Plant-Based Diet for beginners

Eating healthier can feel hard — just ask Sheinelle Jones. The co-anchor of Weekend TODAY and co-host of the 3rd Hour of TODAY made it her New Year’s resolution to “eat clean” in 2017, 2018, and (yup) 2019.

“It sounds silly, but ‘eat clean in 2020’ doesn’t rhyme,” she tells “I didn’t want another year to go by and to set a resolution I made years before.” But after trying cutting carbs, counting calories, and even eating keto, she’s finally found a successful way to make good on her resolution to eat more mindfully: by following a plant-based diet.

She’s not the only person jumping in on the plant-based trend. New cookbooks like Mostly Plants, products like Banza chickpea pasta, and meal delivery companies like Plantable all extol the benefits of eating more veggies, beans, fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains and make it easier than ever to do so. But is eating plant-based really that much better for you than keto, paleo, or any of the other diets you’re currently seeing all over Instagram?

“What I love about plant-based diets is that they promote inclusivity over exclusivity and foods that are as close to their original, natural state as possible,” says Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, Nutrition Director at the Good Housekeeping Institute. “The idea is that the more you can add veggies to your plate, the more likely you are to displace the calories from less nutritious sources. That can be beneficial for your health and weight overall.”

Here’s everything you need to know about following a plant-based diet:

What can you eat on a plant-based diet?

The definition of a plant-based diet can depend on who you ask. Generally, it is an eating style that emphasizes real, whole foods that come from plants, including:

  • Vegetables: kale, spinach, tomatoes, cauliflower, potatoes, squash, etc.
  • Whole grains: brown rice, oats, quinoa, barley, etc.
  • Legumes: peas, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, beans, etc.
  • Plant-based protein like tofu or tempeh
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds
  • Fruits
  • Plant-based oils
  • Spices and herbs
  • Unsweetened beverages: coffee, tea, sparkling water, etc.

For Sheinelle, her typical day went something like this:

  • Breakfast: oatmeal with sliced banana
  • Lunch: black bean soup
  • Snack: roasted kale chips with nutritional yeast
  • Dinner: lentil pasta with homemade tomato sauce

What can’t you eat on a plant-based diet?

What you decide to avoid is up to you. For the most part, people on plant-based diets eat less of the following:

  • Fast food
  • Desserts and sweetened beverages
  • Refined grains: white rice, white bread, refined pasta, etc.
  • Packaged foods: cookies, chips, sugary cereals, etc.
  • Processed meats: bacon, sausage, etc.

But what about meat, seafood, eggs, cheese, and all those other favorites? Sheinelle decided to eat mostly vegan for the first month, but plans on enjoying eggs and seafood after the fact — and that can still count as plant-based.

“I think many people get a little caught up in the idea of ‘plant-based’ meaning vegetarian or vegan and that’s simply not the case,” London says. “Plant-based does not mean eliminating food groups or lean sources of protein in totality! It’s much friendlier than that.”

She recommends choosing low-fat, unsweetened dairy products and dairy alternatives (like unsweetened soy milk) to get sufficient potassium, magnesium, and calcium. “These nutrients counterbalance the effects of sodium in the diet and have the effect of minimizing bloat,” London adds. Adding some seafood to your plate of veggies will also help supply your body with cognition-boosting omega-3’s.

Plus, it’s not realistic to assume you’ll never eat or drink something you love again. “I don’t want to live my life where I can’t have a cinnamon roll,” Sheinelle says. “Even if you do 70/30 plant-based eating, I think your body kind of feels a difference. That’s kind of where I am.”

How do you transition to a plant-based diet?

Before she tried her plant-based diet, Sheinelle felt that snacking — especially on the sweet stuff — tripped her up, not to mention all the free food (pizza!) in the TODAY studio. To make good on her resolution, she enlisted the help of meal delivery service Plantable on the recommendation of her friend. The 28-day plan had her choosing her own breakfast — usually oatmeal with banana from the office cafeteria — and snacks (like trail mix), and then eating prepared meals for lunch and dinner.

While she found that less prep work and shopping made it easier to stick to her new plan, the built-in nutrition coaching from Plantable also helped her navigate different situations as they came up. Now that she’s finished her month-long trial, Sheinelle plans on implementing some of the lessons she’s learned in her own kitchen in addition to ordering a few meals from Plantable à la carte.

You don’t need to subscribe to a meal plan to start a plant-based diet though. London advises trying the following first:

  • Eat more veggies, more often whenever you can.
  • Switch your typical portion sizes for meat and vegetables.
  • Fill up on a salad or veggie-heavy soup before your main meal.
  • Cook with plant-based oils, like olive, canola, sesame, and peanut.
  • Snack on nuts and seeds for more fiber and protein.
  • Sip on unsweetened coffee and tea.
  • Emphasize real, whole foods versus processed ones.
  • Enjoy sweets and treats as indulgences in smaller amounts.

Is plant-based the best diet?

Yes, a plant-based diet is 100% the way to go, London says. “Plant-based eating is a holistic approach to better health, but in a tangible, simple, and actionable way that won’t overwhelm you,” she says. “The reason why fad diets backfire is because they’re motivating at first, but ultimately require elimination and restriction, which isn’t a way of life! That’s the beauty of Sheinelle’s plan.”

Sheinelle herself noticed a big difference just a few days after starting her plant-based diet. She wakes up more easily, feels more present, has more energy, and noticed her persistent stomach pains finally went away. “It felt really good to be able to wake up in the morning and not have a stomach ache, not feel indigestion,” she says.

She also saw a change in how her clothes fit. “Dresses I hadn’t been able to zip in more than a year, I’ve been able to wear,” Sheinelle shared. “I feel like I lost more inches than weight.”

Her next mission: passing on what she’s learned about healthy plant-based eating to her family, including her mom, husband, and children.

“There’s this notion that if you eat healthy it can’t taste good, but that’s just not true,” she says. Amen to that!