A plant-based diet may have seemed extreme years ago, but today it’s all the rage — and for good reason. In many ways the planet and human health are in trouble, and a plant-centric diet is one way to address both issues.
More than 10,000 studies in peer-reviewed medical journals show that a diet based on whole plant foods leads to higher life expectancy and lower rates of cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and most other chronic ailments. “If you eat the standard American diet, you’re going to get the standard American diseases,” says Ocean Robbins, co-founder of the Food Revolution Network and author of 31-Day Food Revolution.
“However, a plant-based diet can add years to your life and life to your years.” When you look more closely at heart disease, the No. 1 killer of American adults, the story becomes even more convincing. “The only diet proven not just to prevent but also reverse heart disease is a plant-based diet,” says Marco A. Borges, exercise physiologist, founder of 22 Days Nutrition and New York Times bestselling author whose latest book is The Greenprint: Plant-Based Diet, Best Body, Better World. Statistics show that roughly 600,000 Americans die from heart disease every year, but 80 percent of cardiovascular disease is preventable, especially with a shift to a plant-based diet, says Dr. Saray Stancic, a lifestyle medicine physician in Ramsey, N.J.
There’s also evidence that the current food system is unsustainable. “Worldwide, animal agriculture provides 18 percent of humanity’s food calories and 37 percent of protein, but uses 83 percent of farmland and one-third of the planet’s fresh water, and is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the world’s cars, planes, trucks, ships and trains combined,” Robbins says.
Yet, changing how you’ve always eaten isn’t easy. Where do you start? Experts share seven strategies:
1. Don’t think all or nothing. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, you don’t need to shift your diet overnight. “Every step you take toward more whole plant foods is a step toward greater health for you and the planet,” Robbins says. How closely you lean into plants is your choice, but know that in the “Blue Zones” — places around the world where people live the longest and healthiest — diets are focused on whole plant foods with almost no added sugar or processed foods and between zero and 10 percent of calories from animal products. In the United States, however, approximately 54 percent of calories come from processed foods and another 34 percent from animal products, Robbins says. No amount of processed food is healthy, and even if animal products are a small part of your diet, “the Blue Zones show that what’s best is a lot less than most are eating,” he adds.
2. Make plants the star of your plate. If you’re eating like most Americans, animal products comprise most of your plate. An easy fix? “Put plants at the center of your plate, and if you do have any animal products, make them the side dish,” Stancic says. As your taste buds adapt to this new way of eating, gradually push animal products off your plate completely so that you’re following the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s Power Plate formula, which divides a meal into four quadrants: whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes.
3. Add whole plant foods to your environment. Your environment plays a key role in determining whether you’ll succeed at adopting a new habit, which is why it makes sense to set it up for success. The best strategy? “Bring more whole plant foods into your house and put them out where you can see them,” Borges says. How many times, after all, have you bought fruits or veggies, shoved them into the back of your fridge and later found them spoiled because you forgot about them? Instead, keep fruits and veggies at eye level in the fridge and place bowls of fruit on counters in view. At the same time, keep unhealthy processed foods out of sight as you gradually work on cutting them from your kitchen.
4. Be a planner. Nothing gets done in life without some planning, healthy eating included. Start by shopping from a list, as you’ll stand a better chance of avoiding unhealthy impulse purchases, Robbins says. Then think about your meals for the next week, or just the next day if that’s easier (“plan breakfast before you go to bed,” he adds, suggesting overnight oats or presoaked chia blueberry porridge), so that you don’t end up eating unhealthy food in a pinch.
5. Do batch cooking. When Borges’ mom switched to a 100 percent plant-based diet, he advised her to pick a day each week to cook foods like whole grains and beans in batches, even making salad dressing for the week. She could then store the foods in the fridge or the freezer and pull them out as needed. “Although it takes time to cook them, it’s a huge time-saver,” he says.
6. Adopt the Meatless Monday habit. This global campaign encourages people to take meat off their plate every Monday, and it’s a good entry point to eating more plants. “Research shows that we have our best intentions for healthy eating on Monday, and Meatless Monday is a great way to dip your toes in the water,” says Sharon Palmer, registered dietitian and author of Plant-Powered for Life. After seeing how easy it is, you may be encouraged to eat meatless on other days, too.
7. Find support. No matter what change you’re trying to make, going it alone can be challenging. That’s why Stancic asks her patients to bring family members when she speaks to them about adopting a whole food, plant-based diet. “You’re introducing a significant change into your life, and if you don’t have support, that change becomes more difficult,” she says. Even if your family isn’t on board, you can find support in friends, work colleagues and local meetup or Facebook groups. Of course, changing habits can be challenging, and for many, shifting to a plant-based diet is a work in progress. And that’s OK. As Borges says, “Aim for progression, not perfection.”