Produce for Kids is teaming up with Julie Harrington, registered dietitian and culinary nutrition chef in a monthly series focusing on the important role food plays in overall health, plus sharing kid-friendly recipes to add more fresh produce to your family’s diet.

Woman holding apple with vairous plant-based food items like beans, hummus and pasta, in front of her on counter.

Plant-based is the hot term in food today, but what does it mean exactly? Let’s explore what a plant-based diet is, what foods are plant-based, the benefits of a plant-based diet and how to ensure you’re getting the right nutrients.

When you hear the term “plant-based,” what comes to mind? For most people, it’s the Beyond Burger, Impossible Burger and other meat alternatives who are taking the space by storm. Even products like laundry detergent and household cleaners are touting a “made from plants” message.

You can’t go anywhere these days without seeing plant-based options in stores or on menus. Walt Disney World added over 400 new plant-based meal options across all parks and resorts. Taco Bell launched a “veggie mode” to automatically change their menu over to all plant-based options. Even the Oscars went plant-based earlier this year.

What is a plant-based diet?

The term diet simply means a person’s eating pattern. 

For some, a plant-based diet does exclude all animal products (a vegan diet). For others, it’s just about choosing more of your foods from plant sources than from animal sources. It’s a welcoming way to make plants a main part of your diet without needing to completely eliminate dairy, eggs, meat and fish.

A phrase such as “plant-based diet” can be a little confusing as everyone defines it differently. While dietary preferences such as vegan and vegetarian have more specific definitions and even sub-groups (like lacto-ovo vegetarian), plant-based or plant-focused diets are a little less clear cut.

Whether described as plant-based or plant-forward, in general, these meal patterns emphasize including more plant foods (fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts). 

If you’re looking for plant-based recipes, here are 25 of our favorites!

Fork digging into a buddha bowl full of fresh greens, tomatoes, chickpeas, olives and avocado

Is a plant-based diet healthy?

It’s all about how you personally define plant-based and how it works best within your own lifestyle. A “diet” that encourages increasing consumption of plant foods does come with health benefits. If you are beginning to follow a more plant-based, plant-forward, plant-focused, or however you would like to define it, focus on what you are adding instead of what you are limiting. 

What foods can you eat on a plant-based diet?

No foods are off-limits while following a general plant-based diet. It’s more about making plants the star of each meal and aiming for at least half your plate of plant-foods. The focus is on fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

If choosing to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, then the following would be removed* from the diet.

Vegan

A vegan diet excludes all animal products, which includes eliminating the use of honey or beeswax, gelatin and any other animal by-product ingredients or products. Many people choose to eat this way for ethical, environmental or health reasons.

Lacto-Vegetarian

Lacto-vegetarians do not eat red or white meat, fish, fowl or eggs. However, lacto-vegetarians do consume dairy products such as cheese, milk and yogurt.

Ovo-Vegetarian

Ovo-vegetarians do not eat red or white meat, fish, fowl or dairy products. However, ovo-vegetarians do consume egg products.

Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian

Lacto-ovo vegetarians do not consume red meat, white meat, fish or fowl. However, lacto-ovo vegetarians do consume dairy products and egg products. This is the most common type of vegetarian.

* It’s also important not to put strict labels on your diet. Some may be following this form of diet for ethical or environmental reasons, which is based on personal preference. If you decide to stray from this style of eating, even if previously followed, that is okay too. 

What are the benefits of a plant-based diet?

Don’t feel like your dietary patterns need to be labeled. A plant-based diet encourages all to simply emphasize including more plant foods into your diet, which includes many health benefits.

Plants, including fruits, vegetables, plant-proteins, and whole grains are full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that not only help to provide energy, but they support the immune system as well.

Most don’t eat the recommended amount of fruits and veggies, so making the majority of your diet plant-based will up your produce ante, which is a nutritious choice. 

Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Fiber is a nutrient that most of us don’t get enough of, and it has tons of healthy perks.

Fiber helps make us full and keeps things moving in the digestive tract. It may help reduce the risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer, and obesity.

Plant foods reduce inflammation. Plants’ essential nutrients work to resolve inflammation in your body. The same tiny phytochemicals and antioxidants that boost your immune system.

Prolonged inflammation can damage your body’s cells and tissue and has been linked to cancer and other inflammatory diseases like arthritis. A plant-based diet may protect you because it removes some of the triggers to these diseases.

How can I ensure I’m getting enough protein, calcium, etc. on a plant-based diet?

It’s important to maintain a well-balanced diet, even if 100% plant-based. If you’re looking to ease into a plant-based diet, check out episode 4 of the Healthy Family Project podcast for tips. Below are a few certain nutrients to keep an eye out for.

Iron

Iron plays a key role in the production of red blood cells and these cells help carry oxygen throughout the body. Plant-based sources of iron include beans, broccoli, raisins, wheat, and tofu.

Iron-fortified cereals (Fortified foods are those that have nutrients added to them that don’t naturally occur in the food) also are a good source.

Iron found in non-meat sources is harder to fully digest. Eat foods rich in vitamin C alongside iron rich foods, such as oranges and broccoli to help your body absorb iron.

Protein

Protein is an important nutrient for almost every part of your body. A 100% plant-based diet can get protein from nuts, peanut butter, seeds, grains, and legumes (see list of plant-based proteins below).

Non-animal products like tofu and soymilk also provide protein. Vegans have to consider getting enough “complete protein.”

Protein is made up of small parts called amino acids. A complete protein contains all the amino acids your body needs. Many plants have some of the amino acids, but not all.

You can get complete protein by eating certain foods together. An example: rice & beans.

Infographic of plant-based protein sources

Calcium

Calcium builds strong bones and helps prevent osteoporosis. Soybeans and dark leafy greens, like broccoli, bok choy, and kale are sources of calcium. Also, soy milk and juices are often fortified with calcium.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 helps produce red blood cells and prevent anemia. Vitamin B12 is mainly found in fish, shellfish, meat, and dairy products.

If not consuming any animal products, one can consume soy milk and some cereals, which are often fortified with vitamin B12. 

Disclaimer: Before making any health or diet changes, please consult your doctor. The information shared as part of Food Rx is meant to be informative but not replace medical advice from your doctor.