By Lindsey Gallagher
Lindsey Gallagher (they/them) is a non-binary nonfiction writer from Shelter Island, New York. They are currently pursuing their MFA at Northern Arizona University. They serve as the Editor-in-Chief of Thin Air Magazine and teach English Composition. Their work can be found in The Oval and The Palhouse Review. Outside of writing, they enjoy running and outdoor adventures of many sorts.
Welcome back! Last week we explored the many benefits of a plant-based diet. Now, it’s time to actually talk about making the switch!
Forms of plant-based diets
When considering a move toward a plant-based diet, recall that there are a number of different forms, including (in order from most to least strict in terms of what foods are consumed):
- Plant-based: a diet that is mostly made up of vegetables, grains, and other foods that come from plants instead of animal products.
- Mediterranean Diet: a diet that focuses on fruit, veggies, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seafood, and olive oil. Animal products such as dairy, eggs, and poultry are included (in moderation). Red and processed meats are also included but rarely.
- Flexitarian: a diet that mostly excludes meat and seafood. Flexitarians limit their consumption of meat but may still have it sometimes. For example, flexitarians may do “meatless Mondays” or save eating meat for the weekends.
- Pescetarian: a diet that excludes meat but includes seafood and fish.
- Vegetarian: a diet that excludes meat and seafood. A vegetarian diet can be broken down in a few different ways:
- Lacto-ovo-vegetarian: A vegetarian diet that includes dairy and eggs.
- Lacto-vegetarian: A vegetarian diet that includes dairy but not eggs.
- Ovo-vegetarian: A vegetarian diet that includes eggs but not dairy.
- Vegan: a diet that excludes all foods that come from animals (such as meat, dairy, eggs, and, for some, honey).
How do you decide?
There are many plant-based diet options, and it can be overwhelming to decide which one to select. As you are thinking things over, use these questions to help:
- What is your why? Why are you interested in adopting a plant-based diet? Is it for environmental reasons? Health reasons? For animal rights? Something else? What is your ultimate goal? (Not just I’d like to be vegan, but what changes would you like to see in your life, whether that’s physically, mentally, philosophically, etc.)?
- What is your starting point? How often and how much meat, seafood, dairy, and eggs do you consume? Take stock of your last week of eating—how many of those meals included animal products? Once you have this number, you will have a sense of how heavily you rely on animal products. From here you can make a sustainable plan for transitioning to a plant-based diet. For example, if 15 of your 21 meals last week included animal products you might try cutting that number by three meals each week if you want to reach your goal more quickly or just cutting one meal per week if you want to take your time. Knowing that most of your meals include animal products tells you that you probably won’t want to stop eating these foods abruptly, but rather phase them out over time.
- Do you have any health conditions (including mental health conditions) that could create complications with a particular diet? While there are health benefits to a plant-based diet, that doesn’t mean that it can’t create issues depending on your individual needs. I am not a medical professional, so if you are considering the switch but have pre-existing conditions, you should talk to your healthcare provider or see a dietician first. For example, I have a nut allergy and I had no idea how this would become a pretty major complication for me as a vegan when I first started. Unfortunately for me, many vegan dairy alternatives, like ice cream and especially cheese, use nuts. Many times, I’ve been excited about a vegan option at a restaurant or a new product at the grocery store only to learn that it includes nuts, and then I can’t enjoy it! Luckily, I’ve found things that work for me, but there are still frustrating moments. And, ultimately, my options are much more limited than vegans without nut allergies, so it would’ve been nice to know this before I began my journey.
- What accessibility do you have to plant-based products? Where can you get the alternatives that you will want? Certain places, usually rural ones, have a much more limited offering of plant-based products (mostly meat and dairy alternatives, as produce, grains, legumes, and nuts tend to be available even in the smallest grocery stores).
Remember: no single form of a plant-based diet is “best.” The best one is the one that is sustainable for you and works in the context of your life. Hopefully these questions help you to see how to make a plant-based diet work best for you!
My top tips
Now let’s consider my top tips for a successful transition to a plant-based diet. These are based largely on my experience and what I’ve learned over the years in my own plant-based journey!
Tip 1: Start small
When I went vegetarian, I did it all at once. Granted, I did have less meat because of the road trip I took in the month leading up when I changed my diet. Still, I went from meat to no meat at all. When I started, I knew very little about protein-rich vegetarian options to replace meat-based protein sources. I had only eaten tofu once or twice before and knew nothing about how to prepare it. I didn’t even know what seitan or tempeh, staple plant-based proteins, were. Instead of preparing ahead of time with research, I jumped right in, figuring things out as I went. Luckily, I did have my sister along for the journey with me. After a few weeks, I consulted my aunt, who had been a pescatarian for years. She offered recommendations on some of her favorite meat substitutes. However, living on a small island with one grocery store, our options were rather limited in terms of what was available. Back then, tofu was really the only thing the store reliably carried.
When I went vegan six months later, I did the same thing I did as a new vegetarian: I jumped right in. At that point, I was primarily doing it for environmental reasons and really didn’t care how it might impact my nutritional needs. I did little research and had little idea of what would replace dairy in my diet, which was then a big part of it. And vegan was a word I had heard and come to understand less than a year before!
I set a date with my sister to start our vegan journey. It was right before Christmas and I remember my mom telling us we should wait until after the holidays, as it would be hard with all the gatherings. But we did not heed her advice; we were determined to start as soon as possible even if that meant we had to make most of our own food to bring to holiday gatherings, which we did. In the days leading up to the vegan start date, I remember eating lots of dairy because I knew I would miss it a lot. Almost all of my favorite things included dairy: pasta with parmesan, cheddar and crackers, bean and rice burritos loaded with sour cream and cheese, and ice cream. Pretty much everything I ate had either parmesan or cheddar on it. When I went vegan, I missed these things a lot and wasn’t equipped with alternatives to my favorite staples to fill the gaps. Excitement about the change carried me for a bit, but after that, it became a challenge having my normal food routines uprooted and without go-to foods to rely on.
You can certainly stop eating animal products abruptly if you want. However, for the sake of making a plant-based diet sustainable for you, I highly recommend doing it in small steps. The size of these steps depends on your starting point and your end goal. For example, if most of your meals contain animal products, and your ultimate goal is to become a vegan, don’t go vegan in the span of a day. Start by working towards vegetarianism, and once you have stopped eating meat, then begin to decrease your consumption of dairy and eggs. You could also try going vegetarian a few days a week or picking one meal of each day (say lunch) to have vegetarian every day. As you go through this transition phase, branch out and try new things and learn what plant-based alternatives you like so you can build an arsenal of foods that you can rely on and enjoy once you do make the ultimate switch. In the long term this will make the diet more sustainable because if you don’t like what you’re eating, you won’t stick to it!
Tip 2: Do your research
Before you begin your plant-based journey, it is essential that you prepare by doing research. If you jump right in without exploring options, you are more likely to have a bad experience as a plant-based eater and return to an animal-product diet, which is not your goal! In your research, consider the following questions to ensure you are ready to start the journey!
- What are your favorite animal products? What plant-based alternatives for these exist?
- Where can you purchase plant-based alternatives to the animal products that you want?
- What are some of your favorite meals? Find plant-based versions of these online or in cookbooks so you can still enjoy your favorite things!
- Are there any restaurants near you that have plant-based meal options?
- If you do have any health conditions that may impact you in the transition, consult a medical professional. After that there are likely resources with tips and advice from plant-based eaters that have the same conditions as you.
- What challenges do you anticipate facing in your transition? What can you do to overcome these? A common example is ex-cheese eaters craving cheese once they go vegan. Look around to see what other people who have faced challenges you anticipate facing are saying (there are lots of plant-based bloggers out there). Making a plan and being prepared to face these obstacles beforehand will allow you to overcome them much more easily!
Tip 3: Be smart! Make sure you get all the nutrients you need!
While many plant-based foods are packed with nutrients, plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean ‘healthy.’ Don’t immediately assume you will be healthier on a plant-based diet. As always, staying healthy takes work, and as you transition to plant-based, it will take a little more work and time each week to meet your food needs!
I don’t like to use the term “junk food” because all food is fuel for your body or can serve you emotionally, but certainly some foods can offer more benefit in terms of nutrients than others. There are plenty of plant-based foods that aren’t necessarily beneficial to your health, especially ultra-processed ones. This is not to say you can’t eat them; just don’t make them a meal three times a day. This is where tips 1 and 2 come in. If you have a plan ahead of time for what you can now eat and make at home, you won’t be scrambling and relying on freezer aisle and other processed plant-based foods to fill the gap of the missing animal products. These foods can make you feel crummy over time, hurt your health, and ultimately make you likely to return to an animal-product diet. Balance is just as important on a plant-based diet as it is on a diet including animal products!
Vitamins and Minerals
When decreasing your consumption of animal products, there are some specific vitamins and minerals to be aware of to make sure you are still supporting your body! Some of the key ones a person on a plant-based diet should be cognizant of are vitamins B12, A, and D, as well as protein, calcium, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fats. In the United States, most people rely on animal products for these essential things. There’s no need to panic, though, because you can get all of these things, except B12 and Vitamin D, from plant-based foods. And even B12 and Vitamin D, which are not naturally occurring in plant-based foods, you can supplement or get from fortified plant-based foods. I’ll now briefly touch on a few in this list that are more difficult to get on a plant-based diet.
Iron is an essential mineral used to make hemoglobin, which is a protein that carries oxygen to your lungs, and myoglobin, a protein that gives your muscles oxygen. Iron is also needed for the production of some hormones. This explains why you feel so tired and energy-depleted if you’re iron deficient.
Countless times people have told me, “You’re vegan, you’re gonna be iron deficient.” And while this is not necessarily the case, it can absolutely happen. On a plant-based diet, especially a vegan one, you are at a higher risk of iron-deficiency if you are not careful. Though I will say, you can be iron deficient eating animal products (as I was), so it all depends on the choices you make!
If you are plant-based it’s important that you prioritize eating foods high in iron. These include spinach, iron-fortified bread and cereal, lentils, white beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, tomatoes, baked potato, and broccoli among other things.
When you have iron-rich foods or an iron supplement, pair it with Vitamin C or Vitamin C rich-foods (citrus, berries, etc.), which enhances your body’s absorption of iron. A big reason that vegans struggle with getting enough iron is because plant-based iron sources are not as easily absorbed as animal-based iron sources. Vitamin C is the solution to this! Alternatively, make sure you don’t pair iron and calcium, as calcium inhibits iron absorption!
B12 is a vitamin that helps make DNA and keep the blood and nerve cells all around healthy. B12 is only found naturally in animal foods, which is why it’s so essential to seek out B12 on a plant-based diet. Plant-based foods only include B12 when fortified. You can find B12 in fortified cereal and nutritional yeast, a cheese-tasting flake-like product.
Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and phosphorus, which aids the body in building bones. It can also reduce inflammation and help control infections. There are only a few foods that have Vitamin D and the best sources are animal products. The plant-based foods that include Vitamin D are mushrooms and fortified plant milks and cereals. And, of course, you can get Vitamin D by sitting out in the sun!
Supplementation (taking a pill or liquid form) is another option for getting all of these vitamins and minerals, too! As a vegan athlete, I supplement to make sure I get these things with the demands of my training. Always talk to your healthcare provider before supplementing, though!
Tip 4: Be flexible
One of the most exciting things about stepping into plant-based eating is how flexible it is. There is a large spectrum of options from simply plant-based all the way to veganism. An important thing to keep in mind as you approach plant-based eating is that you can always change—you can always return to a previous diet or try a different one if something isn’t working for you. If you decide to go vegan, it doesn’t have to be for life! With any form of plant-based eating, you are in charge of what you eat, and there are no hard and fast rules for how to do it “right.” Flexibility is your friend!
Flexibility was something that I struggled with in my first few years as a vegan. I believed I could never eat anything non-vegan or I wouldn’t be a “real” vegan. So I didn’t, even though this sometimes hindered my ability to fuel my body or even my emotional desires for specific foods. It was only recently that I truly embraced flexibility on a vegan diet, and this came from adapting to my circumstances. A month ago, I traveled abroad for the first time to Italy with my family. Before the trip I was nervous about how I’d be able to stick to my vegan diet. I also recognized that food is very much a part of culture, and I wanted to be able to experience authentic Italian food (especially the parmesan).
I ultimately decided before I left that the trip would be more enjoyable for me (and my family) if I was willing to stray a bit from my vegan diet and eat what was available at the restaurants we were at. I decided I would have some cheese and egg (in pasta) while abroad. I also decided that I still wouldn’t have meat because it is now unappetizing to me and would make me exceptionally uncomfortable to eat. It was really important that I made a plan ahead of time based on my comfort levels so I was ready for the experiences I was about to have and not make stress-inducing, last-minute decisions. Throughout the trip, I had meals with cheese and egg, and much to my surprise, it was delightful. It was relieving to eat something non-vegan and see that nothing happened to me—no one condemned me for being a fake vegan. And I recognized that having a few animal products here and there wouldn’t increase my environmental impact much. As the trip went on, I found myself more and more relaxed eating parmesan and delicious Italian pasta.
I learned such a valuable lesson on flexibility from this experience, and I have taken it with me since returning home. On occasion, if I really want something non-vegan, like an old snack from childhood, I’ll have it because it serves me emotionally, and it keeps me satisfied with my diet. In the past, at an event where the vegan “meal” option was a simple salad with no protein, I would’ve just eaten the salad and refused to have anything else that wasn’t vegan. But I now recognize that this was detrimental to my body, especially as an athlete. Now, in those situations, I embrace flexibility and prioritize fueling my body over rigidity for the sake of being a “real” vegan. Now, I might decide to eat a baked potato even if it has some butter in it because I know my body needs a complete meal, and it will make me feel satisfied with what I ate. I never thought that going vegan would help me, a rigid person in all areas of my life, become more flexible. It is just one reminder of many that a plant-based diet doesn’t simply change what you eat, it changes who you are!
For those just starting your plant-based diet, you too should strive to embrace flexibility. You will learn to assume there won’t be food for you when eating outside of your home and be flexible as a result. Making this assumption you can decide, for this dinner, you will be okay having some cheese so you can have one of the entrees. Or maybe you want to stick to plant-based eating that day and will make a meal by combining sides at the restaurant. Or maybe you decide to eat something beforehand so you can still have a meal to fuel your body. Get used to always having extra snacks for unexpected situations so you have the option to stick to plant-based eating and, more importantly, have something to eat. And, of course, there will be times when you can’t plan ahead—sometimes you may have to eat something you don’t want to, and that’s okay. It’s ultimately more important that you fuel your body, even if it is with a food you are avoiding. Over time, you will establish a routine as a plant-based eater and learn how and when you’d like to or need to be flexible and stray from the diet. Trust me when I say flexibility is one of the biggest keys to longevity as a plant-based eater!
Tip 5: Consider costs
I recognize that I am privileged to have enough money to put food on the table. Unfortunately, for many people, this is not a reality, and the option to spend more money for plant-based products does not exist. Veganism has a long way to go in terms of accessibility, but that’s why sharing this information is so important—the more people who go plant-based, the more we increase the demand for plant-based products and push our country to make these products more cost-effective and more widely available. We have a long way ahead of us to make accessibility a reality, but the plant-based industry is steadily growing! By 2030, the industry is expected to double!
Unfortunately, as it stands right now, if you do buy the plant-based meat and dairy alternatives (which are the most expensive plant-based products) or go out for plant-based meals at all, then it’s likely you will spend more on food. If you are planning to go plant-based, it’s important to determine how many of the more expensive plant-based products you can afford. And consider your food preferences and desires too—the last thing we want is for you to spend more for plant-based products but find you are less satisfied with what you eat. This is not to say you should write off plant-based eating if you can’t routinely afford the more expensive plant-based products. It’s just a reminder that cost is certainly a factor with a plant-based diet.
I will remind you, though, that many of the foods you eat every day, and are likely already purchasing, are plant-based. All fruits and vegetables (in their unprocessed form), grains (like rice, oats, wheat, barley, quinoa), legumes (like beans, chickpeas, soybeans, peanuts, and lentils), and nuts are vegan! That covers quite a lot of food products! If you are eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet, these items will be the large bulk of your diet. It is the plant-based meats and dairy alternatives (cheese, sour cream, milks), which are not necessarily essential for your nutritional needs and often highly processed, that tend to make a plant-based person’s grocery bill increase. And for animal-meat-eating folks, it’s meat products that are actually one of the most expensive things at the grocery store, even more than conventional veggies and fruits. So going plant-based isn’t necessarily exponentially more expensive, as many assume.
Tip 6: Get support, take advantage of resources!
Ask your plant-based friends questions about their experiences. Ask your friends for recipes. Go to plant-based restaurants and festivals near you! And take advantage of the tons of online resources like these:
- Vegnews– massive plant-based media outlet. Includes a magazine, website, recipes, reviews, travel, a podcast, news, and more!
- Forks Over Knives– recipes, meal plans, health information, the Forks Over Knives documentary, and more!
- Vegan Outreach– a nonprofit organization spreading information about the vegan diet. They have a vegan mentor program where you can get a mentor to help you in your plant-based journey. You can also sign up for 10 Weeks to Vegan for free, which includes a weekly email full of tips and resources to help you make the transition to a vegan diet.
- Purple Carrot– A vegan meal delivery service! Just like Hello Fresh or Blue Apron, you can select from many recipes each week and get them delivered right to your door for easy prep and delicious eating! While this is costly, it can be a great way to try new recipes and get ideas at the start of your plant-based journey! You can also access all of their recipes for free on their website if you want the inspiration but not the price!
- Nora Cooks– vegan recipes!
- A Virtual Vegan– more vegan recipes!
- Vegan.com– a center of vegan information! Includes guides, health information, recipes, an FAQ page, and more!
- Happy Cow– Great website to find plant-based restaurant reviews and restaurants near you! Also includes a blog and other tips of vegan living. Available as an app, too!
- No Meat Athlete– A hub of information for plant-based athletes!
- There are so many places to draw support from, so take advantage of them to make your plant-based journey exciting and successful!
I hope you feel more comfortable starting your plant-based journey with my tips and the resources I’ve provided. For those making the change, I am so excited for you to experience plant-based eating and all that comes with it!
Stay tuned next week for a comprehensive guide of staple plant-based foods!
Thanks for reading!
Recipe of the Week: Homemade Vegan Feta Cheese!
I discovered this recipe after being at an event that served feta and wondering how I might be able to veganize it at home. (There are pretty good vegan fetas you can buy from the store, but if you want a cheaper, less processed option, this is a great recipe). Again, I’m sending you to someone else because so many of my favorite recipes come from other people! This week it’s vegan feta cheese from Melanie McDonald at avirtualvegan.com. I follow this recipe pretty loosely now and often just taste test and adjust until it’s just right. The recipe calls for coconut oil but you really don’t need it. I have made this recipe without coconut oil every time, and it’s always delicious (I don’t like coconut and it’s also expensive). So, no worries if you’re missing it!
I like to make this feta and leave it in the creamy blender form and make a meal of it. I’ll cook up some bulgur wheat, crisp some chickpeas, and chop some cucumber, bell peppers, or lettuce. Then I’ll add it all to a bowl and top with the feta! Since I started making this meal it has been a staple for me!