So this past year has really has been the year where plant-based eating has taken off. Whether people are considering it for health and wellness or environmental reasons, it seems like there has never been more innovative products or more interest in making the switch to a plant-forward diet than right. now.
But as more of us decide to take the plunge, there are a few common pitfalls that people can fall into that make eating plant-based more difficult than it needs to be.
First off, “though the idea of a plant-based diet is typically synonymous with vegan, they’re actually two separate things. A plant-based diet is one with a heavy focus on plant foods—vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds—but that doesn’t explicitly avoid animal products,” says Samantha Presicci, MCN, RD, LD, CPT, Lead Registered Dietitian at Snap Kitchen. “While those who are vegan consume no animal products, those who are plant-based are simply focused on eating real food that is predominantly plant-based, but may still eat animal products.”
So what does a healthy plate look like on this eating plan, anyways? “On a truly plant-based diet, someone would make at least half of their plate vegetables,” Presicci says. “Other things to incorporate include fruits, healthy fats—like avocado, avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, coconut oil, coconut milk, and more—and high-quality animal protein, along with some unprocessed grains and legumes.”
It’s supposed to be simple…but switching up your eating habits can always be tricky. Plant based diet beginners, keep reading for a few more mistakes to avoid when transitioning to this eating plan for the first time.
1. Skipping the transition period
Mistake number one? You’re not patient. “When you switch from processed food to more vegetable consumption, there might be an initial period where you feel hungry, irritable, or fatigued. However, these symptoms will probably only last a few days, and most people feel much better when they eliminate processed food (everything from packaged snacks to fake meats to sugary drinks and fast food),” Presicci says.
Plus, if you don’t ease into it, you might find it harder to stick to in the long-run. Instead, ease into eating more plant-based foods, perhaps by starting by incorporating more vegetables into your regular rotation, then starting to scale back on processed snacks and foods, and so on.
2. Assuming that all animal protein has to go
Plant-based eating absolutely focuses on eating more fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. And while reduced consumption of animal products is encouraged, you don’t have to go completely vegan in order to be plant-based.
“I don’t recommend most people eliminate animal protein because of the highly bioavailable nature of animal protein and the very high nutrient-density of animal products,” Presicci says. Most meat products, for example, are rich in B-vitamins, omega-3s, zinc, and iron—which are much harder to get from plant foods (although certainly do-able).
“If someone is open to it, I recommend incorporating seafood, eggs and full-fat dairy—ideally pasture-raised—to help provide some nourishing protein and healthy fat,” she adds. Just be mindful of the sourcing of your animal products to ensure you’re purchasing the best quality foods raised in the most ethical, sustainable way—a tentpole of plant-based eating.
3. Over-relying on processed foods
The focus of a plant-based diet generally should be whole food sources of…well, plants. But we’re all human, and packaged products can absolutely make meal prep and just life in general easier. But Presicci says to be cautious about how much your day-to-day diet relies on packaged and processed foods. “This is an easy mistake to make, since processed meats and packaged snacks are a quick thing to grab,” says Presicci. She warns many brands are highly processed and contain potentially problematic ingredients, including genetically-modified soy, she says.
This doesn’t mean that now you have to say goodbye to snacks; Presicci suggests just being a mindful consumer and reading the labels to ensure you’re getting a minimally-processed, high-quality product. “When purchasing more processed products or vegetable burgers, always opt for the simplest ingredient list possible and avoid most soy products. In a veggie burger, this looks like beans or lentils, grains and vegetables,” she says.
4. Skimping on protein or fat
Again, a plant-based diet doesn’t require cutting out all meat or animal products. But it does encourage limited consumption, which can make it harder for some people to get enough protein or healthy fats if they’re not planning properly. But it’s crucial to do so, says Presicci. “Not only because fat and protein are two very satiating nutrients, but also because they are important for a range of bodily processes, from hormone balance to brain health to maintaining muscle mass,” she says.
The fix? Make sure you’re incorporating at least two servings of fat at each meal, along with a protein source. “Additionally, it may be necessary to supplement with protein powders like hemp or pea protein. While these aren’t whole foods and aren’t nearly as bioavailable as animal proteins, they help bridge the gap, especially if you’re active,” she says.
5. Not supplementing if needed
Depending on how much you’re limiting animal meat, you may or may not need to supplement. Yet if you’ve decided to incorporate vegetarianism or veganism into your plant-based eating, it’s something you should consider—since again, you might have trouble getting enough of certain crucial nutrients like iron and vitamins B12 and D.
“While supplementing isn’t the ideal option, since whole foods are generally better absorbed, it’s the best option for someone who doesn’t want to consume animal products,” Presicci says.
Talk to your doctor and run a blood test prior to supplementing, but important supplements to consider include a methylated B complex or multivitamin that contains B12, omega-3s, zinc, and iron, she says.