Be honest: Do you know the difference between plant-based nutrition and veganism, or even vegetarianism? Have you ever just assumed they were all one and the same? Well, in reality, they’re all different from one another. While a vegetarian diet excludes meat, poultry, and seafood, and a vegan diet includes only plants and no dairy or other animal-based products, plant-based eating simply means you’re “proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources,” according to Harvard Health.
Put another way: Plant-based nutrition is essentially the more flexible cousin of veganism and vegetarianism. Of course, any way of eating that calls for more foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and beans is going to offer tons of health benefits, including a lower risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic health issues.
However, if you’re someone who struggles with an all-or-nothing approach to food, veganism or vegetarianism might not be the best choice for you, whereas plant-based eating can seem more realistic to adopt, says One Drop coach, Rukiyyah Khan, a certified diabetes prevention specialist with experience and certification in plant-based nutrition.
Of course, if you’re diagnosed with a chronic condition such as diabetes, it’s best to speak to a registered dietitian (RD) or a certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES) to help address your exact nutritional needs, notes Khan. Overall, though, she explains, the foundation of these expert recommendations will likely be to eat more fruits and vegetables, among other lifestyle changes. You’ll probably also learn about the benefits of having more fiber in your diet.
The good news: Plant-based nutrition covers all of these aspects, says Khan. “Having a diet rich with green veggies, fiber-filled foods, whole foods, and focusing more on foods in their natural state can pretty much benefit every chronic condition,” she explains.
Once you start incorporating more plant-based foods, you’re probably going to naturally notice that you feel better overall, continues Khan. “Your digestion will likely improve, along with your skin, your blood sugar, and your blood pressure.”
At the same time, she says, you might even naturally begin to reduce the amount of foods that aren’t serving you as well. “It doesn’t mean you have to eliminate those foods,” explains Khan. “It just means that you might naturally reach for oatmeal and fruit instead of a Pop-Tart. You naturally start to say, ‘Let me add a vegetable to this dish I’m cooking.’ It becomes part of your life.”
Need some pointers on starting or staying committed to plant-based eating? Here’s Khan’s advice for making your day-to-day nutrition more plant-forward:
Maybe when you were growing up, fresh produce wasn’t commonly found in your house. Or perhaps vegetables were seen only as a small side dish rather than the main attraction of your meal.
That lack of familiarity can make a plant-based lifestyle seem a little intimidating, says Khan. “It can feel like a daunting task—a big shift and a big change that can seem restricting and stigmatizing, like you’re putting yourself into a category that you can’t change or remove yourself from.”
But a huge part of plant-based eating, says Khan, is exploration. “For example, I grew up never eating radishes,” she shares. “I’d never even seen a radish. But once I got into the health and wellness space, I started seeing radishes on street tacos and on salads. Then, one day, I passed some radishes in the grocery store and decided to grab a bag and simply see what I could do with them.”
Now, Khan says she loves using radishes for “an extra crunch and zing” in many of her meals.
Focus On What You’re Adding Instead of What You’re Removing From Your Diet
At first, when incorporating more plant-based foods in your diet, you might focus solely on all the things you can’t, or “shouldn’t,” eat.
But if you really want to make plant-based habits stick, they can’t be about giving things up, says Khan. “Again, it’s about exploring new foods and having fun with it.”
That said, many people struggle with availability of produce. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 19 million people live in a food desert, defined as an area where the nearest supermarket is more than one mile away for urban neighborhoods, or more than 10 miles away for rural populations.
If grocery stores are lacking in your neighborhood, Khan suggests scoping out farmers’ markets instead, where you can often get produce fairly cheaply. You can also get involved in community-supported agriculture (CSA), in which you pay a farm an agreed-upon amount at the beginning of its harvesting season, and you’ll receive a variety of its fresh produce every week. “There are also resources to get produce that would have otherwise been thrown away,” such as Misfits Market, adds Khan. “Then you can find new recipes and play with flavors.”
Ease In, and Let Yourself Off the Hook Once In Awhile
Once you decide you’re going to start eating more plant-based foods, that doesn’t mean you automatically need to clear out your entire refrigerator or give up anything cold turkey.
“That strategy usually doesn’t last long,” says Khan. “What lasts is approaching it step by step, day by day, decision by decision, one meal at a time, even one food item at a time, until you feel comfortable, and until you start to find what you enjoy.”
Remember: Eating plant-based doesn’t necessarily need to be an all-or-nothing endeavor. “This can just be part of something you incorporate into your lifestyle while still enjoying other foods or honoring what your friends and family enjoy,” she explains. “You can do both, and you don’t have to feel restricted by those labels.”
In other words, you’re not always going to find yourself in an environment where you have easy access to plant-based foods. Unless your health needs dictate otherwise, it’s simply unnecessary to hold yourself to restrictions and strict standards at all times. “In the moment, you can decide, ‘Well, I’m just going to eat what’s here.’ One meal out in a social gathering isn’t going to reverse or ruin anything. It’s just one meal.”
Remember That Not Every Plant-Based Alternative is “Healthier”
If you’ve ever found yourself trying to bring a plant-based dish to a party, you’ve probably considered brands such as Beyond Meat or Impossible Foods for crowd-pleasing meat alternatives. “You throw it in the pan, season it up, and it gives you the same flavor and texture as regular meat,” says Khan.
The caution, however, is that these meat alternatives are usually still very highly processed and contain a lot of sodium, notes Khan. “So, if you’re looking for something more heart healthy, meat alternatives aren’t always going to serve you well,” she explains. Still, she adds, they have their purpose, so she recommends moderating them just like you would any other indulgences.
That goes for any plant-based foods, by the way—and, really, food in general. “Just like any other item, you have to read the nutrition labels,” says Khan. “You have to pay attention to the sugar and sodium content, preservatives, and saturated fats.”
Understand Your “Why”
Knowing the reason behind your decision to eat more plant-based foods not only helps you stay motivated and committed, but it can also help you feel more comfortable approaching the subject with loved ones, says Khan.
“You can just sit down and talk to people about it in a way that doesn’t feel shameful,” she explains. “You can say something like: ‘I’m thinking about trying this new way of eating, and I’d love for you to at least explore it with me. I’m not going to pressure you to change in any way, but I just want you to know this is where I’m going with it, and these are some of my reasons.’”
Bottom line: It’s not about pressuring people around you to do exactly what you’re doing. It’s about expressing that you’d love their support as you explore something new, says Khan. “Communicating in that way makes it feel less ostracizing.”
If you have diabetes, consider checking your blood sugar before and after trying a new food or recipe to better understand how its ingredients impact your health. If you have any questions, reach out to your One Drop coach.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations at One Drop.