Every once in a while I come across a headline that screams ‘How my vegan diet almost killed me and my entire family’. I don’t even waste my time to read one of these stories any more, but as long as we don’t make an effort to better educate people, we are doomed to keep seeing these every once in a while.
‘Going vegan’ not necessarily means ‘going healthy’. I notice that a huge part of the population, be it vegan or not has very little knowledge on how the human body functions, let alone the type and amount of nutrients it needs to stay healthy and carry out the activities we engage in every day. I am not an expert either, but I do try to follow certain principles, which I have learned, to apply them, and then observe in order to better understand my body and its reactions to various foods and activities.
Since most of us have spent a large part of our lifetime consuming animal products, it is crucial that we understand, one has to to make the transition in a smart, educated manner. This involves not only gaining some understanding on nutrition, but also adapting their habits in a way that this new lifestyle does not become a psychological strain, or a financial burden.
(adapted from Blavity.com)
1. Going Cold Turkey
This first one may surprise you, as you may have heard me say many times that I quit meat overnight. Yes, indeed I did, but I did not become vegan overnight. Going all the way from meat eater to 100% plant-based may not be your thing and this is OK. As long as you have set your mind to it, don’t judge yourself too strictly. Remember, what counts is to make the transition and stick to it, rather than make a huge leap forward, then you face situations you were not prepared for, slowly start withdrawing, and then give up.
Do it at your own pace, especially if you have certain foods you know you will be craving. For example, it is scientifically proven that cheese and meat contain substances that act as addictive drugs in the body. Therefore, don’t blame yourself if you feel like you can’t go a day without them. I recommend that you completely cut out meat for a few months. Then find all the vegan substitutes for foods you love most. Make sure you are comfortable finding the products, preparing, and/or buying them. This feels so much easier psychologically, as you will avoid the uneasiness of not knowing what to eat after you make the decision to go 100% vegan.
2. Loading up on starchy carbohydrates
Giving up meats can make it very easy for you to add an additional helping of carbohydrates onto your plate. When I initially gave up meat, I lost a huge amount of weight, but about a year later, I did fall into the trap of upping my carb intake, so please let the 5lbs I gained in doing so be a warning to you — put the bag of chips down. I should also say that carbohydrates are not the enemy. Just don’t overdo them, especially the processed kinds such as flour, rice, pasta, cereal, etc. Meat is filling, so you would be inclined to look for something similar to fill that void. But that over-satisfied and stuffed feeling you may be used to experiencing at the dinner table isn’t natural. We only think it is because that’s how we’ve been eating for so long. Food is our fuel. It’s supposed to energize us, not debilitate us. Keep your typical serving size of healthy carbohydrates (beans, legumes, etc) and double your green veggies.
3. Not properly replacing proteins
Many people do feel lethargic and/or moody after making the transition to a plant-based diet. It’s not because of the lack of meat, it’s the lack of proteins and minerals you may not be getting enough of. Gosh, I know a guy who lives solely on french fries and pasta. So what’s the fix? An absorbent amount of greens of course. A good helping of dark, leafy green veggies pack everything your body is missing and then some — protein, iron, calcium and essential minerals you can’t get from meat and vitamins A, C, K, potassium, fiber, etc. Broccoli contains more protein per calorie than steak and spinach runs neck and neck with chicken and fish. Another great source of hearty greens come from the ocean in seaweed. Although greens are essential, so are your healthy carbohydrates such as quinoa, beans and legumes. If you are expending a lot of energy in the form of training or other strenuous activities, I recommend you combine brown rice with lentils, peas, beans, or chickpeas – it is extremely filling, and ensures you are getting all the protein you need. If your body is well-fed with these key foods and an assortment of fruits and veggies that span the color of the rainbow, your body will feel better than it ever did while eating meat.
4. Only shopping at Whole Foods
The age-old myth that eating healthy costs a fortune I’m sure comes from someone who’s only frame of reference is Whole Foods. There are so many other options such as local farmers markets, small farms and local co-ops. Even stores such as Trader Joe’s or Target provide more variety. I admit, it’s going to require more work on your end, such as finding out which store sells the organic tahini or which farm in your area will let you pick strawberries for a fraction of the store price. But this is an adventure, remember? You’ll be surprised how much you save by cutting out meat and dairy. Although stores like Whole Foods will have more options when it comes to meat substitutes and such, opt to learn more about the fruits and veggies that are grown locally and in-season where you live. If you want to ball out in Whole Foods, by all means make it rain. But it doesn’t hurt to support your local economy and reduce your carbon footprint on your road to cleaner eating.
5. Not reading the ingredients
I sometimes have to read this portion of the packaging twice just to make sure my eyes didn’t glaze over any essential no-nos. Although something might be advertised as plant-based or as a “meat alternative,” it might still have traces of dairy and/or eggs. If it is certified vegan (bearing a little “V” on its packaging) you’re in the clear. Otherwise, check out all the ways companies choose to hide details in their ingredients.
6. Not planning ahead when eating out
If you weren’t a planner before, as a vegan you most certainly will be. Don’t expect to go to a restaurant and have the ease and convenience of picking anything off the menu like you’ve done in the past. For most traditional restaurants, your options will be slim to nonexistent. And if you let it, it can be quite depressing. That’s why I make it a practice to plan ahead. If I’m going to a restaurant with friends, I might peruse the menu online before getting there. Or if I have any say so, I’ll make sure to pick a restaurant where I’m not just eating a side of broccoli and french fries. Luckily, a lot of places are catching up with the times and offering a larger assortment of vegetarian and vegan options. And most places do want to accommodate you. If you ask them to hold the cheese or replace the caesar dressing with balsamic vinegar, they surely will. Another cheat for me is to bring my own snacks — “I got mung beans in my bag. Swag.” Never arrive famished and drink plenty of water (everyone should do this anyways). Be sure to check out Happy Cow for your next vegan rendezvous.
7. Missing meat
This is the biggest mistake you can make. Have you seen all the alternatives? We live in a prime age for plant-based living. There’s vegan pizza, hot wings, burgers, tacos, cookies, cakes, all your favorite comfort foods rolled into one. And that’s not even covering half of it. Shoot, I made vegan mozzarella sticks!
Transitioning in any aspect of our lives can be difficult, but don’t let the challenge intimidate you. Enjoy the process and the obscene amount of benefits eating cleaner can give to you. Trust me, you got this.