Few studies have evaluated the association between a healthful plant-based diet and health-related quality of life (HRQoL). We followed 50 290 women in the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS; 1992–2000) and 51 784 women in NHSII (1993–2001) for 8 years to investigate changes in plant-based diet quality in relation to changes in physical and mental HRQoL. Plant-based diet quality was assessed by three plant-based diet indices: overall plant-based diet index (PDI), healthful PDI (hPDI) and unhealthful PDI (uPDI). Physical and mental HRQoL were measured by physical component score (PCS) and mental component score (MCS) of the 36-Item Short Form Health Survey. Diet was assessed 2 years before the HRQoL measurements and both were updated every 4 years. The associations between 4-year changes in PDIs and HRQoL were evaluated. Each 10-point increase in PDI was associated with an improvement of 0·07 (95 % CI 0·01, 0·13) in PCS and 0·11 (95 % CI 0·05, 0·16) in MCS. A 10-point increase in hPDI was associated with an increment of 0·13 (95 % CI 0·08, 0·19) in PCS and 0·09 (95 % CI 0·03, 0·15) in MCS. Conversely, a 10-point increase in uPDI was associated with decreases in PCS and MCS (−0·07 (95 % CI −0·12, −0·02) and −0·10 (95 % CI −0·16, −0·05), respectively). Compared with a stable diet, an increase in hPDI was significantly associated with improvements in physical HRQoL in older women and with mental HRQoL in younger women. In conclusion, adherence to a healthful plant-based diet was modestly associated with improvements in both physical and mental dimensions of HRQoL.