The 5 Phases of the Plant-Based Journey

A complete transition to a whole food plant-based diet rarely happens overnight.

After 10 years of eating plant-based and educating thousands about this topic, I have noticed that there are five stages that people often go through as they move into their plant-based lifestyle.

In today’s article, I will define these phases, including what you can expect and how loved ones may react.

Before I get to that though, it is important to note that your transition may vary; some of you may experience each of the five phases, while others may skip one or more phases altogether.

Everyone’s journey is slightly different so embrace your own individual path.

Phase 1: The Principle of One

During the Principle of One phase, you transition to plant-based by focusing on ONE change at a time:

  • Eating plant-based for ONE entire day each week.
  • Eating ONE plant-based meal every day.
  • Eliminating ONE single food category, such as red meat.

Card with Number 1

To learn more about the Principle of One concept, review our article Change Your Life Forever – One Habit at a Time.

Applying the Principle of One is an easy way to dip your toe into the plant-based lifestyle.

It is the driving force behind movements like Meatless Monday and Meat Free Monday, which are based on changing your eating habits just one day a week.

Sir Paul McCartney and his daughters, the founders of Meat Free Monday, recently released a 5-minute video called #OneDayAWeek explaining how not eating meat on Mondays can make a world of difference for the planet.

At UC Davis Integrative Medicine, we also believe it can make a world of difference for your health!

What You May Eat

In this first phase, your ‘normal’ way of eating will be more or less preserved. This means you will most likely still enjoy foods that are high in fats and oils, salt and sugar.

When you do eat plant-based, you will often look for meat and dairy alternatives (the so-called ‘transition foods’) that remind you of the taste and texture of the animal-based foods you are accustomed to eating.

What Friends and Family May Think

Because this initial phase is a gentle introduction to the plant-based lifestyle, your friends and family will likely be supportive. Your habit change is small and thus will not interfere with their routines or be threatening to them.

The Challenge

Card with Letter WBecause it requires a smaller commitment, this first phase is relatively easy to adopt.

In a recent interview, McCartney explains how this method offers a gentle way to experiment with a plant-based lifestyle.

But it is essential that you push yourself to move on to the next phase as soon as you can.

While the Principle of One is a great start, it is not an endpoint; you must eventually change your eating habits more than just one day (or meal) to optimize the benefits of the plant-based lifestyle.

The Label

You may call yourself a ‘flexitarian’ when you are in this phase, meaning you eat some plant-based meals while also continuing to follow a more standard diet.

Phase 2: Home Only

Card with Number 2In this phase, you commit to eating 100 percent plant-based while at home. However, when you go out to eat, you may still consume animal-based foods.

What You May Eat

Due to the fact that you will be eating animal foods and foods that are still high in fat and oils, salt, and sugar when you are outside the home, you will probably continue to seek out meat and dairy alternatives that remind you of the foods you ‘like.’

What Friends and Family May Think

In this second phase, your family and friends may start to object to your dietary choices because your decision to consume plant-based meals at home will interfere with their normal eating routine and challenge their beliefs.

Their objections may be somewhat softened by the fact that you do continue to eat animal foods when outside the home.

The Challenge

This is a critical ‘make or break’ phase.

Card with Letter F

While you will be implementing significant changes to your diet, your progress will nevertheless be hampered because you continue to eat some animal-based foods when you leave the home.

By hanging on to old habits, your taste buds will be slow to adjust to foods that contain less fat and oil, salt or sugar, and the plant-based foods you eat might seem somewhat bland.

And because you continue to eat animal-based and more processed foods, it will be hard to reach your goals in terms of weight loss or better health.

The risk is that you may become discouraged or even believe that a plant-based diet is not for you.

The Label

When you are in this phase, you may call yourself ‘mostly plant-based.’

And Michael Pollan‘s motto “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants” will likely become your motto.

Phase 3: Plants All the Time

Card with Number 3In this phase, you eat plant-based at every meal, every day, both inside and outside the home.

What You May Eat

Phase 3 is a time when you will steer clear of animal-based foods and embrace new plant-based options.

Furthermore, you will have questions.

Lots of them.

You will wonder where you will get your protein (and if you will get enough).

Equally, you may not know exactly what to eat or how to prepare your meals.

During this phase, you may still choose to eat ‘transition foods,’ (i.e., meat and dairy alternatives) but that will be the exception rather than the rule.

As you move forward within this phase, you should be open to exploring new foods.

The more you expand your food vocabulary and experience, the less you will miss the ‘old’ foods.

What Friends and Family May Think

Card with Letter P

This is the phase that loved ones will often have the loudest objections about your choices since your plant-based diet will likely have a direct impact on their routines.

From their standpoint, it will be more difficult to plan home meals, choose restaurants or eat at friends’ houses.

You will also feel challenged if you are responsible for cooking animal-based foods for the non-plant-based eaters in the house.

To refresh your memory on how to deal with the opinions of others, you might want to refer back to the following two articles:

The Challenge

Card with Letter BYou may begin your plant-based journey at Phase 3 (skipping the first two phases) because of a documentary, a book, or a challenge (like our Food Day Challenge!) that inspired you or due to a health scare that prodded you into action.

Because of this, you may enter into the phase without a full understanding of the science behind plant-based nutrition. You may also be undetermined, filled with unanswered questions, and afraid you will do things ‘wrong.’

Between doubts, confusion and the objections from loved ones, Phase 3 will be the most challenging stage of your journey.

But it is also a very exciting phase because you start to see more concrete results in terms of weight loss and improved health outcomes.

Seeing tangible success will give you the confidence to continue.

The Label

When you are in this phase, you may call yourself ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based.’

Phase 4: Fine Tune

In this phase, you will ‘fine tune’ your plant-based knowledge and habits.

What You Will Eat

Card with Number 4

Phase 4 marks a shift in how you eat; you are more concerned about including foods that are good for you rather than avoiding the bad.

You will start to make an effort to eat WHOLE (unprocessed or minimally processed) plant foods at every meal.  These foods are shown in Your Daily Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet Guide.

Because your taste buds have grown used to plant-based foods, your cravings for transition foods will ease then disappear.

What Your Friends and Family May Think

In Phase 4, your family and friends have probably started to support your plant-based lifestyle; they see the positive results and are happy for you.

There is less worry about inconvenience because they have become familiar with your eating routine.

In general, they will begin to embrace your decision to eat plant-based.

Seeing how going plant-based has changed your life, some of your loved ones might even entertain the idea of adopting a plant-based lifestyle themselves.

The Challenge

In Phase 4, things have gotten easier.

You see substantial results and you are crystal clear that the plant-based path is the right choice for you.

But more than sugar, the biggest challenge will be getting ready to leave all oils behind.

The Label

In this phase, you may call yourself a ‘whole food, plant-based eater.’

Phase 5: SOS-Free

Card with Number 5In this final phase, your whole food, plant-based lifestyle has become second nature to you.

You are comfortable and confident in your choices.

What You Will Eat

In this last step, you will complete your transition to plant-based by eliminating the triumvirate of sugar, oil, and salt from your diet.

To learn more why this is important, review these articles:

What Your Friends and Family May Think

Your loved ones will likely continue to support you since they can see for themselves how your diet has improved your health, physical appearance, and outlook.

They no longer object to your new way of eating or see it as inconvenient to them.

In fact, many of them may be ready to join you on your plant-based journey! (just not at Phase 5!)

They view you as an ‘expert,’ particularly when it comes to plant-based food preparation and they begin to say things like, “I will eat like that if you cook it for me.

The best part is that you have probably stopped trying to ‘convince’ people about your choice because your example speaks for itself.

The Challenge

This is the ultimate phase.

Living your whole food, plant-based lifestyle has become easier and easier.

You see the results, and even better, others can see it too and that encourages them to try plant-based for themselves.

But eating SOS-free will be hard, especially on the road.

The Label

You may call yourself ‘whole food, plant-based, SOS-free’ or ‘whole food, plant-based, no oil’ (WFPBNO) since avoiding oil will likely be the hardest challenge of the three.

In closing, remember this is a journey, not a destination.  And it is about progress, not perfection.

In the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

And wherever you are on this continuum, make sure to enjoy the journey!