Plant-based diets have gained popularity in the health, wellness, and nutrition world, as evidence has rapidly piled up around the benefits of eating patterns where most foods come from plants rather than animals.
Some of the health benefits of plant-based diets include:
- Lower risk of chronic disease
- Regulated blood pressure and heart rate
- Regulated cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- More balanced gut microbiota
- Greater blood glucose management
However, transitioning to a plant-based diet from an omnivorous diet, or any health behavior change for that matter, can be difficult.
Whether you are a health and nutrition coach supporting your clients in making the transition to a plant-based diet or you are interested in doing so yourself, we’ve compiled eight best practices for transitioning to a plant-based diet.
What Exactly Defines a Plant-Based Diet?
Using the term “plant-based diet” has recently become more popular to describe dietary patterns where most foods or nutrients come from plants. Many people prefer to use the term “plant-based” as opposed to vegan or vegetarian due to key differences in what the different eating patterns entail.
Vegetarian diets are those where meats are excluded from the diet. Some vegetarians, however, may regularly eat eggs (ovo-vegetarian), dairy (lacto-vegetarians), or even fish (pescatarians). In this sense, it is possible to be a vegetarian but still obtain a significant portion of your daily nutrients from animal-based foods.
Veganism usually refers to not only a diet but also a lifestyle, where animal-based products are avoided. Vegan lifestyles not only avoid any animal-sourced foods, including eggs and dairy, but they also tend to avoid any products with raw materials from animals or where animals might have been hurt in the process. Vegan diets, specifically, avoid any foods sourced from animal-based products.
Plant-based diets are those where the diet as a whole is composed mostly of plant-based foods, and, as a result, nutrient needs are met mostly by plant-based products.
However, the term plant-based diet leaves room for some flexibility regarding the integration of some animal-based foods. It also doesn’t necessarily exclude processed foods, ultra-processed foods, and energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods. Some dietitians and researchers differentiate a standard plant-based diet from a healthy plant-based diet, where the consumption of ultra-processed foods, drugs, and alcohol is minimized.
Several researchers have attempted to define a plant-based diet to facilitate study designs as well as to pave the way for educational opportunities on the benefits of the plant-based diet. The results have varied; one group of researchers defined a plant-based diet that minimized cooked foods and coffee. Another study highlighted how variations in plant-based diet patterns have an influence on cardiovascular health risks, where those that based the diet on whole fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains had better outcomes than those that consumed more starchy and overcooked or ultra-processed foods.
One of the most popular definitions of plant-based diets is as follows:
A regimen that encourages whole, plant-based foods and discourages meats, dairy products, and eggs as well as all refined and processed foods.
It is important to note that not all people who eat a plant-based diet, or who consider themselves vegetarians or vegans for that matter, follow the exact same eating patterns. Factors such as likes and dislikes, culture, and access all have an undeniable influence on what diets look like and how they are experienced.
Learn About Your Nutrient Needs
Contrary to popular belief, plant-based diets can meet and even exceed your nutrient needs (yes, including protein!).
While whole dietary patterns are more important than individual meals, you may find that your dietary patterns result in nutrient deficiencies. For example, some nutrients, like vitamin B12 and D and omega-3 DHA, are mostly found in animal foods.
As you transition into a plant-based diet, you can work with a nutrition coach or dietitian to discuss how your whole diet can meet your nutrient needs or consider taking supplements for your peace of mind.
Learning about and honoring your nutrient needs doesn’t mean you need to be overly concerned. Read on to find out other best practices that can help you minimize stress in your transition to a plant-based diet.
Zoom Out on Your Dietary Pattern
Focusing on individual meals, foods, or even nutrients can be exhausting and stressful. In fact, obsessing about individual eating practices, like counting calories or eliminating cultural foods you enjoy, can lead to disordered eating.
The advantage of a plant-based diet is that it is a whole diet approach. It recognizes that what you tend to eat, or your regular eating patterns, have a much greater impact on your health than individual actions or decisions.
Rather than being overly concerned about individual foods, you can think about what and how you eat in a week or over several weeks. Plant-based diets are flexible for a reason; eating scrambled eggs one morning doesn’t necessarily mean you are no longer eating a plant-based diet.
Zooming out may require support from a health coach or a support system, especially if you naturally tend to worry about specific ingredients and meal composition.
Check-In with Yourself
As you make changes to your lifestyle that aim to improve your health and wellness, it is important to check in with yourself regularly. Ask yourself how you are feeling after making a decision, while contemplating changes, after having taken steps toward adopting a plant-based regiment, and after people have noticed changes in how you eat.
While it is normal to have hard days, overall, transitioning toward a plant-based diet should make you feel empowered and more emotionally and physically healthy. If not, it may be time to consider what isn’t going as you expected it and why.
If you don’t have the habit of looking inward, you may want to work with a therapist or health coach to help guide you through the process.
Make Gradual Changes
Going “cold turkey” with animal-based products is not for everyone. In fact, behavior changes, including the adoption of new or modified dietary patterns, tend to be more successful when they are done gradually.
Dr. Barbara O’Neil of the Rutger’s Cooperative Extension suggests taking small steps to achieve short-term goals that add up to a long-term goal.
For example, on the road to eating a plant-based diet, you may start out with meatless Mondays, then take a plant-based cooking class, then meet with a health coach who specializes in plant-based diets.
Build Support Systems
Humans are naturally social beings. As such, support systems are a vital part of feeling comfortable in making and sustaining lifestyle changes.
Find a support system in friends, families, healthcare teams, health coaches, and online support groups.
Research shows that people with support systems who understand and motivate them are much more likely to feel comfortable and achieve changes in lifestyle.
To use a support system while transitioning into a plant-based diet, find others who are eating a plant-based diet or know the benefits of plant-based diets; individuals who want to see you healthy and happy; and individuals who specialize in plant-based diets and behavior change, like health coaches.
Do What Is Sustainable
No matter what the dietary regimen, yo-yo dieting is not good for your mental or physical health.
The difference between a fad diet and a diet that is sustainable in the long term is ensuring that it fits with what is important for you. The more challenging it is to sustain eating practices, the more challenging it will be to keep them up.
If you choose to eat a plant-based diet, think about how it fits into what is important to you and what you’d be willing to change to honor the decision. Some considerations include how you feel, where you buy your food, and how you’ll prepare your meals.
Health coaches can have a vital role in helping clients think through and be prepared for the implications a change in diet can have.
Find Meaningful Reasons to Eat a Plant-Based Diet
Motivation is vital to making any change; not only does this apply to modifying what and how you eat, but it also applies to changing jobs, ending a relationship, coming out, moving homes, launching a business, and more.
Motivations that are superficial or short-term will likely lead to unsustainable changes. Finding motivations that are meaningful and that help you imagine living a more fulfilling life will be more likely to form a conviction to lead a plant-based lifestyle.
Keep in mind that, while motivation has a vital role in the health behavior change continuum, there are several factors at play. Other personal factors like self-esteem and trauma, societal factors like discrimination, and economic factors like the perceived cost of plant-based diets, also influence the willingness and ability to make health behavior changes.
Nonetheless, making the decision to follow a plant-based dietary regimen and feeling motivated to make it a key part of your lifestyle are key to making a plant-based diet work in the long term. When you find a motivation that doesn’t have a time stamp on it and is meaningful to you, you’ll be more likely to be consistent in your effort.
Honor All Dimensions of Wellness
When you choose to modify your dietary regimen in the name of health, you may feel apprehension or stress along the way. Remember that true health, from a multidimensional wellness perspective, not only includes physical health but also emotional, cultural, occupational, interpersonal and social, intellectual, and spiritual wellness.
Having this perspective can be useful to check in with yourself about the significance of making changes to your lifestyle, including diet, and seeing how to adopt the changes while honoring all aspects of your wellness.
Let’s take an example as to how different dimensions of wellness can come into play during normal life events.
Adopting a plant-based diet may mean you feel like you will have to stop eating the traditional meat dish your grandmother makes for your Sunday family gatherings. However, you enjoy attending these family gatherings and love the opportunity to enjoy your culture and heritage.
The seemingly simple act of “cutting out” a traditional food can mean many different things to different people; you may feel left out, tempted to “cheat” on your plant-based diet, or feel anxious like you have to explain to your meat-loving family why you’re abstaining. Think about ways you can navigate these situations, starting with what is important to you about these gatherings, while still honoring your desire to eat a plant-based diet.
Some options include:
- Choosing to eat the meat at that family meal if it feels right to you
- Taking an alternative meal choice
- Speaking with your grandmother beforehand about what you are thinking, what makes you anxious, and offering to try a modified version of the dish that still honors your culture
Health and wellness coaches have an important role in helping clients navigate situations like this in a way that honors all aspects of their wellbeing.
Making a health behavior change, such as adopting a plant-based diet, can seem daunting for some people. Even when people are aware of the benefits of plant-based diets for their health and wellbeing, getting there can seem out of reach.
In this article, we’ve highlighted eight best practices grounded in health behavior change theory that can help coaches support their clients in adopting a sustainable plant-based diet that honors all dimensions of their wellness.