What is a Plant Based Diet?

What is a whole food plant based diet? Here’s everything you need to know, including plant based protein ideas and recipes.

Chickpea salad sandwich | Plant based diet | Whole foods plant based diet | Plant based protein

The term plant based diet or whole food plant based diet have been gaining in popularity. But what do they actually mean? Does it mean you never eat any animal products, like a vegan diet, or consume animal products in moderation? There’s a lot of contention about these terms.

Related: What is a vegan vs. vegetarian diet?

Let’s rely on some credible sources. According to the Harvard Medical School, plant-based eating patterns “focus on foods primarily from plants. It doesn’t mean that you are vegetarian or vegan and never eat meat or dairy. Rather, you are proportionately choosing more of your foods from plant sources.” This indicates that a plant based diet includes occasionally eating meat, like in a “semi-vegetarian” or “flexitarian” diet. Both Harvard and WebMD agree the following diets are included in the term plant based diet:

  • Semi-vegetarian or flexitarian. Someone who occasionally eats animal products, but not on a regular basis.
  • Pescatarian. Someone who does not eat meat and poultry, but still eats fish and seafood. Basically, a vegetarian plus fish.
  • Vegetarian or Lacto-ovo vegetarian. Someone who does not eat meat, poultry, fish and seafood, but still includes dairy and eggs in their diet. (A Lacto vegetarian excludes all but eats dairy; an Ovo vegetarian excludes all but eats eggs.)
  • Vegan. Someone who eats not animal products at all: no eggs, no dairy, and no honey.
Wild Rice Soup Recipe | Plant based diet | Whole foods plant based diet | Plant based protein

Plant based diet vs vegan diet

On the other hand, there are other sources that essentially equate a “plant based diet” to being a synonym with a vegan diet. For example, Forks over Knives gives the following definition for a whole foods plant based diet:

  • Whole food means natural foods that are not heavily processed: whole, unrefined, or minimally refined ingredients.
  • Plant-based means food that comes from plants and does not contain animal ingredients, including meat, milk, eggs, and honey.

Some online sources note that unlike plant based, the word vegan describes a lifestyle: for example, not wearing or carrying any animal products like leather or fur.

Conclusion: There is some contention around the use of the word plant based diet: whether it means eating mostly plants or all plants. Many sources agree a plant based diet is eating mostly plant based food with little to no animal products. However, some sources would argue it is a diet of only plants, equating it with a vegan diet.

Best stir fry vegetables | Plant based diet | Whole foods plant based diet | Plant based protein

Plant based protein ideas

If you’re eating a plant based diet, whether it’s fully or mostly comprised of vegan recipes, eating plant based protein is key for staying satiated and full. Here are some plant based proteins to choose. See the “Plant based recipes” section below for recipes with these ingredients.

  • Legumes: lentils (red, green, brown, French), split peas, black-eyed peas, and beans (black, garbanzo / chickpeas, lima, navy, pinto, white, and kidney)
  • Whole grains: quinoa, barley, bulgur wheat, amaranth, millet, and brown and wild rice
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
  • Soy: Tofu and tempeh (stick to 2 to 4 servings per week)
Acai bowl | Smoothie bowl | Plant based diet | Whole foods plant based diet | Plant based protein

Plant based diet meal plan

If you’re looking for a way to put the plant based diet into action, our 28 Day Plant Based Meal Plan is a great place to start! It includes weekly dinner ideas, breakfast ideas, and lunch ideas, and a meal planning spreadsheet.

Plant based recipes

On this website, we use the term plant based recipe to indicate a recipe that has no meat or animal products (that is, as a synonym for vegan). This still provides flexibility for defining plant based diet. Here are some of our favorite plant based recipes, based on the plant based protein listed above:

Plant based recipes with legumes

Plant based recipes with whole grains

Plant based recipes with nuts & seeds

Plant based recipes with soy

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.

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