What You Can And Can't Eat On A Plant Based Diet
Article by Alexandra Caspero MA, RD, CLT, RYT, Registered Dietitian, Plant-Based Chef and Clif Bar & Company Consultant.
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.
Curious about a plant-based diet? The latest science suggests that the most health-promoting eating patterns emphasize enjoying mostly plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes and seeds.1 Read on for everything you need to know about what you can and can’t eat on a plant-based diet.
First: What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet is any diet that focuses primarily on plants and is usually abundant in nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes. It does not have to mean plant-exclusive, like a vegan diet. Moderate amounts of meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy can all be included. Simply put, a plant-based diet is one that contains more plants and less animal products than a standard American diet. A vegetarian diet, a pescatarian diet, a flexitarian diet and a Mediterranean diet are all considered plant based.
Switching to a plant-based diet has been linked to a variety of health benefits; like supporting a healthy heart and weight.2 As an added bonus, a diet higher in plants and lower in animal-based foods is also more sustainable than the typical meat-heavy American diet.3
What you can eat on a plant-based diet
Compared to a typical American diet, you will eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes on a plant-based diet. That means you will also likely eat more fiber as animal foods do not contain fiber and plant-based foods contain an abundance of different fibers. High-fiber intake impacts the production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) like acetate, propionate and butyrate, which have been shown to help support immune health and gut health.4
Conversely, you will eat less meat, processed meats, eggs, and dairy on a plant-based diet. Removing or reducing intake of these foods means that your intake of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium will likely decrease as these foods are more concentrated in these nutrients than plant-based foods.
How do you get protein on a plant-based diet?
As meat, dairy and eggs are often associated with being great sources of protein, reducing or eliminating them in the diet can cause protein panic. Thankfully, there is no need to worry! All plant foods contain essential amino acids, though some amino acids are more limited in certain plants. Therefore, the best way to ensure that you are getting all of the essential protein building blocks you need is by eating a varied plant-based diet that’s rich in beans, legumes, soy, nuts and seeds.
Nuts, like cashews, almonds, and walnuts, are not only good sources of protein, but of healthy fats like mono and polyunsaturated fats. This combination of protein, fat (and fiber!) contribute to feelings of fullness and help curb hunger.
Other plant-based proteins, like pea and soy, pack quite the nutrition punch! Both of these foods provide the amino acid lysine,5 which can be more limiting in a strict plant-based diet. And, when concentrated into a nutrient-packed pea protein powder (like in a 2/3 cup bowl of CLIF® Granola) it’s a great addition to your protein needs for the day.
How do you get other key nutrients on a plant-based diet?
When shifting to a predominantly plant-based diet, there are a few other nutrients that you may want to focus on besides protein. These include vitamins that are only found in animal foods and nutrients that can be harder to find in a traditional plant-based diet, including B12, DHA and Vitamin D.
For most plant-based eaters, that means adding in a B12 supplement or ensuring that you are getting enough B12 through fortified foods. While B12 is typically thought of as a concern in only vegetarian and vegan diets, research has shown that B12 deficiency is common in omnivore diets as well, especially in older adults.6
Additionally, plant-based diets are typically low in the essential fatty acids DHA and EPA, though you are able to convert ALA, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid, into DHA and EPA. Special populations, like pregnant and breast-feeding women, will want to consider adding in a DHA supplement as only preformed DHA is transmitted through the blood and breastmilk.7
What you can’t eat on a plant-based diet
Predominantly plant-based eaters will naturally consume less meat, including processed meat, eggs and dairy, but unless you are following a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, you can still enjoy moderate amounts.
Shifting to a plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean giving up your favorite foods. Nothing is off-limits, depending on how you choose to define plant based. And, you might enjoy testing out plant-based versions of your old favorites. Try a blended burger with a 2:1 ratio of ground meat and diced mushrooms, cooked the same way as you would your favorite recipe. Or cook up a more plant-forward mac n’ cheese by adding pureed butternut squash or cauliflower to your typical cheese sauce.
What benefits does a plant-based diet provide?
Health Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Regardless of what’s on the rest of your plate, everyone can benefit by adding more plants to the diet. Plant foods like colorful produce, whole grains, nuts and legumes provide essential vitamins and minerals, nourishing fiber and fats, phytonutrients and numerous other beneficial plant nutrients, which all contribute to wellbeing. They are also healthy for everyone! The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' official position on plant-based diets is that they are appropriate, safe and healthy for all ages of the lifecycle, including pregnancy, lactation, childhood and infancy.8
Thankfully, all Clif Bar & Company foods fit within a plant-based diet and are made with predominantly plant-based ingredients. CLIF foods are crafted with purpose and prioritize organic ingredients centered around wholesome ingredients like whole grain oats, nuts and figs. They are a great choice for individuals looking to complement their plant-based diet, especially when on-the-go and needing to energize workouts or snack-time.
Environmental Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
Enjoying more plants isn’t only good for you— it’s good for the planet too! A new report from the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Plant and Health clarifies the links between diet and environment, calling for a global shift to predominantly plant-based dietary patterns to improve health and sustainability outcomes.3 They calculate that if everyone in the world moved to a more plant-based diet (but not necessarily a vegan diet) 11 million deaths per year could be prevented and we would move substantially towards a sustainable global food system.3
Additionally, according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report,9 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. In addition, a recent study found that a healthy vegetarian diet may have a 42 to 84 percent lower burden on the environment than other dietary patterns.10 In a new position paper, The Society of Nutrition and Behavior, acknowledges the role that dietary choices have on environmental impacts.11 They also conclude that eating fewer animal products and more plant-based foods while also reducing excess calorie intake and food waste is better for the planet.
No one leads that charge more than Clif Bar and Company; a pioneer in producing products that are crafted with intention, for people and the planet. It’s why they prioritize organic, plant-based ingredients and sustainable sourcing standards to create wholesome foods that energize any moment.
How to start eating more plants?
If you’re new to a plant-based diet, then you might be unsure of where to start. Consider this three-step approach as a simple road map to enjoying the plant-based foods that you currently enjoy while providing guidance on incorporating new ingredients, like tofu and tempeh, into your diet.
Step 1: Enjoy! Prepare plant-based meals you already know and like, like tofu and vegetable stir-fry, bean and vegetable burritos, lentil soup, pasta primavera, etc. This step is essential for those who are hesitant about adopting more plant-based meals and an easy gateway to plant-based eating.
Step 2: Adapt! Choose a favorite recipe and give it a plant-based makeover. This could mean swapping in mushrooms in your favorite pasta bolognese recipe, trying out tofu nuggets instead of chicken ones, making a creamy pasta sauce using cashews instead of heavy cream or using lentils as taco meat instead of ground beef.
Step 3: Explore! Add in new plant-based foods and recipes. Consider trying ingredients that may be unfamiliar like tempeh as sausage, cashews as parmesan cheese, or vegan Mac and cheese using nutritional yeast.
Remember, there’s no one (or right) way to eat more plants, the key is simply doing it!
More Plants, More Often
Lastly, remember that all plant foods count in a plant-based diet pattern. According to the latest report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, only 1 in 10 Americans are eating enough produce daily and changing just that one thing could have incredible payoffs.12 They estimate that if half of all Americans added one more serving of fruit and vegetables daily, 20,000 cancer cases could be prevented annually.12 That doesn’t mean you have to switch to eating all fresh produce if that doesn’t fit into your budget. In general, whole foods are less expensive, especially when you consider all forms of produce count including frozen, canned, dried and 100% juice.
Swapping in just a serving or two of plant-foods every day is an approachable routine no matter what your current diet looks like. That may mean enjoying bean chili over a beef one, making Mondays meatless or enjoying a bowl of CLIF® Granola with soy milk for breakfast instead of an egg and sausage sandwich. Small plant-forward changes add up to big payoffs for both your personal health and the health of our planet.
Sample 1-Day Plant-Based Meal Plan
New to plant-based eating? Start here with this sample day of healthy, plant-based meals and snacks that will satisfy your hunger and provide you with the energy you need to tackle whatever’s on your to-do list.
For breakfast, pour a bowl of CLIF® Granola, made with hearty clusters of organic oats, almonds, cashews and dried fruits. Enjoy with either soy yogurt or soy milk and fresh fruit. For lunch, enjoy a cup of black bean soup and a hearty salad made with your favorite fresh vegetables, slivered toasted almonds and an olive oil and red wine vinegar dressing.
Grab a CLIF® Nut Butter Filled Bar for snack made from organic ingredients like nut butters and rolled oats that provide a balanced mix of satisfying nutrients, including 5-7g of plant-based protein (8-10% DV) and 9-11g of whole grains, depending on which flavor you try. Lastly, enjoy lentil tacos for dinner, cooked the same way as you would your favorite chicken or beef tacos by swapping in cooked lentils for meat in a 1:1 ratio. Season as desired, then tuck into corn or flour tortillas with your favorite toppings.
1. Tuso PJ, Ismail MH, Ha BP, Bartolotto C. Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets. Perm J. 2013;17(2):61–66.
2. Tuso P, Stoll SR, Li WW. A plant-based diet, atherogenesis, and coronary artery disease prevention. Perm J. 2015;19(1):62–67. doi:10.7812/TPP/14-036.
3. Willet W, Rockstrӧm J, Loken B, Springmann M, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet. 2019 Feb 2;393(10170):447-492.
4. Tomova A, Bukovsky I, Rembert E, Yonas W, Alwarith J, Barnard N., K. The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on Gut Microbiota. Frontiers in Nutrition. 2019; 6: 47.
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6. Lindsay H Allen, How common is vitamin B-12 deficiency?, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 89, Issue 2, February 2009, Pages 693S–696S.
7. Carlson SE, Colombo J, Gajewski BJ, Gustafson KM, Mundy D, Yeast J, Georgieff MK, Markley LA, Kerling EH, Shaddy DJ. DHA supplementation and pregnancy outcomes. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Apr;97(4):808-15.
8. Melina V, Craig W, and Levin S. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian diet. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Dec;116(12):1970-1980.
9. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Advisory Report to the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the Secretary of Agriculture. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Washington, DC.
10. 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.
11. Position of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior: The Importance of Including Environmental Sustainability in Dietary Guidance. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 51 (1):3-15.
12. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, November 16). Only 1 in 10 adults get enough fruits and vegetables. [Press release]. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p1116-fruit-vegetable-consumption.html.