs, more energy, reduced inflammation, and better health outcomes after making the switch.
What is a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet?
A whole-food, plant-based diet lets you meet your nutritional needs by focusing on natural, minimally processed plant foods, and is based on the following principles:
- Whole foods describes natural foods that are not heavily processed. That means whole, unrefined, or minimally refined ingredients.
- Plant-based means food that comes from plants and doesn’t include animal ingredients such as meat, milk, eggs, or honey.
The five food groups
Here’s a quick overview of the major food categories you’ll enjoy on a plant-based diet, with examples:
- Fruits: Any type of fruit including apple, bananas, grapes, strawberries, citrus fruits, etc.
- Vegetables: Plenty of veggies including peppers, corn, lettuce, spinach, kale, peas, collards, etc.
- Tubers: Root vegetables like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, beets. etc.
- Whole grains: Grains, cereals, and other starches in their whole form, such as quinoa, brown rice, millet, whole wheat, oats, barley, etc. Even popcorn is a whole grain.
- Legumes: Beans of any kind, plus lentils, pulses, etc.
There are plenty of other foods you can also enjoy, including nuts, seeds, avocados, tofu, tempeh, whole-grain flours and breads, and plant-based milks. However, we recommend eating these foods in moderation, because they are more calorie-dense and can contribute to weight gain.
The Benefits of a Whole-Food, Plant-Based Diet
There are several major benefits to moving to plant-based nutrition, all supported by excellent science. These benefits include:
- Easy weight management: People who eat a plant-based diet tend to be leaner than those who don’t, and the diet makes it easy to lose weight and keep it off—without counting calories.
- Disease prevention: Whole-food, plant-based eating can prevent, halt, or even reverse chronic diseases, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
- A lighter environmental footprint: A plant-based diet places much less stress on the environment.
Simple plant-based recipes to get you started
We promised this would be easy! First of all, you can check out our entire archive of whole-food, plant-based diet recipes. Below are some of our favorites to get you started. You can easily experiment with giving some of your own favorite recipes a plant-based makeover. Replace the meat in your favorite chili with beans or lentils, cook up some wonderful veggie burgers, or make vegetables the star attraction in that stir fry instead of chicken. For more delicious meal ideas, explore our recipe collection or download our mobile recipe app.
Would You Prefer a Gradual Change to Whole-Food, Plant-Based Eating?
We know that a sudden shift to plant-based eating isn’t for everyone. We asked one of our expert contributors, Craig McDougall, MD, for his advice on a more gradual approach: “Add around 1,000 calories of legumes, whole grains, and starchy vegetables to your everyday routine. These starchy foods keep you full and satisfied, so you’ll naturally eat less of the animal products and processed foods that are making you sick.” Dr. McDougall has plenty of other great advice to share.
Forks Over Knives founder Brian Wendel has some good tips too. He encourages people to “not sweat the small stuff” and to look at the big picture instead: “Focus on the big changes like switching from meat, milk, and eggs to whole plant foods. Such changes dramatically improve the nutritional composition of your diet, so this is where you will find the most noticeable and measurable improvements in your health.”
The time to start making the change is now. You’ll be glad you did.
7 Keys To Success on a Healthy Diet
Getting started on a plant-based diet or looking to refresh your eating habits? Download our practical guide to long-term success.
Let us make whole-food, plant-based living easier
We’ve worked with leading chefs, nutritionists, and developers to create a variety of tools that make it easy for you to adopt and maintain a healthy plant-based lifestyle.
Forks Meal Planner takes the work out of deciding what to eat. Each week you’ll get a customized meal plan, plus a dynamic grocery list and a time-saving weekend prep guide.
Learn to cook whole-food plant-based like a pro with our online cooking course. You’ll master everything from proper knife skills to oil-free cooking and seasoning.
Filled with hundreds of recipes, our top-rated recipe app can help you out of a cooking rut and keep you from falling into one ever again.
Books & Magazines
With stunning food photography, helpful how-tos, and tips from plant-based experts, our collection of cookbooks and magazines has everything you need.
Useful resources and reading
Forks Over Knives Helpful Articles
For anyone new to the whole-food, plant-based lifestyle, these informative articles—authored by chefs, nutritionists, doctors, and other plant-based experts—are an excellent place to start.
See The Film That Started It All
What if one simple change could save you from chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease? Take a deep dive into the plant-based diet documentary that has influenced millions around the world.Watch the film
Your Plant-Based Questions, Answered
We’re sure you’ve got questions about the move to a whole-food, plant-based diet, and we’re here to help.
- How do I know if a whole-food, plant-based diet is for me?
You don’t—until you try it! So many people who make the switch report feeling much better, having less fatigue, losing excess pounds, and otherwise enjoying a healthy lifestyle. We make the switch super easy with our extensive tools and resources.
Once you get started, it’ll be easier to keep going. As Dr. Craig McDougall says, “Once you have more energy, have lost some weight, or your stomach pain has disappeared, then it’s easier to continue eating healthfully. One of the best motivators for people transitioning to plant-based eating comes from how great they feel and how much more they can do in their lives once they’re feeling healthier.”
- Can I eat a plant-based diet on a budget?
Whole-food, plant-based eating is cheaper than you think. Fresh produce goes a long way, and whole grains, potatoes, and beans are some of the most affordable bulk foods you can buy. Create meals around these staple items and you’ll definitely spend less than you do on a diet rich in meat and other animal products.
- How can I eat whole-food, plant-based while traveling or away from home?
You will need to plan ahead a little, but it’s pretty easy to find whole-food, plant-based meals on the go. You can usually find fruit and dishes made with pasta, rice, and potatoes wherever you are. With a little creativity and flexibility, you can also prepare some fantastic food to take with you.
- How do I eat out on a plant-based diet?
Most restaurants are very accommodating of dietary needs, and you should be able to review their menu online. Scan the menu in advance to see if a restaurant offers vegan options, and you’re already most of the way there. When you’re unsure, simply call ahead, explain your preferences, and they will probably be able to accommodate you.
- How do I make sure I get the nutrients I need?
Whole plant foods contain all the essential nutrients (with the exception of vitamin B12) we need. You can get some B12 from fortified foods such as plant-based milks and breakfast cereals, but the best source is a simple B12 supplement. (In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends supplemental B12 for all adults over age 50 because as we age, many people lose the ability to absorb vitamin B12 from food sources.)
- Is a whole-food, plant-based diet the same as being vegan?
While there are certainly some similarities between eating a whole-food, plant-based diet and being vegan, there are some differences as well.
Vegans avoid all animal products or exploitation in food, clothing, shoes, or any other aspect of their lives. Vegans do not necessarily focus on whole plant foods; they may eat refined and processed foods, although many choose not to.
By comparison, a whole-food, plant-based diet is defined as one that eliminates or minimizes all animal products and highly refined foods, including oil. That being said, FOK teaches the gold standard plant-based diet, which is completely free of animal products and therefore vegan.
This article was originally published on Jan. 3, 2017, and has been updated.