So you’ve decided you want to transition into a plant-based diet, or maybe you’re just trying to cut down on your consumption of animal products. It can be pretty overwhelming, I know. There are so many “rules” on how to eat, and so many meat and cheese substitutes lining the grocery store aisles and looking like oh-so-tempting options to replace your favorite animal proteins.
It’s easy to become an “unhealthy vegan”. After all, Oreos and pop tarts are animal-product free. When I first became vegan, I was following a strict diet with absolutely no meat, no dairy, and no eggs. I was so focused on replacing the things I wasn’t eating with processed options, as well as filling up on carbs (and not the good kind) for every meal, that I ended up feeling exhausted and even gained weight. I had deprived my body of some crucial vitamins and nutrients.
But, when done the right way, adopting a vegan or more plant based diet can do wonders for your health and the environment! Read on to get the low-down on the benefits of eating plant-based and how to make the transition as easy (and healthy!) as possible.
Why go vegan?
Veganism is so much more than just a trendy diet or a passing fad. In the last three years, the number of Americans who identify as vegan has risen from just 1 percent to upwards of 6 percent. Athletes like Venus Williams and Tom Brady are thriving on a primarily plant-based diet, and demonstrating how it can fuel you and help with athletic performance. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Beyonce are showing the public that going vegan isn’t the “hippie trend” it was once thought to be.
There are plenty of reasons to make the switch to a more plant-based diet. Some may make the transition in order to take a stand against the current food system and animal cruelty. Others might cut out animal products to benefit the environment. Livestock and the emissions created by raising them produce greenhouse gases that are far more powerful and detrimental to the environment than carbon dioxide.
For me, I chose to adopt a vegan diet in order to heal my body after cancer. There are so many studies that have shown the benefits a vegan diet can have on a person’s health. These diets are associated with weight loss, lower blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol, and a decreased risk of heart disease and cancer.
However, like I said, when I first transitioned into veganism, I did it completely wrong, resulting in my body feeling exhausted and not fully healing. It wasn’t until I learned how to do plant-based eating the right way that I finally began to heal. So here are my tips to help you thrive on a vegan diet, as well as make the transition to plant-based eating easier and more successful.
Tips for plant-based eating
- Don’t simply substitute animal products for the vegan version
When you first start out, it may be tempting to stock up on vegan “cheeze” or fake bacon to replace the foods that you’re missing. And while these things are fine in moderation, try not to make them staples in your diet. Just because they’re vegan doesn’t mean they’re any healthier than the real version. They’re often extremely processed and filled with ingredients that you can’t even pronounce. Try finding substitutes that you can make at home, with natural ingredients, like homemade eggplant bacon or cashew cheese spread.
- Know that it’s okay to break the rules
You don’t have to feel like you’ve made the transition to plant-based eating and now you’ll never have another piece of meat or an egg again. When I started out on a vegan diet, I completely cut out all animal products, but I soon came to realize that my body needed the occasional animal protein. I like to call my diet “plant-based flexitarian”, because I follow a mostly plant-based diet, but I also enjoy the occasional Wild Salmon or white fish and certified organic chicken if that’s what my body is craving. It’s all about knowing your body, what works and what doesn’t, and not getting down on yourself if you are craving an In-N-Out Burger or some ghee to spread on your toast.
- Make sure you’re getting a variety of foods
It can be easy to miss out on so many vital nutrients when you’re eating plant based. Especially if you tend to favor the more processed foods. That’s why it’s so important to work a variety of foods into your diet. Leafy greens are great for getting Vitamin A, K, C and folate. Blackberries and blueberries are filled with powerful antioxidants and phytochemicals. Nuts, like almonds and walnuts are great sources of healthy fats, protein and Vitamin E. So switch up the fruits and vegetables you’re eating throughout the week to get a variety of vitamins and minerals, and eat plenty of high-fiber whole grains, like quinoa, buckwheat and rice and beans. I’m always making well-balanced grain bowls: top brown rice, or quinoa, with beans and a mix of sautéed or roasted veggies and avocado.
4. Meeting your daily protein requirement can be easy
People tend to make a big deal about vegans getting enough protein, but if you put your mind to it, it can be super easy to do. Sure, it can seems a little overwhelming, but vegan sources of protein really are plentiful. They include tofu, tempeh, edamame (soybeans), lentils, chickpeas and beans. Nuts, like almonds and walnuts, and seeds, like sunflower and pumpkin seeds, also deliver protein. The protein recommendation for women is around 46 grams, and it’s 56 grams for men. Two tablespoons of peanut butter can deliver 8 grams. One cup of cooked quinoa added to your daily salad could add another 8, and if you throw in a ½ cup of cooked lentils and you can get an extra 9. There are so many easy ways to add plant-based proteins to your diet.
- Be aware of common nutrient deficiencies
Even if you are eating a whole-food rich and varied diet, there are some nutrients that are just flat out difficult to get if you’re a vegan. Vitamin B-12 is a big one that’s found mostly in animal products. Nutritional yeast, a common cheese substitute for vegans, does contain some B-12, but you might want to consider supplementing. The same goes for vitamin D, iron and omega 3’s. While you can still get these following a vegan diet – vitamin D from the sun, iron from beans and leafy greens (not as easily absorbable as it is from animal) and Omega-3’s (EPA and DHA) are found mainly in fatty fish like salmon, though they can be made by the body in small amounts from ALA, another type of omega-3 that’s found in plants like flaxseed, walnuts and soy. You still might want to consider adding these as supplements to make sure you’re getting enough and there is DHA/EPA made from algae.
- Have fun with it!
Transitioning to a vegan diet doesn’t mean depriving yourself of foods. Instead it can be an invitation to work more whole plant-based foods into your diet AND become more creative in the kitchen! Experiment with different cuisines that you may have never tried before, the Indian and Asian cultures are filled with delicious recipes that are animal-product free. Plus, there are so many Instagrams and blogs out there to give you endless recipes and inspiration for your vegan adventure.