Plant-based diets? Where do I begin?

Published on : 3/15/21
  • Nicole Reilly, MS, RD, CD 

    Part 1 of 2


    Plant-based, vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, oh my! Are you interested in eating more plant-based foods? You are not alone. In grocery stores and on menus across the country, you will find a wide variety of trendy meat or dairy alternatives, plant-based snacks, and healthful desserts.  

    In our first of a two-part series on plant-based diets, we will review the basics and outline some foods you can try—all while still meeting your nutrient needs. While the definition of “plant-based diet” can vary depending on the source, here we refer to it as a diet that does not contain meat or any animal by-products, such as milk or eggs. So, think fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and healthy fats. Some individuals may opt to include meat and dairy alternatives for added flavor and nutrients, and to increase variety within their diet. In case you are wondering, yes, it is possible to pull off a delicious plant-based burger, pizza, or grilled Reuben sandwich! 


    The skinny on vegan and vegetarian diets 

    Savvy consumers are increasingly becoming interested in food choices that are both good for their health and the environment. Indeed, research shows that vegan and vegetarian diets are linked to lower rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and Type 2 diabetes. These benefits may be due to higher amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, and lower levels of total fats, saturated fat, and cholesterol. And they can be good for your waistline, too. 

    If you are new to plant-based eating, it might be difficult to envision what your diet will look like without meat, dairy, or eggs. Or you might be concerned about meeting your nutrition needs. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle.”  


    Key nutrients to watch for in plant-based eating 

    The nutrients listed below are found in larger amounts in animal and dairy products. This means they can be lower in plant-based diets if they are not appropriately planned for. The key here, is to know what nutrients to focus on and where to find them. It is recommended to check in with your medical provider to see if a plant-based diet is right for you. For additional guidance, consider working with a Registered Dietitian to help you develop individualized goals and a nutritionally complete eating plan.  



    Protein plays an important role in muscle, bone, and skin health. It is found in many plant-based foods and protein needs can easily be met throughout the day. Good sources of protein include beans, lentils, soy/soy products (such as tofu and tempeh), seitan, grains, nuts, and seeds. Including a variety of different plant proteins throughout the day will ensure you get all the essential amino acids you need. Most healthy adults require 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight. For example, a 180-pound individual would need about 66 grams of protein per day. Athletes or older individuals may need additional protein.  

    Pro Tip: Include a good source of protein with each meal or snack to help you meet your needs and stay satisfied. 


    Vitamin B12 

    Vitamin B12 is required for the synthesis of red blood cells and DNA, nervous system regulation, and a variety of other bodily functions. B12 is naturally found in animal products. Fortified foods such as breakfast cereals, alternative dairy and meat products, and nutritional yeast also contain B12. Be sure to check the nutrition facts panel to see if a food is fortified with B12.  

    Pro Tip: Sprinkle nutritional yeast on popcorn, pasta, soups, or roasted veggies for a cheesy, umami flavor.  



    Iron is essential in the creation of red blood cells and DNA, and plays a role in immune health. Iron is found in some plant-based foods (such as leafy greens, almonds, and soy products), and in some fortified cereals and oatmeal. Be aware though that the type of iron found in plants, also known as non-heme iron, is not as readily absorbed as iron from animal sources.  

    Pro Tip: Pair non-heme iron foods with foods that are rich in Vitamin C (such as citrus, leafy green vegetables, and bell peppers) to help increase absorption.  



    Calcium plays an important role in bone health and muscle and nerve function. Healthy adults need about 1,000 mg of calcium per day, yet many people fall short of this goal. Good sources of plant-based calcium include kale, collard greens, tofu, edamame, almonds, milk alternatives and calcium-fortified orange juice.  

    Pro Tip: Add a glass of your favorite milk alternative at mealtimes.  


    Vitamin D 

    Vitamin D plays an important role in bone health and in regulating inflammation and immunity. Our bodies make Vitamin D when exposed to sunshine, but depending on your location and time of year, you may not be getting enough. Vitamin D is not found naturally in many foods. Plant-based sources include soy, almond and rice milk, fortified juices, and breakfast cereals.  

    Pro Tip: Make a smoothie with your favorite milk alternative for a quick breakfast or snack.  


    Omega 3 Fatty Acids

    Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation in our body. Alpha-linolenic-acid (ALA) is one of these fats and is found in plant-based oils. EPA and DHA (other omega-3 fatty acids) are found in certain kinds of fish and algae. The body cannot make ALA, so it must be eaten. Good sources include flax, chia, and hemp seeds, as well as soy, canola oil, and walnuts.  

    Pro Tip: Sprinkle chia or flax meal on oatmeal, grain bowls, or salads.  


    Tune in next week for the second post in our series, which is focused on how to build satisfying plant-based meals! For more information, resources and recipes about plant-based eating visit: vegetarian dietitian resources or good nutrition.