Reviewed by Jinan Banna, PhD, RD
What is veganism and why is it growing in popularity
The vegan diet is growing in popularity in the US, with a 600% increase in reported vegan followers from 2014 to 2018. Those who subscribe to a vegan diet exclude anything from consumption that comes from an animal. This includes products such as honey, eggs, any form of dairy, any supplement containing whey, casein, or derivative of dairy, fish or any form of seafood.
Bottom line: if it could walk, crawl, fly, or swim or was created by something that could walk, crawl, fly, or swim, then vegans do not consume it.
The term vegan was coined in 1944, but the diet and lifestyle have been present in numerous cultures throughout history. What was once associated with a radical lifestyle centered around animal rights and harmony with the environment is now more flexible and inclusive. Strict vegans do not include anything in their lives that is a derivative of animals – no leather clothes or accessories, no makeup or skincare products that are tested on animals, no fur coats, etc. It is important to make the distinction that veganism, for many, is not just a diet but an entire way of life that can be motivated by a variety of factors, including religion, ethical concerns, personal health, a stronger heart, and environmental health just to name a few. If you are simply looking to reduce consumption of meat for health reasons, veganism could be an unnecessarily extreme change that comes with other tradeoffs for health. It is important to note that dietary needs change throughout stages of life, and are based on factors such as age, activity level, biological gender, and presence of disease or illness. Therefore, a vegan diet may not be optimal for everyone and anyone seeking to make drastic dietary changes should consult a registered dietitian first.
What is an alternative to veganism
As urbanization continues to grow and shape our world, the effects are beginning to show. People care more about their own personal health and their impact on the environment at the same time. With issues such as greenhouse gas emissions, fresh water use, soil depletion, and ocean dead zones, it seems that a plant-based diet could be one of the answers to these concerns and may be an appropriate recommendation for some contexts. The recent surge in veganism has opened the doors for marketing of plant-based products, and the flexitarian diet has gained a foothold in society as “the best of both worlds.” A flexitarian diet is primarily vegetarian with the occasional inclusion of fish or meat. Flexitarians may potentially reap similar health benefits to vegetarians and vegans as compared to those who follow non-vegetarian or non-vegan dietary patterns.
The term “flexitarian” was coined in the early 90s by dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, who sought to bring the health benefits of a vegetarian diet to a larger population. The idea of a “flexitarian” is relatively new in nutritional science, so not a lot of data exist on the benefits of this diet without also taking into account other forms of vegetarianism or vegan diets. This term was permanently added to Oxford English Dictionary in 2014, and has been studied to reveal health benefits and environmental impacts much like other diets. However, numerous definitions exist for this diet, and that makes it difficult to draw conclusions from a body of scientific studies on the topic and provide dietary recommendations.
It can be said that flexitarians do not belong in the same category as typical consumers, nor any category of vegetarianism or veganism. Bottom line: flexitarianism is a stand-alone dietary pattern that has its own risks and benefits, just like any other diet. Additional research is needed in this area.
Tips for transitioning to a vegan diet
We now know that plant-based eating can vary a lot, and can be strict or lax. We also know that if you have a meat-heavy diet, there are reasons to change your diet to reduce this. Of course, this choice depends on many factors, including cultural preferences, feasibility, affordability, and access to plant-based foods. Whether you are trying to become a strict vegan or simply reduce your overall consumption of animal products, here is a list of places to start.
1. Seek Guidance from a registered dietitian
All of the above information in this post is a brief summary, the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dietary patterns. Taking on any dietary change can be a big shift, but a goal to eliminate an entire food group is a huge undertaking. To be sure that you are a good candidate for any diet, and that you’re still getting enough nutrients, it is important to consult a licensed professional.
Many people are unaware that registered dietitians are more than a nutritionist, which could apply to anyone who decides to call themselves one. They are trained & certified to work with you on an individual basis to create a custom diet that maintains or improves overall health while helping you reach your goals.
Begin your transition by seeking counsel from a registered dietitian, even if it’s decided that you don’t need regular visits.
2. Set Realistic, Sustainable Goals
Speaking of goals, it is important that the goals you set are specific, realistic, and sustainable. Registered dietitians or other healthcare providers such as your primary care manager are able to help you determine if your health goals are realistic. Sometimes a goal might be realistic, but we expect it to happen sooner than is realistic. For instance, losing 20 pounds may be a realistic goal for some people, but losing 20 pounds in the 3 weeks before your beach vacation is not a realistic goal for anyone. If a health goal cannot be maintained over a period of time, then it is not realistic.
Know what your goals and reasons are for implementing change in your diet. Discuss these goals with a registered dietitian or primary care provider that has knowledge of your needs in order to make sure the changes you’re seeking will improve your health and quality of life over time, rather than leave you feeling frustrated and defeated.
3. Find Others Willing to Join You or Support You
Once you’ve laid the plan and received the okay from a registered dietitian, the next step is to find some support and accountability. This could be in the form of regular visits with the registered dietitian you chose to work with, a friend or colleague who will hold space for you as you make these changes, or members of your household committing to this transition with you.
Setting goals and seeking professional guidance before or during these steps will give you more confidence, especially if you’re met with unexpected opposition from your intended support network. It’s important to remember that people have emotional connections to foods and dietary patterns, and any opposition is likely out of fear for their own comforts being changed.
When seeking support, make sure your network understands exactly what you need from them. Try not to force your new changes onto your entire household; remember that you’ve consulted medical help before beginning and a diet suited to your needs may not be suited to others.
Try sharing your goals and reasons behind them so that you and your support network can focus on small victories, and you can see your progress from an outside perspective when life gets busy.
4. Consider Complete vs Complementary Proteins
One consideration to take into account if you are reducing or eliminating animal proteins from your diet is complete proteins. Proteins are made up of amino acids, and these can be considered essential or nonessential. Nonessential amino acids are those that the body produces on its own. Essential amino acids cannot be produced by the human body, so it is essential that we consume outside sources of these 9 amino acids. The human body uses amino acids broken down from dietary protein sources for many different purposes.
What does this have to do with a plant-based diet? Animal proteins used to be considered the only protein sources that contained all essential amino acids. This means that whether you eat beef, poultry, pork, fish, eggs, or dairy, you are consuming all 9 essential amino acids with each individual food, in a quantity large enough for the body’s needs. Plant protein sources do contain all the essential amino acids, but certain sources are low enough in at least one essential amino acid, that it is necessary to eat different sources throughout the day to meet the body’s needs. So, when animal protein sources are eliminated from the diet, it is necessary to combine different plant sources of protein throughout the day to protect from deficiency of any essential amino acids.
That being said, the combination of different plant protein sources in order to consume the adequate amount of amino acids in a plant-based diet was once thought to be much more complicated than it actually is. As long as people choosing a plant-based diet enjoy a variety of protein sources throughout the day, deficiencies should not be a concern. In fact soy is considered a complete protein, and research has shown that there are more complete proteins that fit into a plant-based diet than previously thought. It is still important to follow our first point and seek guidance from a registered dietitian to learn more about these foods and the nutrients they offer, but no one should be deterred from choosing a plant-based diet over protein alone.
5. Make a List of Foods You are Excited to Try
When implementing any dietary change, it’s important to focus on what you can eat rather than what you can’t. This frames the change in a positive light and you are making this change for positive outcomes, after all.
What comes to mind when you consider a plant-based diet? Do you think about only fruits and vegetables? These foods are nutritious, delicious, and colorful, but they do not create a healthful diet by themselves. On a plant-based diet, you should also enjoy legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and heart-healthy oils in order to create a balanced diet. Consider these categories and make a list of things you’re excited to try. Here are a few foods you may not immediately think of to give you a starting point:
|Legumes||· Lentils – good source of iron· Peas – try fresh pea pod varieties in addition to shelled peas· Canned beans – choose low sodium varieties· Dried beans – follow soaking instructions to maximize nutrients|
|Grains||· Quinoa · Couscous· Amaranth· Oats· Corn|
|Nuts & Seeds||· Pumpkin seeds· Chia seeds· Flax seeds· Walnuts· Pistachios|
|Heart-healthy oils||· Flaxseed oil· Avocado oil· Extra virgin olive oil· Canola oil – yes, it is rich in monounsaturated fats and safe to include in a balanced diet!|
6. Set Aside Extra Time for Grocery Shopping on Week One
Do you still grocery shop in person?
With grocery pick-up & delivery services becoming more available, you may be out of the habit of going inside the grocery store to search for ingredients. If you’re lucky enough to have a pick-up or delivery service available to you, take some time to update your usual grocery list with your new plant-based ingredients.
Be sure to use the nutrition facts & ingredients provided for each packaged item to ensure it meets your needs and goals. It may take more searching than you originally thought to update your lists, so set aside some extra time where you can focus and build a list that will set you up for plenty of healthy foods to choose from throughout the week.
If you’re still shopping in person, you’ll want to give yourself extra time for your grocery store run. Some of the items you’re used to purchasing, like butter and yogurt, won’t have plant-based substitutes nearby. You may have to do some searching, ask an employee for help, or venture to a new store if you have hard-to-find items on your must-try list.
To keep your shopping simple, try to fill your diet with fresh, whole foods rather than relying on packaged products. While there are plenty of shelf-stable vegan options (crackers, cookies, pastas, sauces, cereals, etc.), a lot of the health benefit comes from the increase in whole foods, not simply switching to vegan certified processed foods. The last thing you want is to abandon your health goals simply because of a strained grocery timeline.
Ask your registered dietitian about a grocery store tour, or a shopping list for your dietary needs. Use this to help you build a meal plan or as a starting point to search for recipes with the included foods. Once you find your go-to items, shopping will once again become an easy routine.
7. Start with One Meal
It can be tempting to go “all-in” on new changes, but consistent and gradual changes lead to longer and more sustainable change over the long term. When transitioning to a plant-based diet, begin with a single meal. Take the time to plan it to your tastes, ingredient availability, and cooking skill level. If you’ve never eaten plant-based before, start with a meat substitute such as black bean burgers, or “chicken” strips.
There are now a plethora of options available in the freezer section of any major grocery store. Start with something you feel comfortable cooking and eating, and then branch out. Also, consider that the same product may vary from one brand to another. There are so many options to try, and you will find your favorites along the way.
When planning a meal, it is still important to consider balance. The health benefits associated with plant-based diets occur for a variety of reasons, a few of which are low amounts of saturated fat and an increase in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, the micronutrients these foods contain, and fiber. Saturated fats are most commonly found in animal products, such as meat, cheese, butter, and dairy.
Generally speaking, if a fat is solid at room temperature, it can be said to have larger amounts of saturated fat when compared to a fat that is liquid at room temperature (think butter vs olive oil).
Just like any diet, the changes you see will largely depend on the foods you put on your plate. Plant-based “convenience” foods do still exist. The certified vegan logo and “plant-based” claims are not synonymous with “healthy” or “nutritious.” These labels only serve the purpose of informing the consumer that the product does not contain animal meat, animal products, or animal byproducts, depending on with which label the food is marked. You may be able to find boxed macaroni & “cheese” that is certified vegan, but when you compare the nutrition facts to those of regular macaroni & cheese, there is hardly a difference.
When planning your meals, starting with the first, consider each ingredient you’re trying and its nutrition facts label. At each meal, plan to have a good source of protein, a reasonable amount of fat, and a good amount of carbohydrates. Not sure where to start here? Ask your registered dietitian for help reading nutrition facts labels, creating a meal plan, and the amount of each macronutrient you need in order to reach optimal health.
8. Make a Commitment to Try One New Food Per Week
Transitioning to a plant-based diet is not something that will happen overnight. Remember, we are aiming for gradual change that leads to sustainable, healthful habits over time. Those first few days or weeks, depending on your cooking skill level and the availability of foods near you, it may be a good idea to stick to your favorite plant-based foods and just focus on replacing one animal product at a time. This may look like introducing a meat substitute, replacing Greek yogurt with soy yogurt, finding a good quality plant-based coffee creamer, etc. Find your new favorites at first so you’re still enjoying your meals and snacks, because food is pleasure just as much as it is fuel!
When you’re in a good groove, begin branching out by planning to try one new food per week. This will do a number of things for you. It will keep your transition fresh and exciting. Depending on what the new food is, it may increase your cooking skill level. It may open your eyes to different resources around you, such as a plant-based cooking class, a health food store you hadn’t heard of, or a community of others making this transition, too. Introducing new foods to your diet will also be a way to consume a variety of nutrients, rather than eating the same things day in and day out.
9. Have a Variety of Vegetables on Hand
I’ll say it again: the health benefits associated with plant-based diets come from the increase in consuming fresh, whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It may seem like a good idea to stock up on those shelf-stable vegan products, but devouring a box of certified vegan cookies after a stressful day is not the health change we’re looking for. Yes, these foods do still have a place in your diet! It’s important to remember your goals for this transition and discuss with your registered dietitian the foods that will help you achieve these goals. Regular nutrition counseling is a great way to ensure your change will lead to real change, and not just buying the same products with a different label.
If ultra processed foods are prevalent in your diet, aim to replace one of these snacks at a time with a fresh food. In order to keep from over-consuming plant-based processed foods, do a few laps around your produce section. Find snack-able options that fit into your day, such as baby vegetables and hummus, berries and nuts, apples and peanut butter, the list goes on! You can even begin this part of your transition by pairing a fresh food with a processed food with the goal to gradually consume less of the processed option. Regular appointments with your registered dietitian will keep you on track in this area and ensure that your transition is optimal for health.
10. Experiment with Different Sauces & Seasonings
As you transition to a plant-based diet, you will settle into a new routine with your new favorites. When food boredom strikes, or when there are barriers to finding a new food to introduce, try looking up new sauce recipes or seasoning combinations. You can create a plant-based version of just about any sauce, and many food bloggers have!
You may find yourself thinking you can’t bear the thought of one more pasta dish, but add a brand new simmering sauce you just created and that pasta is the background to a fresh dish. Tofu may seem like it’s run its course in your plant-based life, but sprinkle on a fresh seasoning combination and pair with new vegetables, and it’s a brand new food again.
With any change, you have to toe the line of interesting and sustainable in order to reap the long-term benefits but also maintain a good quality of life. After all, we’re making these changes to feel good in our bodies and to aid the planet in some cases. If we become disinterested along the way, we’ve lost the sustainability and traded it for monotony. Following the list of tips again will help you create lasting change for health that can be maintained in the throes of a busy life, as well as refreshed time and time again to feed both your body and your soul.
Are you considering transitioning to a plant-based diet? Which of these tips seems the most helpful to you? Are you plant-based already? Did any of these tips remind you of the beginning of your plant-based journey?
Leave us a comment below and tell us what stage you’re in and what brought you here!