What do you think of when you hear the words “plant-based diet”? A vegetarian diet that excludes meat? Or maybe a vegan diet that excludes all animal products, including eggs and dairy? What about the “man-eating plant” from the ’80s cult classic movie Little Shop of Horrors?
A plant-based diet doesn’t mean eating only avocado toast and açai bowls for the rest of your life. You can still be a meat-lover or dedicated to your Friday night ice cream routine and eat mostly plant-based. In fact, that’s the main idea behind a plant-based diet: It focuses on eating mostly plants.
Eating mostly plants has a ton of benefits for your health and the environment, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind before you dive headfirst into a plate of well-massaged greens. Here, we’ve got the science behind plant-based diets, along with student-friendly tips for creating balanced plant-based meals on a budget.
How many plants is “plant-based”?
“There is no formal definition of a plant-based diet,” says Stephanie Hnatiuk, a registered dietitian, certified personal trainer, and certified diabetes educator in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. She says that most people would benefit greatly from a dietary pattern that contains more plant foods than animal foods. “Most sets of dietary guidelines around the globe also promote a plant-based way of eating, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, [legumes,] whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Meat and dairy foods are often encouraged in smaller quantities than the plant foods,” she says.
You can be flexible when it comes to plant-based eating. Here are the most common variations of plant-based diets, each with its own fancy name:
What are the benefits of plant-based diets?
When you look at the balance of the evidence, “it’s pretty conclusive that a vegetarian or vegan diet—if properly maintained—is superior to a meat-based diet,” says Dr. Joe Schwarcz, director of the McGill Office for Science and Society in Montreal, Canada. Dr. Schwarcz also says that the benefits of eating no meat are similar to the benefits of eating small amounts of meat, so you don’t have to eliminate all meat, poultry, and seafood if you don’t want to.
What are some of these benefits? According to recent studies, eating a plant-based diet can:
- Help keep your heart healthy
- Lower your risks of developing cancer and type 2 diabetes
- Reduce body fat
- Help reduce your cravings for less nutritious foods
- Improve your athletic performance
- Reduce the levels of greenhouse gas emissions from the production of your food
“Plant foods contain almost all of the nutrients that are essential for human health,” says Hnatiuk.
In addition to being rich in vitamins and minerals, whole plant foods also contain antioxidants and fiber, which can help lower cholesterol levels and promote gut (and brain) health.
“[When eating plant-based] I am able to finish more tasks during the day without having to snack on junk food,” says Indira B., a fifth-year graduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
She’s not the only one who understands the benefits of eating plants for your mental and physical well-being: In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 48 percent of students said that plants make up at least half of their daily food intake. “Not only is it scientifically better for your body, but having a plant based diet also makes you feel better and better about yourself overall,” says Nicholas G., a fourth-year student at UMBC.
What are the drawbacks of plant-based diets?
Here’s the thing: Not all plant-based foods are created equal, and there are plenty of ways to make a plant-based diet less than nutritious (we’ve all had that vegan friend who lived off of Oreos and potato chips). “If plant-based foods are not chosen carefully—for example, a plant-based diet may be high in juices or other sweetened beverages, refined grains, french fries, and sweets—they won’t deliver any benefit, and likely will increase [the] risk of diabetes and heart disease,” says Dr. Russell de Souza, associate professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
While eating whole plant foods is a great step toward better health, there are a few nutrients to pay attention to—especially if you plan to cut out all animal products, including dairy and eggs. “If you avoid animal products, [it’s] probably a good idea to ask your health care provider to check your iron and Vitamin B12 levels to be sure,” says Dr. de Souza.
For iron, Dr. de Souza recommends eating:
- fortified cereals (e.g., oats, rice, wheat)
- dark green leafy vegetables (e.g., spinach, kale)
- dried fruits (e.g., apricots, raisins)
- beans (e.g., lentils, legumes, soybeans)
Vitamin B12, on the other hand, is not naturally found in any plant products. This means if you are cutting out all animal products, you may need to eat plant foods that are fortified with Vitamin B12 (e.g., nondairy milks, nutritional yeast) or possibly take a supplement.
“I use a lot of nutritional yeast in my diet to get my B12,” says Natalie S., a fourth-year student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. “It can be enjoyed on popcorn or used in other foods like sauces or dressings to give them a cheesy, savory flavor.”
Tips for balanced plant-based meals (on a budget)
“The great thing about plant-based eating is it can be less expensive than eating large amounts of animal foods,” says Hnatiuk. “Foods such as beans, tofu, lentils, chickpeas, and some nuts or seeds are great sources of protein and iron (nutrients typically associated with meat), but are significantly less expensive to buy.”
“Plant-based foods are ideal for cooking on a budget in a small space like a dorm room,” says Jon S., a fourth-year undergraduate at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
“Buy cauliflower, broccoli, and butternut squash at the beginning of the week and roast them all in the same pan with salt and pepper. Munch on them all week.”
—Sullivan S., second-year student, Wake Technical Community College, Raleigh, North Carolina
“Buy dried beans and cook them up when you have time, freeze the extra, and use as needed. Download grocery store apps to use their online coupon options. Sign up for the email list of your favorite plant-based brands and watch as the coupons flow in.”
—Bailey W., fourth-year student, Indiana University East, Richmond
“I would recommend buying greens in bulk, like spinach, kale, and arugula. It’s easy to add spinach to pastas, smoothies, and scrambled eggs. Hummus can go with most veggies and is a great spread alternative to mayo on sandwiches. I think it’s also worth investing in a large bottle of mixed nuts from Walmart or Bulk Barn because they make great snacks. Oatmeal is also incredible for making you feel full longer. I would also recommend avocados for a healthy source of fat.”
—Crystal W., second-year graduate student, Memorial University, Newfoundland, Canada
- Omelets or frittatas made with vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, mushrooms, sweet peppers, and onions. You can have this with whole-grain bread or toast and a glass of milk or a fortified alternative milk (e.g., soy or almond)
- Burritos or tacos made with kidney, black, or refried beans
- Stir-fries made with tofu, vegetables, and nuts, with whole-wheat couscous or brown rice
- Salads made with leafy greens, chickpeas, white or red kidney beans, nuts, vegetables, pasta, rice, couscous, or barley
- Falafel and hummus made with chickpeas, served with whole-grain pita bread and salad, sweet peppers, or carrots
- Peanut or almond butter on whole-wheat or multigrain bagels with banana or apple slices, with a glass of calcium-fortified orange juice
- Soups made with lentils, beans, and vegetables served with whole-grain bread or crackers
- Canned baked beans served with toast, vegetables, and dip
- Casseroles made with beans or lentils, rice, corn, and tomatoes
- Soy milk smoothies with a banana, frozen berries, and a splash of orange juice
Dr. Schwarcz says that when it comes to your health, emphasizing plant-based foods is certainly a move in the right direction.
Russell de Souza, RD, ScD, registered dietitian and associate professor in the Department of Health Research Methods, Evidence, and Impact in the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Stephanie Hnatiuk, registered dietitian, certified personal trainer, and certified diabetes educator, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Joe Schwarcz, PhD, director of the McGill Office for Science and Society, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
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Student Health 101 survey, September 2019.