With more than three million vegetarians in the UK (and a further million vegans), interest in plant-based food has never been higher. In fact, a YouGov poll found that 37% of us eat much more plant-based than we used to. If trying to go plant-based is on your agenda, and you’re not sure where to begin, here’s your go-to guide
Whether you’re wanting to eliminate meat from your diet completely, or just shift the focus of your plate to all things plant (such as fruits and vegetables), undertaking a big diet change can be tricky. We’ve all heard of the health benefits of focusing on plant-based food, with diets that emphasise them having been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes, as well as healthy body weight and lowering blood pressure.
“Plant-based diets tend to be naturally higher in foods integral to a healthy diet – including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes,” says nutritionist Xuxa Milrose. “Because of this, plant-based diets are often much higher in dietary fibre, and lower in saturated fats.”
It’s not just about health, though. Others opt for the switch for environmental reasons. Going plant-based has even been linked to helping fight climate change, according to United Nations (UN) experts, because of the fact it reduces land use and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, transitioning to a plant-based diet could potentially reduce diet-related greenhouse gas emissions by almost 50%, a 2022 study in the journal Nutrients found.
But that doesn’t mean we know everything about going plant-based. Some of us may have questions about the switch, whether it’s figuring out meal planning, or wanting to make sure we pack in enough protein for our workouts. So, if you aren’t sure about how to get started, here’s a breakdown of what you need to know…
1. Know your ‘Why?’
While there are a tonne of benefits, it’s important to know what your motivation is for going plant-based. Choosing to change your diet because of a TikTok trend, and not actually doing your research, may make it a short-lived experiment.
“If you have real motivation to transition to a more plant-based diet, whether it be for better health or environmental reasons, then you may not find it as much of a struggle compared to someone who isn’t really sure why they want to eat more plant-based. If you’re uncertain, I would suggest researching plant-based diets, watching documentaries, and reading literature on the benefits and impact,” says Xuxa.
2. Look beyond the label.
Thanks to interest in going plant-based never being higher, there are more products to choose from. Having the word plant-based on the label doesn’t automatically make something healthy though, so you’re not going to get the health benefits we mentioned purely from swapping your regular ice cream to a tub of plant-based ice cream instead.
In fact, to do it right, the key is focusing on naturally plant-based ingredients, rather than stocking up your pantry with alternatives.
“There are many processed and ultra-processed foods that are marketed and labelled ‘plant-based’ in an attempt to appear healthier to consumers. Focus on real, whole foods – where you don’t need to read the back of a packet to check the ingredients list,” Xuxa adds.
3. Do a nutrition audit before you begin.
Let’s set the record straight: it’s perfectly possible to get everything you need from a plant-based diet, without worrying about supplements. However, like any new diet change, you need to make sure you don’t miss out. For example, if you know you’re prone to low vitamin B12, or need more calcium than the average person, it may take a little extra planning to get plant-based completely balanced.
“Plant foods provide a vast range of important nutrients, and it is possible to thrive on a plant-based diet, and hit the required recommended intake of vitamins and minerals,” Xuxa says. “However, some animal food sources do serve as the highest, most accessible, and absorbable forms of vitamins like vitamin B12 and vitamin D, as these are naturally absent from the majority of plant foods. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in the highest amount in oily fish, and calcium is found in much larger amounts in dairy products.”
The good news is there are plenty of easy ways to rectify this. “Plant-based alternatives contain some of these nutrients; walnuts, chia, and flaxseed contain omega-3, and soy products, nuts, seeds, beans, and green leafy veg contain good levels of calcium,” Xuxa says. “However, it takes careful planning and a varied diet to ensure you’re getting a sufficient amount. You will also likely need to supplement B12, so consult a professional to make sure that you aren’t deficient, and for advice on dosage.”
4. It’s not all or nothing.
While some may thrive on 100% plant-based, others may find it trickier – especially if they have health challenges, or nutritional deficiencies. If you’ve gone full plant-based and aren’t seeing the benefits, that doesn’t mean you need to ditch it, you may just need a different approach.
“Think of eating plant-based as a general approach to eating, rather than a strict diet. The goal should be to try to incorporate as many plant foods into your meals as possible,” advises Xuxa.
Plant-based diets are usually higher in fibre, which is great for our health, but suddenly ramping it up may cause digestive discomfort, like bloating, if your system is sensitive, or you have a condition such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
“Give your taste buds and gut a chance to adjust,” Xuxa adds. “Start slowly, and make small adjustments. Instead of cutting out all animal products at once, pick a couple of swaps to try to implement each week.”
5. Get creative with meat swaps in the kitchen.
It’s not just about adding plants to your plate, it’s about using them creatively to make all kinds of delicious meals that mean you won’t miss your meat staples.
“Use lentils and beans to make burgers, use oyster mushrooms or jackfruit to emulate pulled pork, use lentils and mushrooms in place of mince to make a bolognese, and scramble tofu instead of eggs to have on toast. Turn to social media – there are hundreds of excellent content creators posting recipes online, showing you how to eat more plant-based,” says Xuxa.
Going more plant-based can bring real benefits to your health and the environment, but like any lifestyle change, learning more, taking it at your own pace, and listening to your body are key to enjoying a plant-based diet. When making any big changes to your diet, it is important to speak to your GP for tailored advice.