Making any diet or lifestyle change can be intimidating and just plain hard! Here I will share some tips that I’ve learned, both from myself and from others, over many years of striving towards a plant-based diet.
You don’t have to start this minute! The first step to making a lifestyle change is deciding you want to make a change. You don’t have to become a strict vegan after watching one documentary. Chances are, if you jump headfirst into a very different way of eating without doing some reading and prep-work, you will set yourself up for failure. Commend yourself for being open to the idea of changing, and then get Vegucated!! There is a wealth of information on plant-based diets on the internet, in books, and in documentaries. For the science folks, I can even refer you to a website that archives every scientific journal related to plant-based research. Choose your preferred method of learning and dig in. Click here to see my favorite plant-based resources.
Jump in for 21 days. Once you’ve done some reading/research/vegucating, I highly encourage you to try a fully plant-based diet for 3 weeks, a mini-commitment. There are at least two reasons for this. First, you will notice the physical benefits of the diet within 3 weeks, and the more closely you follow the diet, the more significant those effects will be (increased energy, better bowel function, less bloating/GI discomfort, weight loss, lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar). Second, many foods are quick to give us pleasure or ignite sentiment (ex: sugars, fats, salt, cheese, eggs, other animal products). When we consume these foods, we want more, even when our brain tells us we are full. Many food substances act like opiates (yes, drugs) in the brain, binding to opioid receptors and causing us to feel pleasure or even emotional attachment to foods. These foods literally make us feel good, but only for a short time, and then our brain tells us to eat more. Sugar is one of these addictive substances. There is evidence that cheese may also be addictive. Do we tell a cigarette smoker or alcoholic to only use their addictive substance periodically? If we did, they would never succeed. When it comes to diet, food addictions (while not always as serious as drug/alcohol addictions) are strongly influenced by taste. The more we taste the sugar, fat, cheese, etc., the more we desire it. Further, sugary, fatty, and salty foods can desensitize our taste buds and make foods in their natural state seem bland and boring. As you remove these taste-ruining foods from your diet, it takes only a few short weeks for the taste buds to re-calibrate. You’ll crave less sugar and salt, and amounts you normally found acceptable will seem overpowering. Whole, plant-based foods seasoned with herbs, citrus, and small amounts of sea salt & black pepper will be tasty and satisfying. Your palate will also begin to notice more subtle flavors when you eliminate the taste-ruining foods. Give plant-based 21 days, see how you feel, and then decide whether it’s something you want to continue. This trial period is short enough to use the psychological trick of telling yourself you can eat whatever you want on day 22, but long enough to learn the basics of plant-based eating.
Meal plan. This cannot be overstated. Meal planning will help you stay on track for the week, and give you a good excuse to avoid that lunchtime office trip to the burger joint. One of the most common questions I get is, “what do you cook?” Good news! There are dozens upon dozens of plant-based foods to cook! We are afraid to remove the meat from our plate because we honestly have no clue what to put in its place. We fear malnutrition, muscle atrophy, turning into a pumpkin, all very mythical things that don’t need to happen when you transition to a WFPB diet. It only takes some experimentation and understanding that meat no longer needs to be the center or attention, or on the plate at all. My plant-based partner in crime and I will shop for the week on Sundays. Pick your day, and stick to it. Find 1-2 recipes for lunches, and 1-2 recipes for dinners. Make sure that at least 2 of these recipes are “easy” to avoid feeling overwhelmed in the kitchen. I like to make my lunches for the week on Sunday, so for the rest of the week I only have to focus on cooking dinner.
Some of you might still be staring at the first sentence in this paragraph asking “Shoot, this chick wants me to cook?” Yes, yes I do. I’m a strong believer in making time for cooking and meal-sharing. Even cooking for yourself can become incredibly meditative and enjoyable. Of course we all need a break from time to time, and there are an abundance of frozen, canned, boxed, pre-made plant-based options at almost every grocery store in America. For take out our dine in, Thai, Japanese (veggie sushi), and Mexican restaurants usually have the most options for vegans and vegetarians. I also personally believe in the energy behind food. When a meal is prepared with my hands, or another’s hands, prepared with love and dedication, that love and energy is shared with everyone who consumes the food. You just don’t get that energy with a can of vegan chili.
Stock the pantry. As a plant-based foodie, you’ll want to explore with the many different types of grains, pseudo-grains, legumes, and flours. Stock up on staples like quinoa, oats, rices, lentils, farro, barley, couscous, whole wheat pastas, canned and/or dried beans, chickpeas, and any flours you might use for baking – I always have whole wheat flour in the pantry for making things like pancakes, waffles, and banana/zucchini bread. Grains are extremely versatile! Try out as many different grains as you can, find the ones you enjoy, and keep them around for use in soups, salads, main courses, and even baking. It’s a good idea to stock up on some non-perishable items like vegan soups or chili to make when you don’t feel like cooking. I also recommend having balsamic and apple cider vinegar on hand to make simple, homemade dressings and add tang to sauces and pasta
Keep it simple: There are gazillions of plant-based recipes on the internet, and a simple Google search will prove it. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, so I recommend finding a blog or website with meals that really resonate with your tastes, cooking difficulty, and available time. My boyfriend and I both work full time, high stress jobs, which makes elaborate or long recipes nearly impossible during the week. Look for recipes that have 15 ingredients or less, even better, 10 ingredients or less. One of my favorite blogs in the world is The Minimalist Baker. She busts out amazing dishes with simple ingredients and robust flavors. Explore with different cuisines like Thai, Indian, Chinese, and Middleastern, which are all very plant-based friendly.
Be kind to yourself. Compassion is at the core of a plant-based diet. In adopting a more plant-based or fully plant-based diet, we are showing compassion to ourselves, and to all living beings by fueling our bodies with nutritious foods that promote good health and longevity, and removing foods which promote disease and cause suffering to our fellow species. Any major lifestyle change can have ups and downs, so it’s important to avoid feelings of guilt or shame if you stray from the diet. What matters is your intention. Mindfulness and persistent dedication to fueling your body with plants will not just improve your health, but also the health of our plant and future generations.
(photo courtesy of WebMD.com)