Plating Up Plant-Based
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:
- What foods are “vegan”? This form of eating includes vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains. It excludes any food of animal origin, such as meat, poultry, pork, game, fish, dairy, eggs, gelatin, and honey.
- Just because a food is vegan, doesn’t make it healthy. Many in the nutrition field prefer the term “plant-based”. You can be an unhealthy vegan just as you can be an unhealthy omnivore. The difference is in what you choose to eat. “Plant-based” and more specifically “whole foods plant-based” indicates that plants form the basis of your eating, rather than processed foods that happen to be devoid of animal ingredients.
- Think of this, not as a “diet” but a “lifestyle”. These words will be used interchangeably here, but know that rather than being a short-term change or a quick fix, veganism is a way of eating that you can continue for the rest of your life.
Thinking About Veganism: Why?
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!
Steps for Making Your Vegan Life Easier:
Have a Vegan Support System
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.
- Search for local meet-up groups who get together regularly.
- There are many regional Facebook groups and pages for support at any time of the day or night (Where’s the best spot for vegan pizza? I’m going out for dinner with my omnivore family, what restaurant has good vegan options so we’re all happy? What is kala namak, where do I find it, and how do I use it?). They can be a place for you feel connected and to share your successes with like-minded people.
- For those living in the GTA, the Toronto Vegetarian Association is a wonderful resource for all things vegan.
- Attending a vegan or vegetarian festival is a fun way to try new foods, discover businesses and services that cater to plant-based eaters, and to re-energize yourself. Bring a friend or family member and surprise them with the bounty of deliciousness that can be found in plant-based food.
Your local health food store or plant-based restaurant is a wonderful place to ask for recommendations.
Know the plant-based nutrition basics
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.
Have a meal plan
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?
- Make a list of your favourite meals that you prepare at home. Identify those that are already or could easily be vegan (e.g., steel cut oatmeal, chili, bean salad).
- Identify three that with a little tweaking could become vegan (e.g., minestrone soup, pizza, stir fry).
- Decide on three new meals to try, whether you’re choosing recipes from a cookbook or the internet, or even a friend’s recommendation (e.g., buddha bowl, chickpea curry, lentil tacos).
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.
Do Your Research
There is no shortage of useful info for vegans:
- Books: A visit to any bookstore or library provides a dazzling array of colourful plant-based cookbooks. Food blogs are also a Pinterest-worthy source of recipe inspiration. Look for ones by reputable bloggers that have a health-centred approach and use minimal ingredients.
- Websites: For answers to your health questions, beware of internet writers spouting opinion. Is soy safe? Will eating too many nuts make me fat? Can my kids be vegan? For in-depth evidence-based health information, see: NutritionFacts.org, PlantBasedDietician.com, and vegetariannutrition.net.
- Cooking Classes: A stumbling block many new vegans have is their lack of confidence in the kitchen. They may not feel they have the skills or the comfort with new ingredients to start experimenting. To reduce the overwhelm, take some plant-based cooking classes that will teach you and feed you. Some chefs and educators will even go to your home and get you creating in your own kitchen.
- YouTube: Find some good vegan cooking shows and watch them put together plant-based dishes. Once again, look for hosts who focus on healthy whole food ingredients and simple methods.
- Health Care Practitioner: Work with an expert in plant-based nutrition. There is abundant support for the health benefits of a vegan diet, so seek out someone who will consider your specific dietary, health, and lifestyle requirements. Some holistic nutritionists can show you time-saving meal prep tips, teach you meal planning, and even take you grocery shopping.
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!