Ovo-lacto-vegetarian. Flexitarian. Pescetarian. There are so many specialised diets, many that can cause confusion. So it’s nice to discover one that explains itself in plain English – the plant-based diet.
Part of the appeal of this diet is its straightforwardness. It’s what it says on the tin – a diet centered around plants, preferably in whole, minimally-processed forms. It isn’t an “ism”, nor is it attached to any rigid doctrine.
It helps recognise and respect the animals and the people involved in our complex food system. It will almost certainly improve your health, and has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
This easy-to-use guide will help you fit plant-based eating into your life. Your real-world, hectic, imperfect, life. You’ll learn how to plan and prep tasty plant-based meals for anyone from a solo eater to a family of omnivores. We’ve even included a list of our favourite plant-based restaurants in the UK.
Whether you’re a seasoned herbivore or still in your early days, you’ll discover plenty in this handy reference.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.Michael pollan
What’s the Difference Between Plant-Based and Vegan?
As ‘plant-based’ and ‘vegan’ enter our mainstream vocabulary, understanding the difference can be confusing.
You may have heard the two terms being used interchangeably. But in fact, their history and philosophies separate them.
While the idea of an animal-free diet has been around for millennia, the term “vegan” is less than a century old. It was coined in 1944 by Donald Watson, who co-founded the UK’s Vegan Society. The new term came from the first and last syllables of the word ‘vegetarian’. “The beginning and end of vegetarian”, as Watson put it.
The Vegan Society define veganism as living without exploiting animals. Strict vegans eat no meat, dairy, eggs or honey and also cut out non-food products that have animal origins. This includes textiles like wool, leather and silk. It also includes more subtly non-vegan products such as soap made with animal fat and candles made with beeswax.
What’s ‘Plant Based’?
A plant-based diet is just that – a diet. (As in a way of eating, rather than ‘being on a diet’.) If you want to avoid non-food animal products such as wool and beeswax, that’s up to you; the diet doesn’t insist on it.
The origin of the term ‘plant-based’ started with the work of Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a nutritional scientist at Cornell University. In his book The China Project, he argues that a low fat, high fibre diet composed mostly of vegetables, fruits and whole grains is the most scientifically-proven way to avoid heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
Campbell coined the word to differentiate his recommended diet from vegetarianism and veganism. He thought these diets were not sufficiently focused on health and nutrition. Vegetarians “consume too many animal based foods and total fat”. Vegans “consume too much processed food and total fat”.
In contrast, the plant-based diet is centered around healthy, whole foods. Because these foods don’t include animal products, they happen to fit into a vegan diet.
Not all vegan foods fit into a plant-based diet, though. A vegan could tuck into chips with ketchup without going against their principles. But the plant-based foods in this dish are far from healthy and whole.
The primary goal of a plant-based diet is to maintain wellness through wholesome, balanced food. In the next section, you’ll learn how to eat a balanced plant-based diet that offers everything your body needs to stay healthy.
How to Put Together a Plant-Based Meal
According to the NHS Eatwell guide, about a third of the food we eat should be protein. A little less than a third should be whole grains and other starches.
Finally, a little more than a third should be fruit and veg. (Not every meal has to meet this ratio, but you should try to approach it over the course of a day or week.)
Despite what you may have heard, it’s easy to fill up every slice of the Eatwell pie with whole, plant-based foods.
If this is your first foray into plant-based eating, meat and fish may have made up your protein quota until now. You may be understandably anxious about where your protein will come from. But don’t worry, the plant world is full of protein sources to keep your body fueled and strong.
Legumes and Pulses
Legumes include peas and chickpeas, as well as crops harvested for their oil, like soya beans and peanuts. Pulses are types of legumes, harvested for their dry seeds and include kidney beans and lentils.
It’s best not to get tied up in working out the differences between the two. Both pulses and legumes are low-fat, abundant and tasty sources of protein.
Nuts and Seeds
Both nuts and seeds are nutrient-dense foods to fill up on and help meet your protein requirements. Almonds have a particularly high protein-to-energy ratio. Cashews, pistachios, pecans, walnuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are all great options.
Nut butters are also a satisfying addition to a meal or snack, but watch out for their high calorie count.
Carbohydrates and Starches
Your carb requirements on a plant-based diet are just the same as on any other diet. You’ll just need to watch out for refined, white versions, and eat whole grain versions instead.
Whole grains are rich in both protein and energising carbohydrates. If you’re used to eating white rice, try switching to brown, as its less refined and more suited to a plant-based diet.
Experiment with other whole grains too, such as barley and freekeh. Don’t forget about quinoa, although it’s technically a “pseudocereal” and not a grain. Along with soya beans, it’s one of the few plant-based foods that includes all nine essential amino acids necessary for human health.
You can still enjoy spuds when you’re plant-based! Potatoes offer a great nutrient-to-calorie ratio, as long as they aren’t drenched in oil.
We now have access to more tubers than ever before, so don’t constrain yourself to white potatoes. Sweet potatoes get their vibrant colour from beta carotene (the same form of vitamin A found in carrots).
Jewel-like purple potatoes are as antioxidant-rich as berries. Try them baked in their jackets for an eye-popping side dish.
Fruit and Vegetables
Once you start plant-based shopping, you may start to notice just how many varieties of fruits and vegetables are available. Every bit of that beautiful bounty, from knobbly celeriac to fanciful dragon fruit, can play a part in your plant-based diet.
Just don’t mask all those beautiful flavours in salt, sugar and fat! If you’re used to dousing your peas in melted butter, you may be surprised by how delicately sweet they taste on their own.
The NHS says that a plant-based diet can provide almost everything a body needs to stay healthy. There are certain nutrients that are harder to find in plants than they are in animal products.
These nutrients include iron, calcium, vitamins B12 and D and omega-3 fatty acids. You can find them in the following products:
Iron – pulses, whole grains, dark leafy greens
Calcium – sesame seeds, pulses, dried fruit
Vitamin D – mushrooms, sun exposure
Vitamin B12 – fortified foods and supplements
Omega-3 fatty acids – flaxseed, walnuts
Vitamin B12 is almost impossible to find in plant-based foods and supplements are generally recommended.
Where to Start Your Plant-Based Journey
With a little preparation, you can ensure a smooth transition onto your grand plant journey. (If you’re worried about nutrients, before you make any drastic changes to your diet, talk to your doctor.)
Build a Plant-Based Pantry
If you have to run out for an obscure ingredient every time you cook a new recipe, you’ll have a hard time sticking to a plant-based kitchen repertoire. To begin with, flick through plant-based cookbooks or recipe websites and make a list of all the ingredients that appear often.
Don’t be put off by ingredients you’ve never heard of, they’re all part of the journey. Besides, there are a surprising amount of ways you can use pomegranate molasses!
Canned pulses and dried grains will play an especially important role in your plant-based pantry. They’ll always be waiting for you, ready to transform into a nutritious meal at a moment’s notice. Fresh fruits and veggies will also appear heavily. Try subscribing to a weekly veg box so you always have fresh, seasonal produce to hand.
Plan and Prep Your Meals
Plant-based cooking may take a different amount of prep than you’re used to. Some dried pulses and grains have to be soaked overnight before cooking for example.
Batch cooking large meals to eat throughout the week helps reduce prep time. This is especially helpful when you’re learning new cooking techniques. Plus, meal prep can be a fun weekend project with kids. They can help peel or chop vegetables and separate herbs from the stem.
Soups, stews and casseroles all work well when prepared in large quantities. You can store these in a large container in your refrigerator and reheat as much as you need each day.
Others, such as stir-fries, taste better when cooked to order. But you can still prep them in advance. Chop the raw ingredients you need for four or five days. Then store as much as you need for each day in a separate reusable container.
While whole plant foods can supply most of your body’s needs, nutrients such as vitamin B12 and vitamin D are hard to find in non-animal foods. Many following a plant-based diet take supplements to fill in any nutritional gaps.
Starting a new lifestyle is never easy, and stress won’t make it any easier. Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t eat 100% whole, plant-based foods every day from the day you start.
You may find it easier to transition gradually rather than quitting all animal products in one go. You could start with one plant-based day a week, for example. This approach will allow you to experiment with cooking to figure out what works for you.
Some people who have committed to plant-based eating allow themselves to stray from the diet on special occasions. Or for a set number of days per month. Doubtful family members may also be more open to a plant-based diet if it includes these conditions.
It’s better to start supplementing before you see the symptoms of vitamin deficiency, such as tiredness and difficulty concentrating, than after!
What About My Family?
Whether everyone is on board from the start, or you have a tricky audience, it’s still possible to keep everyone happy.
The Plant-Based Family
So your family has agreed to join you on your plant-based adventure? Great! You just have a few things to consider (aside from the maths involved in scaling up those new veg recipes).
Parents should pay especially close attention to what they serve their children. The NHS says that babies and children can thrive on a plant-based diet. But many plant-based whole foods are both relatively low-calorie and high in fiber. This can cause children to feel full before they’ve eaten enough to nourish them.
Try offering energy-dense snacks, such as smooth nut butters and dried fruit. Give them a daily children’s multivitamin if you’re worried.
The Mixed Plate: Feeding Omnivores as an Herbivore
Even if everyone you know is wholeheartedly in support of your lifestyle change, you’re likely to have to feed meat eaters occasionally. You can still provide meat options to your family and friends without compromising on your own diet.
DIY meals are great for this. Take tacos. You can provide all the ingredients to fill whole grain tortillas. Try pico de gallo, guacamole and beans or jackfruit, along with a meat option. Vegetable curries, stews and stir-fries work well with a similar approach. Just stir in cooked meat for those who want it.
To make this option-based style of cooking work for your schedule, try preparing meat in bulk. Grilled, sliced chicken breast, lean pork and beef make ideal omnivorous additions to plant-based meals. Be sure to cool the meat completely before refrigerating it in reusable containers.
Is It Possible to Eat Out Plant-Based?
People gather at restaurants to enjoy each other’s company as well as the food. You won’t enjoy your plant-based diet if it stops you from socialising with your friends and family, and neither will they.
A really good vegan restaurant can please everyone at the table, meat-eating or otherwise. But don’t immediately dismiss places that list meat on the menu! Many restaurants are happy to accommodate diners who opt out of animal products. In cosmopolitan cities like London, every savvy chef knows to offer at least one vegan main.
If the non-meat options end at salads and sides, don’t worry. Order yourself an array of dishes and lord over your mezze of mini plates.
Plant-Based Dining Around the UK
Today, you can find cruelty-free dining options anywhere from Cornwall to Cambridge and beyond. We’ve rounded up some of the best restaurants in the UK offering fresh, plant-based food.
Hendersons – Edinburgh
Hendersons is the UK’s longest running vegetarian restaurant. It has been serving veggie goodness since 1962. A firm favourite is the vegan haggis and root mash. When in Scotland…
El Piano – York
El Piano offers plant-based food which is also gluten free and locally sourced. The menu includes a key indicating the percentage of your meal that was sourced within 30 miles.
Milgi – Cardiff
With a plant-based menu, Milgi focuses on “everyday eating and creating dishes that are satisfying and flavour rich”. There is a popular lunch offer with a build your own whole food bowl for £6.50 — what a bargain!
The Warehouse Cafe – Birmingham
The Warehouse Cafe is committed to sustainability and recycling as well as plant-based food. Their mezze plates, bowls and curries expertly balance flavour and nutrition.
Rabbit – Exeter
Rabbit is the first vegan cafe in Exeter. Their menu is comprised of equally enticing “Vice” and “Virtue” options. The latter leans more towards a plant-based whole food approach, but Vice is nice when you need a little break.
Happy Friday Kitchen – Oxford
Oxford’s only 100% vegan restaurant, Happy Friday Kitchen’s menu strays towards deep-fried and (vegan) cheese-covered options. But they also offer bright, beautiful Buddha Bowls full of whole foods.
Farmacy Kitchen – Notting Hill
Farmacy Kitchen offers complete plant-based meals free from additives, refined sugar and chemicals. They’ve gathered some Instagram fame with their “syringe shot” doses of health juice too.
Mildred’s – Soho, Camden, King’s Cross and Dalston
This popular vegetarian restaurant has had over 20 years of success. Notable dishes include the sweet potato curry and the mushroom and ale pie.
Easy Plant-Based Meal Ideas
Savoury Rice Porridge
Oats are an obvious plant-based breakfast choice. Savoury breakfast fans can swap oats for Chinese-style rice porridge.
To make this hearty meal, cook whole grain rice in a 1:9 ratio with water or vegetable stock until soupy. Top with chopped spring onions, coriander, mushrooms, roasted peanuts, soy sauce and sesame oil.
When you’re eating plant-based, condiments and toppings can be life-savers. Experiment with fresh herbs, dried spices, crunchy nuts, and plant-based sauces such as tamari and tahini.
Whole grain tortillas make the perfect packaging for on-the-go lunches, such as hummus wraps. There’s plenty of good premade hummus on the market, but it’s almost as easy to make your own.
Just blitz cooked, drained chickpeas in a blender. Then season them to your own taste with garlic, tahini, lemon juice, cumin, salt and pepper. Add sliced raw vegetables for crunch before rolling up your wrap.
You can still eat bread and tortillas on a plant-based diet. Look for brands that use 100% whole grain flour and no animal products such as butter, lard or eggs.
Unlike refined carbohydrates and sugars, these whole grain foods have enough fibre to keep you satisfied through the day.
Thai Vegetable Curry
Curry is a time-honoured method of making vegetables even more delicious. Thai home cooks have developed a quick and easy way to get complex flavour on the table in minutes – prepared curry paste.
Stock up on it, plus unsweetened coconut milk, at your local Asian market. Look for sauces free from fish stocks. When you get a hankering for Thai spice, stir-fry a generous spoonful of paste in a pan for a few seconds, then stir in the chopped veggies of your choice and enough coconut milk to cover.
Once the vegetables are simmered to tenderness, sprinkle with peanuts and serve with whole grain rice. You can add cooked, sliced meat for carnivorous friends.
If you’re running out of ideas for plant-based meals, look beyond Western cuisine. Many cultures around the world eat mostly plant-based food, either out of necessity or for religious reasons.
Cooks in these cultures have had centuries to learn how to balance flavour and nutrition without animal products. We have plenty to learn from them!
Eating Plant-Based, in a Nutritious Nutshell
In this crash course on plant-based eating, we’ve covered everything from the history of herbivorism to hip meatless restaurants. Here’s the main points to sum up this plant-based eating guide:
- Plant-based eating is a diet, not a doctrine. Its primary goal is to maintain good health, and it has been shown to prevent heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
- Plant foods in whole, minimally-processed forms, including legumes and pulses, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fruit and vegetables, comprise the bulk of a plant-based diet. The diet does not include animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs.
- You can get nearly everything your body needs to function from whole plant foods, with the notable exception of vitamin B12. Supplements can fill in the gaps.
- Meal planning and prep can make plant-based cooking easier and more efficient.
- You can please everyone at the table, meat-eating or otherwise, if you offer simple meat options to add to your plant-based recipes.
- It’s possible to stick to your plant-based diet while eating out. Either by choosing vegan restaurants or by finding appropriate options on conventional menus.
- Add excitement to plant-based meals by showcasing diverse flavours, textures and ingredients.
We’ve tried to arm you with everything you’ll need to enter the plant-based world. But you’re bound to have questions as you move forward. Luckily, there’s a wealth of information available from reputable online sources. These include the NHS Eatwell guide and The Vegan Society.
Join the Eco & Beyond community for more information, tips and tricks on plant-based eating, as well as tasty recipes to add to your repertoire. We’ll have something new for you to discover every week.