table full of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains

What is a plant-based diet, and is it healthy?

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has long been an advocate of health eating, and his administration recently created six new plant-based lifestyle medicine programs throughout the city. He is also encouraging all New Yorkers to join him in plant-based eating, a habit he started after receiving a diabetes diagnosis. He says his health has improved, his mind is clearer, and his energy level is “amazing” after making the shift.   

We spoke with clinical nutritionist Sabrina Toledano, MS, RD, a certified dietician-nutritionist who counsels patients at the Pancreas Center of NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, to find out more about plant-based eating.

“If you want to follow a plant-based diet, think of it as a lifestyle change, not a diet,” Toledano says. “This mindset can help lead to health improvements, both physically and mentally.” 

What is a plant-based diet? 

A plant-based diet is exactly what it sounds like. The diet consists primarily of food made of plants: fruits and vegetables in addition to nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes.  

A plant-based diet is not a vegetarian or vegan diet; you can eat poultry, beef, eggs, fish, and dairy products, however most of your nutrient intake is coming from plant-based food sources. There is no set ratio of plant to animal foods on a plant-based diet, but at least 2/3 of each plate of food (or meal) you eat is a good way to start. The emphasis should be on plants.  

Is a plant-based diet healthy? 

Yes. A plant-based diet is considered to be nutrient-dense and packed with fiber, healthy fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals. It is a very healthy way of eating and can meet all of your nutrient needs.  

Plant based vegan veggies meals on dining table flat lay

Who is a plant-based diet right for?  

Most adults can benefit from a plant-based diet. Research shows plant-based diets may prevent and treat chronic diseases and reduce dependence on medications. If you suffer from a digestive disease, consult your doctor prior to changing your diet. 

How do you get enough protein on a plant-based diet?  

Try not to equate protein with meat. There are a lot of great plant-based protein sources, including tofu, lentils, beans, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and quinoa. Don’t forget: Dairy, eggs, beef, poultry, and fish are allowed on the plant-based diet, they just shouldn’t be the center of the meal.  

How do you start a plant-based diet?  

Getting started on a plant-based diet may seem overwhelming, but take it one day at a time. Eat a variety of fruits and/or vegetables with all meals. Incorporate whole grains, such as oatmeal, quinoa, farro, brown rice, or whole wheat bread. Healthy fats—avocado, nuts, olives, seeds—are a great way to keep you satisfied.  

To start: Each meal or snack should be made up of 2/3 plants and no more than 1/3 animal product (egg, yogurt, fish, or poultry). As you get used to eating more plants, try limiting yourself to one animal product a day. 

Should any plants be avoided on a plant-based diet? 

All plants can be included on a plant-based diet.


More information

Sabrina Toledano, MS, RD, CSO, CDN, is senior clinical nutritionist in the Division of Digestive Diseases at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.