So you’ve decided to adopt a vegan diet but aren’t sure where to start. Transitioning into this new way of eating can be rife with challenges and it can prompt endless questions: what are all these strange ingredients? Can I keep this up if I’m the only one I know who’s not eating meat? How will I ever give up cheese/bacon/[insert favourite animal food here]? What am I going to eat?
For you to be successful, your eating needs to be health-supporting and sustainable. Good news! This post will outline what you need to know to get started on this exciting journey. Before we begin, a few points of clarification:
Whether you want to adopt a vegan diet because of your concern for animal welfare, the environment, or for the many health benefits it brings[i], you need to know why you are making the shift to a plant-based lifestyle. You will face obstacles as you make changes. You may be questioned about your motives and your nutrition knowledge. Those around you may feel uncomfortable with the choices you are making and feel judgment about their own food choices. You will have to find alternatives to foods you have been eating for years and you may be tempted to revert to old ways. No one ever said that transformation was easy! At these times, a strong why will keep you committed and moving forward. Feel it deep in your heart and stay connected to your motivation. The knee-jerk reaction, especially if your “why” is animal welfare, can be to go plant-based overnight. Before you throw out most of your kitchen contents, stop to think about how this could play out.
While this may be the right approach for some, a gradual transition is more sustainable for most people. An immediate change in eating can work for those who prefer an all-or-nothing approach and want to see quick health results, but this approach also has a steep learning curve and a need for a strong resolve (What are you going to eat when you go out or visit with family? What will you make on a busy evening when there’s nothing planned? What will you substitute for your favourite comfort foods?).
On the other hand, by adding to your eating before subtracting from it, by crowding out rather than cutting out, you will move steadily toward your goal. It will allow you to find new go-to snacks and meals, give your family time to adjust to your new eating style, and let develop new favourite foods so that you don’t miss the old ones. Decide which way feels most like you!
You do not have to do this by yourself! If you are the only one in your family or circle of friends who is moving toward a plant-based lifestyle, you may feel alone. Fortunately, veganism is growing in popularity and there is a wealth of support out there for you if you look for it. The vegan community can be incredibly welcoming to newcomers.
Your local health food store or plant-based restaurant is a wonderful place to ask for recommendations.
The first question everyone seems to have when they encounter a vegan is “where do you get your protein?” (In response, you may question them, “where do you get your fibre, phytonutrients, and antioxidants?”) Never fear, there is no shortage of protein in a diet sufficient in calories that includes a variety of plant-based whole foods, as even the American Dietetic Association admits![ii] All whole foods contain protein and plant foods come in what the Plant-Based Dietician Julieanna Hever calls “perfect packaging”, which includes a synergy of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fibre.
Certain nutrients are more difficult to find in plant foods and may require supplementation, such as vitamin B12, iodine, and vitamin D. While iron (found in certain legumes, greens, and seeds) and calcium (found in dark leafy greens and certain legumes) are available in many plant foods, you may choose to supplement depending on your individual needs.
In brief, your daily eating should consist of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, leafy greens, legumes, nuts, and seeds. The Plant-Based Dietician’s Food Guide Pyramid and Food Plate[iii] provides a good visual to help you picture what constitutes a day’s food, and your meals can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. But how do you actually figure out what to each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
You’ve now got 9 plant-based meals for your week. Once you’ve got those under your belt, add 3 more meals. But remember: the goal is sustainability, so be practical with your choices as you step slowly outside of your comfort zone.
Another approach is to work meal-by-meal. Many people find that breakfast is an easy meal to veganize: smoothies, hot grain bowls with nuts and berries, hearty granola, tofu scramble with veggies, chickpea quiche and greens, the list goes on. You can start with your morning meal and move on to lunches when you’re ready. The key is to move at a pace that feels right to you.
There is no shortage of useful info for vegans:
Moving progressively forward with a firm sense of purpose, you will learn what to eat to sustain your health and satisfy your palate. Reach out for information, guidance, and support. Most importantly, always be kind to yourself. This isn’t about right and wrong or win and lose. Every step toward health, be it big or small, matters. You can do this!