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A Beginner’s Guide to Plant-Based Diets

No matter which diet you adopt, eating more fruits, vegetables and whole foods improves health

This basket of fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables is a staple of plant-based diets, including vegan, vegetarian and flexitarian lifestyles.

No matter which diet you adopt, eating more fruits, vegetables and whole foods improves health

For many of us, “eat your vegetables” was heard nightly around the dinner table. We all know that eating more fruits and vegetables and cutting down on meat, dairy and processed foods are some of the best changes we can make for our health.

Fruits and veggies lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels and help us stave off heart disease and obesity. But who knew there were so many dietary options?

“Vegetarian diets are a vast spectrum from one end to the other,” says Dolly Doctor, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Encinitas. "People need to make it convenient for themselves what type of vegetarian diet they want to follow.”

Consider the following when choosing the best plant-based diet for you.

Vegan diet

No animal products, including eggs and dairy. This often extends beyond diet to a lifestyle eschewing leather and products derived from living animals, like beeswax, silk and wool, as well as those tested on animals.

Vegetarian diet

A meatless diet. A vegetarian diet should primarily focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. This can include dairy and eggs, which is referred to as ovolactovegetarian. Be wary of processed foods — just because they’re meat-free doesn’t mean they’re healthy — and prioritize whole grains over refined ones. 

Pescatarian diet

Pescatarians eat fish but are otherwise vegetarian. Swordfish, shark and king mackerel are high in mercury, so swap them out for tuna, salmon or trout. Also, when choosing salmon, stick with wild-caught instead of farm-raised for beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Flexitarian diet

Ranked the third best overall diet by U.S. News and World Report, the flexitarian diet allows users to indulge in a steak or burger every once in a while, as long as they otherwise stick to healthy vegetarian fare.

Macrobiotic diet

This restrictive, Buddhism-inspired eating plan focuses on locally grown produce, whole grains, legumes and bean-based products like tofu, tempeh and miso. Seafood, fruit and nuts are allowed a few times a week. Spicy food is off limits. Meat, dairy, refined grain and refined sugars are out, as are any processed foods, including those that are canned or frozen.