The Nutrition Twins by The Nutrition Twins

It seems more people than ever are moving away from a meat-heavy diet and making the switch to a plant-based eating style. Not only is this trend popular with celebrities like Carrie Underwood and Gwyneth Paltrow, it is, arguably, a healthier way of eating and better for the environment, as well.

As registered dietitians, we’ve witnessed a growing body of research confirming that diets centered on minimally processed plant foods that come straight from the earth not only fight a myriad of chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes, they also help to keep you svelte. However, many people feel overwhelmed when they try to dramatically change their diets, especially If they think mistakenly believe they should cut out all animal products.

Fortunately, this is not the case at all. If you’re considering transitioning to a more plant-based diet, this four-step guide will help make the process much more manageable. When you feel as though you’ve mastered one step, move on to the next. And feel free to start with any of the steps and progress to another step in any order that feels most comfortable for you.

One thing to keep in mind: A “plant-based” diet emphasizes minimally processed foods from plants, with modest amounts of fish, lean meat and low-fat dairy—red meat is eaten at only sparingly. In other words, you don’t have to become a vegan. After all, one of the best ways to embrace a plant-based diet is to enjoy a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet like the Mediterranean diet, which includes fish, seafood, and some occasional poultry and meat.

Step 1. Swap meat out for legumes, tempeh, edamame, tofu, and seitan (wheat gluten).

All of these add texture, fiber and healthy protein to your meal. Start with Meatless Mondays, then every other week, make an additional day of the week meatless. By the end of the first month, you will avoid meat two days of the week; by the second month you’ll be meatless four days of the week, and so on. In four months you could have a completely meatless diet, if you choose—or, at the very least, be comfortable with eating less meat.  

Not sure what to make for your meatless meals that will keep you satisfied? Here are a few to try:

Tip: Go for organic soy products as most commercial soybeans today are genetically engineered.

Step 2: Increase your plant-based foods at every meal.

Take a look at your plate. If you’re like most Americans, the meat, poultry, pork or seafood portions take up at least half of your plate, while the vegetables, fruits and legumes cover just a small corner. Here are a few suggestions—make the meat part smaller and:

  • Add kale or cauliflower to your mac n’ cheese: Creamy Cauliflower Mac n’ Cheese.
  • Mix peppers, onions and tomatoes into your eggs and omelets: Mini Frittata Muffins.
  • Stack your sandwich with lettuce and cucumbers and use less meat.
  • Add extra spinach, zucchini and carrots to your lasagna and use less meat: Meatless Lasagna.
  • Add extra beans to your burritos and cut back on the chicken.
  • Top your pizza with olives, tomatoes and peppers instead of pepperoni and sausage: Pesto Portobello Pizza.
  • Swap meat in chili for beans.

Step 3: Stock your cabinets, freezer and fridge with healthy, vegetarian foods.

This will make it harder to lapse back into your old ways and easier to focus on the meals ahead of you. Keep these staples on hand: quinoa, oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, brown rice, frozen vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, corn, peas), fresh and frozen fruits, avocados, sunflower seeds and nuts (and their butters), canned tomatoes for sauces, soups and chili, and canned beans and lentils.

Step 4: Swap out refined grains for whole grains.

Grains like white bread, crackers, pastries and cookies are refined, processed and hardly resemble the original grain as it’s found in nature. The refined grain has the nutrients and fiber stripped out, so it enters the blood stream rapidly. This causes blood sugar to rise quickly and fall equally as fast, creating an energy high followed by crash that typically results in mood swings and sweet cravings. Choose unrefined grains such as quinoa, millet, brown rice, 100 percent whole-wheat pasta and whole-grain breads. And opt for veggie chips and baked veggie fries instead of processed chips. And try these: