Odds are you've heard the hype about plant-based diets. Plant-forward eating patterns are having a moment, and for a valid reason: They're super good for you.
Indeed, swapping meat for plant protein is linked to long-term health and longevity, according to an August 2019 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine (JAMA).
But before you hop on the healthy trend, brush up on the dos and don'ts of plant-based eating to help you avoid popular pitfalls that may undermine your nutrition goals — and, potentially, the health benefits. Here, top dietitians share the five most common mistakes that people make when going plant-based, plus ways to create a plant-focused diet that's both balanced and sustainable.
1. You Cut Meat Entirely
Many people are confused about what plant-focused eating entails. For starters, plant-based doesn't mean you're vegetarian or vegan. It simply means that your diet is made up of mostly foods sourced from plants — like nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes and beans — and includes dairy and meat in moderation, says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a Brooklyn-based dietitian and author of Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family.
That means you don't need to over-restrict your diet. If you have a hankering for grilled chicken, don't deprive yourself — just reduce your portions a bit. Focus on thinking of meat as more of a garnish rather than the centerpiece of your dish, recommends Harvard Health Publishing.
2. You Don’t Get Enough Nutrients
With a wide variety of food options at your fingertips, technically, you shouldn't run into any nutrient deficiencies, says Largeman-Roth. That being said, if you're drastically reducing meat and dairy, you might have trouble getting enough B12, iron, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. So, when you transition to a plant-based eating plan, it's important to know where to find the proper nutrients to keep your body balanced and healthy.
Read more: 5 Omega-3-Packed Recipes That Aren't Fish
Rich in animal foods like meat, dairy, eggs and fish, vitamin B12, which is essential for the formation of healthy cells and neurological functioning, can also be found in nutritional yeast, fortified cereals and plant-based milk, says Leslie Langevin, RD and author of The Anti-Inflammatory Kitchen Cookbook. If necessary, you can consider taking a daily supplement.
To get enough iron, which you need for healthy muscles, be sure to incorporate foods like kale, spinach, fortified oatmeal and other cereals, as well as beans, nuts, seeds and dried apricots into your daily menu.
“To increase the absorption of plant-based iron, pair it with a food high in vitamin C, such as bell peppers, citrus fruits, Brussels sprouts and strawberries,” says Largeman-Roth.
Getting enough zinc is especially vital since it helps support your immune system. You can find it in fortified cereals and soy foods, such as tofu and tempeh, as well as nuts, seeds and beans, says Largeman-Roth. Likewise, you can get your heart-healthy omega-3s from certain nuts and seeds too, as well as from fatty fish like salmon, sardines and herring.
3. You Go Overboard on Carbs and Fall Short on Protein
When you limit meat, it can be hard to get enough protein and easy to load up on quick carbs like bread, baked goods and pasta, says Langevin. The problem: Carbs — especially the processed, refined kinds — can make your blood sugar levels spike, leading to a vicious cycle of cravings and sugar crashes.
Protein, on the other hand, takes longer to digest, helps stabilize your blood sugar levels and keeps your appetite in check. The takeaway: Pack plenty of plant proteins into your meals. Think about plating half of your dish with veggies, then split the second half between carbs and protein, says Langevin.
Pair your morning cereal with high-protein nut milk, toss beans into your salad or whip up a shake using a plant-based protein powder. And remember to pack some seeds, nuts or little packs of natural peanut butter in your bag to supplement any meals-on-the-go with a quick boost of protein, suggests Langevin.
Read more: 13 Surprising Vegetarian Sources of Protein
4. You Rely On Mock Meats
When you transition to a plant-based diet, you might be tempted to hit the faux meat section of the supermarket. Don't do it! Many meat-like products contain heaps of sodium, flavor enhancers and preservatives, according to Langevin.
And that's not all: Many alternative meats include processed ingredients like fillers and gums, Largeman-Roth adds. That's why it's always essential to read the nutrition facts label on the back of the package. Pay close attention to the sodium content (anything over 20 percent of your daily value is too high), saturated fats and protein. Also, scour the ingredient lists. "You want real, whole ingredients, such as whole grains, nuts, peas or soybeans to top the list on your mock meats," says Largeman-Roth.
5. You Don’t Plan Ahead
If you don't prep plant-based meals for the week, odds are you won't get enough fruits, veggies and proteins on your dish. Plus, you might over-rely on takeout and packaged foods for a quick solution, says Largeman-Roth.
And when you're not adequately prepared, you'll likely fall back on easy, less nutrient-dense options like frozen pizzas, which defeats the purpose of a healthy plant-based diet in the first place, Langevin says.
To avoid this trap, plan meals in advance. On Sunday, think about what you're going to eat for the workweek, and then head to the grocery store. "Since you're eating little to no meat, you'll probably save some cash, which you can then spend on quality produce, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains," says Largeman-Roth. Keeping your kitchen stocked with these plant-based staples will be a lifesaver on busy nights when you need to whip up a quick meal.
Another trick? Try cooking large batches and freeze portions for another week, recommends Langevin. A big pot of lentil chili can be the gift that keeps on giving.