What Is a Plant-Based Diet? A Guide to Get You Started
Casey Lewis, MS, RD & Clif Bar & Company’s Head of Nutrition
The health power of plants is all the buzz, with 39% of Americans actively working to get more plant-based foods into their daily routine.1 But, what is a plant-based diet? Should you consider trying this eating plan? And, how do you ensure that your diet is both delicious and nutritious?
Clif Bar & Company has been making plant-powered foods for over 25 years, so we have some ideas to share. Read on to learn more about the what, why and how behind plant-based eating:
The ideas and suggestions written below are provided for general educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or care. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider before beginning any physical fitness or health- and nutrition-related activity.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is any diet that focuses on plants first. This includes nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes. With that said, plant-based doesn’t have to mean plant-exclusive. Moderate amounts of meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy can all be included. Simply put, when following a plant-based diet you’re choosing to eat more plants.
The following diets are all considered “plant-based”:
- Vegan Diet: A diet that includes only plants and no animal-derived foods.
- Vegetarian Diet (or Lacto-ovo Vegetarian Diet): A diet that includes plant-based foods alongside eggs and dairy, but no meat, poultry, fish or seafood.
- Pescatarian Diet: A vegetarian diet that also includes fish and seafood, but no meat or poultry.
- Flexitarian Diet: A pescatarian diet that occasionally contains meat and poultry.
- Mediterranean Diet: A diet based on the traditional eating habits of those living in the countries that surround the Mediterranean. It has a foundation in plant-derived foods, herbs, spices and nutritious oils, includes fish and seafood (typically eaten at least 2x a week) and contains limited amounts of dairy, eggs and poultry. Red meat and sweets are eaten only on special occasions.
What is the difference between plant-based and vegan diets?
A vegan diet is the most restrictive of plant-based diets. This diet is built around fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. However, unlike other plant-based eating plans, the vegan diet contains zero animal-sourced ingredients. That means no meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs or honey.
People become vegan for many reasons – for the welfare of animals, the preservation of the planet, their own personal health and more. Science suggests that vegan diets are more environmentally sustainable than diets rich in animal products and associated with certain health benefits.2 With that said, for those true meat lovers, the good news is you don’t have to banish your favorite foods to reap the health and environmental benefits of plant-based eating.
Why should you consider a plant-based diet?
Whole food plant-based diets, filled with produce, whole grains and plant proteins (i.e. nuts, legumes), have been linked to a variety of benefits.
They provide essential vitamins and minerals, nourishing fiber and fats, as well as beneficial plant nutrients, which all contribute to overall well-being. Several studies have shown that plant-based eating patterns support a variety of health outcomes, including a healthy heart and healthy weight.2,3,4,5
But, that’s not all! Picking plants as the star of your meals and snacks isn’t only good for you – it’s good for the planet too. In fact, according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report, a diet higher in plants and lower in animal-based foods is associated with less of an impact on the environment than the typical American diet.5 In addition, a recent modeling study found that a healthy vegetarian diet may have a 42 to 84 percent lower burden on the environment than other dietary patterns.6 Lastly, a new report from the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health further supports the link between diet and environment, calling for a global shift to predominately plant-based dietary patterns to improve health and sustainability outcomes.7
So, in a nutshell, plant-forward eating is good for your body and your planet!
How can you get the nutrients you need from a plant-based diet?
When focusing on eating mainly plants, there are some key nutrients that you may want to concentrate on. These include certain vitamins (i.e. B12), minerals (i.e. calcium, zinc), essential fats (i.e. omega 3s) and protein.
Protein intake is a common concern among those trying to trade out meat for fruits, veggies and whole grains. But, there’s no reason to panic! There are a number of plant-powered ways to plus up the protein in your day.
Check out this list of our top 3 sources of plant-based proteins.
- Nuts & Nut Butters—Nuts, including cashews, macadamia nuts, almonds and walnuts (and their butters), provide a combination of protein and “good” fats—like mono and polyunsaturated fats—to help satisfy your taste buds and your hunger.
- Peas—Like other members of the legume family (including soy, peanuts and pulses) – peas can pack a nutrition punch! These little green or yellow spheres of goodness can deliver an array of beneficial nutrients, including protein. And, when concentrated into a power-packed pea protein powder (like in our new CLIF® Whole Lotta™ Bar) you’re getting even more protein to fuel your day.
- Soy—This is one unique bean! Unlike other plant proteins, soy protein is “complete,” meaning it’s considered high quality and delivers an adequate amount of each of the essential amino acids our bodies need, making it a great addition to your plant-based eating routine.
How do I incorporate CLIF into a plant-based diet?
A healthful, plant-based diet focuses primarily on plants, especially whole, nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes. Clif Bar & Company’s foods are made with predominantly plant-based ingredients, including the protein sources listed above. That means our products are a great choice, as a complement to whole foods, when you are on-the-go and looking to energize a workout or snack-time.
Kick-start your plant-based eating routine with these protein-packed snack ideas from CLIF. These recipes are sure to both satisfy your hunger and your taste buds!
Power Up with This Plant-Forward Parfait
1 container of plain, non-fat Greek yogurt
1/3 cup of CLIF® Energy Granola
A bunch of colorful berries (e.g. blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, sliced grapes)
Layer yogurt, granola and berries in a glass until full.
Go Nutty Over These “Milk & Cookies”
1 CLIF® Nut Butter Filled Energy Bar
1 cup of (dairy or non-dairy) milk
- Remove the bar from its wrapper.
- Place the bar on a microwave safe plate and warm it in the microwave for 15 seconds.
- Carefully remove the plate from the microwave and enjoy the bar with the milk of your choice.
While adopting a plant-based diet has its perks, starting any new routine comes with its challenges. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to overhaul your diet all at once. Take your time by working on one or two small changes to begin. For example, if beef is on the menu most nights of the week, consider making Mondays meatless and use that day to try out new recipes - like these delicious creations from Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD - featuring veggies, legumes and/or whole grains. If you typically reach for one of the 3 C’s (cookies, cakes or chips) as an afternoon snack, try swapping in a LUNA® Bar instead for a boost of extra plant-powered protein to help satisfy your appetite and cravings. Even small changes towards a nutritious, plant-based eating routine can have benefits on your health and the health of our planet.
- Nielsen U.S. Homescan Panel Protein Survey, April 2017.
- Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets, 2016. www.eatrightpro.org/~/media/eatrightpro%20files/practice/position%20and%20practice%20papers/position%20papers/vegetarian-diet.ashx
- Kim H, Caulfield LE, Rebholz CM. Healthy plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality in US adults. J Nutr 2018, 148(4): 624-631.
- Satija A, et al. Healthful and unhealthful plant-based diets and the risk of coronary heart disease in US adults. J Am Coll Cardiol 2017; 70(4): 411-422.
- Scientific report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. US Department of Agriculture, 2015. www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/
- Blackstone NT, El-Abbadi NA, McCabe MS, Griffin TS, Nelson ME. Linking sustainability to the healthy eating patterns of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; a modelling study. Lancet Planetary Health 2018; 2(8); P344-352. www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(18)30167-0/fulltext
- Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems, 2019