How to Transition to a Plant-Based Diet
When people think about transitioning to a plant-based diet, they often focus on the things they have to give up. No more meat, dairy, or eggs? That seems like such a huge sacrifice and leaves a big hole on the plate.
As a result, they generally turn to substitutes: faux meats and cheeses. These processed, pre-packaged foods are often less than satisfying because they’re pretending to be something they’re not. They don’t taste good, or taste the same as the real thing, leaving the person eating them to wonder if they’re stuck eating tasteless, inferior fakes for the rest of their lives.
Does this sound like a good plan to you?
How I Became an Accidental Vegetarian
Like many people who eat a plant-based diet, I grew up eating meat. Lots of meat. It was a running joke in my family that if there wasn’t a big slab of meat on the plate at dinner time, my father would happily chow down the meat-free meal, smile at my mother and say, “That was great, honey. What’s for dinner?”
I’ve always been interested in the way food affects my body. I followed the Atkins method for several years, and learned how different foods effects my blood sugar. I read the South Beach book, and considered the differences between good carbs and bad, while teaching myself never to eat a meal that didn’t have something green in it. Along the way, I gave up eating sugar, stopped drinking soda, and reduced my consumption of wheat. I also stopped relying on pre-packaged and heavily processed foods, and started cooking at home, using fresh ingredients, so I knew exactly what was going into whatever I was eating.
A few years back, I decided to start growing my own vegetables in my large backyard, primarily because raised vegetable beds would take up about a third of the yard, and reduce my mowing job. I really like growing things, and I also like to cook, so vegetable gardening seemed a good idea. Apparently, it was a very good idea, because my garden exploded in vegetables. So many that I was giving away baskets of vegges, because I couldn’t eat them fast enough.
So, that’s how I became a vegetarian. I grew vegetables. When your fridge is filled with fresh veggies that have to be eaten, it’s pretty easy to fall into the habit of not eating meat. The meat literally got crowded out of my fridge and off my plate, and never returned. Call me the accidental vegetarian.
The Plan That Succeeds
I realize not all of you can make the transition the way I did, but there are some things I learned during this process that might be helpful to you. How can you make the transition to a plant-based diet, and be successful? Here are some simple ideas:
1. You Don’t Have to Do it All at Once
One of the hardest things to do is to give up something you really like all at once. Fortunately, giving up animal products in favor of plants doesn’t have to be like giving up smoking! You can do this a little bit at a time.
Think about when eating this way might be easiest for you. If you work outside the home, and bring your lunch, that might be an easy way to eat meat-free during the day. If you like to cook on weekends, maybe that will be a good time to try some meat-free recipes. Many restaurants now participate in Meatless Mondays, and may offer special plant-based dishes, to make eating meat free easier.
You might also choose to transition by eliminating one thing at a time. Many people come to the decision to eat more plants having already transitioned away from red meat, or from dairy. Pick the things that will be easiest for you to eliminate. For example, I gave up red meat, then all meat, but ate cheese and eggs for a while, before finally giving up dairy. Eggs were the last to go in my transition.
2. Start With What You Know
In terms of transitioning to a more plant-based diet, the easiest way to start off is to think of meals you eat now that can easily have the animal-based items plucked out. For example:
- Pasta with meat sauce can become pasta with sauteed vegetables in tomato sauce. Skip the cheese, and make garlic breadcrumbs to sprinkle on top. Add a side salad with oil and vinegar, and some French bread with roasted garlic spread.
- Tacos and burritos can be made with beans instead of meat. Many flour and corn tortillas are already free of animal products, but be sure to check the labels. Ditch the cheese, but add a helping of avocado or guacamole. Lettuce, tomato, and jalapenos can all remain, and so can salsa. Many canned red and green sauces are also animal product free.
- Most Asian cuisines are easy to convert to plant-based, because they’re packed with vegetables. Switch to brown rice rather than white, and make sure the sauces you use are free of fish or cream. In a pinch, my go-to take-out restaurants are Thai or Indian, because both cultures have large populations of people who don’t eat meat for religious reasons. There are almost always lots of options on the menu for people following a plant-based diet.
Don’t think about how to replace animal products on your plate. Simply crowd them out, in favor of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, and beans.
3. You Don’t Have to Switch Grocery Stores
Recently, a friend sent me a message, saying he and his wife had watched Forks Over Knives, and wanted to start incorporating more plant-based and whole foods into their diet. He asked for my suggestions about where to shop, and expressed concern that, with two children in the household, their grocery bill might quickly get out of hand. Here’s what I told him:
First, you can start incorporating more plant-based foods by shopping at your current grocery store. You don’t need anything unusual or special. Plain old vegetables and grains that are available anywhere will do. If you have a farmer’s market in your area, that will also work, and it has the bonus of being a nice family outing.
Second, last time I shopped for it, meat was really expensive. You’re going to replace it with beans and grains, which are just about the least expensive items at the grocery store. You can use the savings to buy more fresh vegetables. Your grocery bill won’t go up. In fact, it may go down.
4. Try New Foods
Since transitioning to a plant-based diet means removing some foods from your grocery list, why not use that as an opportunity to explore those foods you haven’t tried in the past? Many of us get in a rut, and confine our diets to a few familiar foods. Use your transition as a way to find a larger variety of foods, to keep your diet interesting as well as healthy.
One of my favorite things I did the first winter I was vegan was trying new foods. Because my garden was dormant, and I was relying on produce from the grocery store, I decided to try one new vegetable each time I went shopping. I learned to use turnips and parsnips, which I’d never had before. I tried different types of squash, and discovered which varieties I liked best. I shopped at a local Asian market, where I discovered long beans, small, green, round eggplants, and mung bean sprouts. I ate mangoes for the first time. Many of these fruits and vegetables are now part of my regular diet.
5. Know Your Nutrition
One of the most important things you will learn during your transition is how to get all your nutrients from plants. It’s important to understand what you’re putting into your body, and how it’s contributing to your balanced diet.
Many of us are familiar with the idea of the food pyramid, which tells us how many servings of each type of food we should eat each day. The vegan food pyramid, which is entirely plant-based, looks slightly different than the one we’re used to seeing, eliminating meat and dairy.
How to Make Sure You Eat a Balanced Diet
Every person who eats a plant-based diet has heard the question: “Where do you get your protein?”
Protein is in everything we eat. It’s in plants, and grains, and nuts. The key is to get complete proteins, in order to get all the essential amino acids required for a healthy diet. If you eat a varied plant-based diet, you’ll get enough protein throughout the day.
Sources of Protein
Legumes; soy and soy products; grains; nuts; seeds.
We all know that calcium is important for strong bones and teeth. Those who eat a plant-based diet are more likely to have low calcium levels, so it’s important to ensure you’re doing all you can to get adequate calcium every day. Making sure you’re getting enough protein can help keep your calcium levels higher, as can eliminating too much caffeine, and too much sodium.
Sources of Calcium
Greens such as broccoli, kale, collards and okra; tofu and soy beverages; sesame seeds; almonds; legumes; calcium-fortified foods, such as fortified non-dairy milks.
It can be challenging to get enough vitamin B12 eating a plant-based diet. Low levels of B12 can result in fatigue, poor memory, and depression, so be sure to get enough each day. If you take a daily vitamin supplement, check to see if it includes B12, and add things like fortified cereals and non-dairy milk to your diet.
Sources of B12
B12-fortified foods, including cereals & non-dairy milks; nutritional yeast; B12 supplements.
Because iron from plant foods is less available to the body than that from animals, the minimum requirement of iron almost doubles when eating a plant-based diet. Fortunately, if you’re eating a well-balanced plant-based diet, getting that much iron is very easy. If you’re pregnant, or an athlete, you may want to be sure your supplements include iron.
Sources of Iron
Legumes, especially chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans; nuts & seeds, especially cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds & tahini; whole and enriched grains; dark and leafy greens; dried fruits.
Enjoy the Process
The best thing you can do to ensure a successful transition to a plant-based diet is to enjoy the process. Don’t focus on what you’re giving up. Remember what you’re gaining: a healthier body, a longer life, and a more interesting, varied diet.
Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can be of any assistance as you make your transition. I love eating plants, and I want you to learn to love it, too!