A Guide to Plant-Based Diets

More and more research emphasizes the short- and long-term benefits of eating a whole-foods plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean protein, healthy fats, and minimally processed foods.1

However, many people, simply do not understand what healthy eating is or believe it is too challenging to implement. Despite the increasing publicity about plant-based diets, people still remain confused about what healthy eating is. 

In this blog, we answer the most common questions your patients have about plant-based diets and provide you with science-backed advice to share with your patients.

What is a Plant-Based Diet?

A plant-based diet involves prioritizing daily food choices that are sourced from plants, which provide both essential nutrients and abundant antioxidants. The range of plant-based food options includes fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, soybeans, seeds, oils, and whole grains. 1

The foundations of a whole-foods, plant-based diet include:  ,  

  • Focus on whole, fresh, and minimally processed plant-based foods.
  • Minimal or zero animal products such as dairy, eggs, meat, and fish.
  • Meals and snacks based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, seeds, and nuts.
  • Limit or eliminate refined and overly processed foods including white flour, processed oils, refined grains, processed meat, cold cuts, and ingredients such as added sugar and sodium. 

We really like this summary from the Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets on what a plant-based diet is:

“A healthy, plant-based diet aims to maximize consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods while minimizing processed foods, oils, and animal foods (including dairy products and eggs). It encourages lots of vegetables (cooked or raw), fruits, beans, peas, lentils, soybeans, seeds, and nuts (in smaller amounts) and is generally low fat.”

Is A Plant-Based Diet Healthy?

Yes, a plant-based diet is healthy – but only if your patients eat a balanced whole-foods, unprocessed, plant-based diet. 

It can be confusing for your patients to differentiate between a healthy and unhealthy plant-based diet. Unfortunately, with the range of packaged and processed food options available, it is all too easy to eat a very unhealthy plant-based diet. 

This conclusion from this 2023 study titled, Association of Healthful Plant-based Diet Adherence With Risk of Mortality and Major Chronic Diseases Among Adults in the UK, reinforces this concern:

“The findings of this cohort study of 126,394 middle-aged adults from the U.K. suggest that a healthful PBD (plant-based diet) was associated with lower risks of CVD (cardiovascular disease), cancer, and total mortality. 

On the contrary, a plant-based dietary pattern characterized by higher intakes of sugary drinks, snacks and desserts, refined grains, potatoes, and fruit juices was associated with higher risk. 

Our results support a shift toward food intake that emphasizes healthy plant foods to improve health and provide data to support a healthful PBD for CVD prevention irrespective of genetic disease risk. 

However, future studies among more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse populations are needed to assess the risk of major chronic disease in relation to PBDs.”

Remind your patients that eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, and seeds is one of the easiest ways to avoid the saturated fats correlated with diabetes, heart conditions, and other health challenges. In addition, a low-fat plant-based diet may support improved cholesterol and blood sugar levels, support healthy weight management, and potentially protect against some cancers. 4

What Are The Different Types of Plant-Based Diets?

The different types of plant-based diets are classified based on the degree to which  non-plant items (meat, dairy products, eggs, and seafood) are included:5,6

  • Whole-foods, plant-based is focused on fresh, whole, and minimally processed plant-based foods with the inclusion of some meat, poultry, eggs, fish, seafood, and dairy. A whole-foods, plant-based diet does not include added sugars, refined ingredients, and highly processed foods. The Mediterranean diet is an example of a whole-food, plant-based diet.
  • Vegetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian includes only plant-based food sources, dairy, and eggs. 
  • Flexitarian or semi-vegetarian is a primarily vegetarian diet that may include small amounts of fish, seafood, meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs. 
  • Ovo-vegetarian is a vegetarian diet with the addition of eggs.
  • Pescatarian is a variation of the vegetarian diet, focusing on plant-based foods with the inclusion of eggs, dairy, fish, and seafood. 
  • Vegan eating includes only plant-based foods. On a vegan diet, people eat vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, beans, seeds, soy (tofu and tempeh), and plant-based oils. People following a vegan diet may be at risk of a vitamin B-12 deficiency. It’s important to eat vitamin B-12 fortified foods, like Nutritional Flakes, and to take a vitamin B-12 supplement.

Helping Patients Adopt a Plant-Based Diet

It is not easy to change habits, particularly lifelong habits around food and eating. 

To encourage and support your patients in making this healthful lifestyle change, consider these strategies from expert physicians in plant-based diets:7,8 

  1. Talk to your patients about their dietary habits. Find out what a typical day and week of food and beverages look like. Ask them about the number of servings of fruits and vegetables they eat on an average day. Discuss the health benefits of fruits and vegetables and of minimizing their meat consumption. 
  2. Discuss the potential health consequences of processed foods. Many people are not aware that packaged and prepared foods can be high in sodium, sugar, phosphorus, and other refined or unhealthful ingredients. Talk to them about how these ingredients may contribute to different health conditions. Emphasize that ‘low-calorie’ does not equate to healthful, when the ingredients are not natural, contain unhealthy fats, excessive sugar, or are highly processed.
  3. Give patients accessible strategies for transitioning to a plant-based diet. Try not to overwhelm patients with big changes to their eating habits. Instead, give them some  easy and practical ways to add more plant-based foods to their diet. For example, suggest they add in 2 plant-based snacks a day, replace sodas with carbonated water, choose whole grains instead of white pasta, rice, and breads, practice meatless Monday, or eat 2 to 4 servings of fruit a day. 
  4. Provide your patients with easy-to-follow meal plans and recipes. We can all get stuck in a rut and some patients need extra guidance and support with what to eat and why. Work with a nutrition counselor to give patients a recipe booklet and pantry guidelines checklist. Direct patients to reliable online plant-based diet resources. 
  5. Be available to your patients. Remember that change is hard, but it is much easier with support. Schedule follow-up appointments with your patients to check-in and find out how they are doing with the transition to a plant-based diet. During these appointments be ready to ask questions about getting enough protein and calcium, eating out habits, and the health benefits of a plant-based diet. 

6-Step Plant-Based Diet Checklist for Patients

Consider creating a hand-out for your patients with these 6 steps to transitioning to a plant-based diet:9 

  1. Breakfast Reset. Switch out your packaged breakfast cereals and pastries for fruit smoothies (easy as blending strawberry, banana, spinach, peanut butter, and milk), whole-grain oatmeal (stir-in berries and nuts), or choose a savory start with avocado toast or a hearty salad.
  2. Meatless Monday. Choose one day of the week to eat 100% whole-foods, plant-based, and meatless. 
  3. Vegetables First. Build your meals and snacks around your favorite vegetables. Have carrot and celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, and sliced cucumber and peppers easily accessible and visible in your fridge.
  4. Shrink The Meat. Cut back on your portion sizes and frequency of meat, poultry, eggs, fish, seafood, and dairy. 
  5. Go Green. Add your favorite leafy greens to your soups, stews, smoothies, stir-fries, casseroles, and salads. Some great options include spinach, beet greens, Swiss chard, collards, kale, and romaine.
  6. Sweet Switch. Swap out traditional desserts and snacks for fresh fruit. Stock your fridge and counter with brightly colored seasonal fruit, including apples, oranges, bananas, kiwis, peaches, berries, plums, and pineapple. 

Helping Your Patients Move Forward with a Plant-Based Diet

We commend you for helping your patients understand the benefits and how to’s of a plant-based diet. As you know, transitioning to a whole-foods, plant-based diet is one of the best things your patients can do to support their overall health and wellness. 

To reinforce the value and benefits of a plant-based diet, reflect upon the significance of the statement below from the Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets:

“Concerns about the rising cost of health care are being voiced nationwide, even as unhealthy lifestyles are contributing to the spread of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. For these reasons, physicians looking for cost-effective interventions to improve health outcomes are becoming more involved in helping their patients adopt healthier lifestyles. 

Healthy eating may be best achieved with a plant-based diet, which we define as a regimen that encourages whole, plant-based foods and discourages meats, dairy products, and eggs as well as all refined and processed foods.

Research shows that plant-based diets are cost-effective, low-risk interventions that may lower body mass index, blood pressure, HbA1C, and cholesterol levels. They may also reduce the number of medications needed to treat chronic diseases and lower ischemic heart disease mortality rates. 

Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or obesity.”



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  1. Tuso PJ, Ismail MH, Ha BP, Bartolotto C. “Nutritional update for physicians: plant-based diets.” Perm J. 2013 Spring;17(2):61-6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662288/. Accessed February 28, 2024
  2. Harvard Health Publishing Staff. “The right plant-based diet for you.” 2021, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-right-plant-based-diet-for-you. Accessed February 28, 2024
  3. Kubala, Jillian. “Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet: A Detailed Beginner’s Guide.” Healthline.com, 2023, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/plant-based-diet-guide. Accessed February 28, 2024
  4. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “Plant-Based Nutrition FAQ.” https://www.pcrm.org/good-nutrition/plant-based-diets/nutrition-faq. Accessed February 28, 202
  5. Clem J, Barthel B. “A Look at Plant-Based Diets.” Mo Med. 2021 May-Jun;118(3):233-238. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8210981/. Accessed February 28, 2024
  6. Denmon, Amber E, and Lynn James. “Plant-Based Diet.” PennState Extension, 2021, https://extension.psu.edu/plant-based-diet. Accessed February 28, 2024
  7. Hever, Julieanna, MS, RD, CPT. “Plant-Based Diets: A Physician’s Guide.” The Permanente Journal, 2016 Vol 20, No. 3. https://www.thepermanentejournal.org/doi/10.7812/TPP/15-082. Accessed February 28, 2024
  8. Karlsen MC, Pollard KJ. “Strategies for practitioners to support patients in plant-based eating.” J Geriatr Cardiol. 2017 May;14(5):338-341. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466940/. Accessed February 28, 2024
  9. McManus, Katherine D. “What is a plant-based diet and why should you try it?” Harvard Health Publishing, 2021, https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/what-is-a-plant-based-diet-and-why-should-you-try-it-2018092614760. Accessed February 28, 2024

 Jenny Perez is an herbal educator, researcher, and writer who has been immersed in the field of nutrition and botanical medicine for more than 20 years. Jenny has created curriculum, content, and educational materials for Quantum Nutrition Labs, Premier Research Labs, the American Botanical Council, and Bastyr University’s Botanical Medicine Department where she was Adjunct Faculty, Herb Garden Manager, and Director of the Holistic Landscape Design certificate program.