Over the last several months, it seems as though the topic of health and healthy lifestyles has become an increasing consideration for many people. Being in the nutrition world, I pretty much always have my mind on topics of health (regardless of whether or not I follow my own advice sometimes). So when most of my family recently decided to transition into more of a plant-based diet this summer, I was really excited for their new commitment to their health. Selfishly, I was also excited that everyone started listening to me, the youngest sibling, and I got to flex my “I told you so” muscle just a few times. But that’s neither here nor there and I’m very glad that they’re on this journey (and very glad I was right - but moving on!). There are many reasons to adopt more of a plant-based diet. These could include personal health choices, environmental concerns, animal rights issues, and even home budget considerations. If you’re thinking about adopting more plant-based foods into your everyday diet there may be a few things you want to keep in mind. I texted the family group text thread and asked for their input on what they wish they knew before making the dietary transition. I’ll share a few of those ideas here and hope they help you and your family if you’re thinking about making a few changes.
SUPPORT YOUR GUT:
Adopting a new diet may feel like a literal gut punch to your system at first. Think about it, the cells that are currently acting as the building blocks of your body were created straight from what you’ve been ingesting. If your cells are used to meat-rich diets, filled with processed foods, and heavy on sugars (no judgment here - this is basically the definition of the Standard American Diet, or the S.A.D. as we learned it in nutrition school), these cells are going to be shocked and think that they’re starving if you switch gears on them completely. That’s not saying that a cold-turkey approach might not be the right decision for you and your body, I’m more just validating that you may have a difficult time with it. But that’s okay, we can do hard things. I would definitely recommend adding a good quality probiotic to your daily routine as well as maybe adding in digestive enzymes. Both of these things are beneficial to any diet but will prove to be extremely helpful during a time of change. Cut your body some slack - it does so many wonderful things, so make sure you’re taking some time to support it and yourself through this.
OPT-OUT OF RELYING ON MEAT SUBSTITUTES:
Meat substitutes may prove helpful during the initial transition period as well as during social functions (I still bring my veggie hot dogs to cook-outs with me). But I find it helpful to think about why you’re relying on the meat substitute in the first place. Is it because you’re missing that meaty texture along with the taste of a delicious marinade/BBQ/etc? If this is the case, try the alternative of grilling a large portobello mushroom in your favorite marinade, or enjoy jackfruit BBQ or even this amazing recipe for vegan sloppy joes (I’m a big fan).
If you’re craving the simplicity of a quick chicken nugget meal, you may need to dedicate more time to meal prepping or stocking your pantry with quick plant-based fixes. If you think you need the protein fix, trust me, there are far better options than a frozen veggie burger. Not only are many meat substitutes EXTREMELY high in sodium, but they also often are filled with questionable ingredients. Listing food ingredients is definitely one of those situations where less is always better. This is your opportunity to get creative. Find a few new favorite recipes and master those. And don’t forget to share them with your loved ones too! - all while opting to not use meat substitutes and focus on quality ingredients. Your body will thank you and the transition will go more smoothly.
DIVERSIFY YOUR PROTEIN BASE:
I say this from experience. When I first began a plant-based diet, I went whole-hog and decided to become a vegan overnight. I was waking up to tofu breakfasts and added soy product replacements that I didn’t really ever eat anyway. I would be snacking on soy yogurt and soy pudding cups - I didn’t even want the pudding cup but it said soy so I bought it. After a few months of this, I started to feel not myself. There was no overwhelming feeling, just something wasn’t right. Since then, I learned that soy contains high levels of phytoestrogens. These act similar in function to human estrogen but with much weaker effects. Now the general consensus is basically still conflicting views on whether or not these phytoestrogens are in high enough concentration to affect you or not. But still, the moral of the story, don’t jump off the high-dive straight into just one source of protein. Diversify! There are so many to try (some vegan, some not): rice, pea, whey, hemp, mushroom, and a mix of many other whole plant sources of protein like seeds and nuts!
MACROS ARE IMPORTANT, BUT NOT AS IMPORTANT AS JUST LISTENING TO YOUR BODY:
I will say that nobody ever asked me if I was eating enough of the right thing before I stopped eating meat. No one ever wondered about my protein intake and if I was switching up my diet enough. But over the last almost 15 years since I stopped eating meat, I’ve been lucky enough to have several inquests (some from strangers, some not) into how healthy my diet is. How kind. The truth is that the standard American diet is lacking in so many other health markers and to reduce a diet down to a quantifiable measurement like macros isn’t always helpful. Every body is a different body. And most have many different needs. The best thing to do to figure out what your body needs is to listen to it. If I don’t have enough fresh foods in my diet, my skin begins to hurt. I’m totally serious. This happens more in the winter when fresh fruits and veggies are slightly more scarce, but my skin will feel like a giant bruise is forming all over. This is my body’s language to tell me to “wake up!” and feed it something good. And I listen.
No matter the diet, I will always recommend first and foremost to focus on and invest in high-quality ingredients, as close to the original source as possible. Your body will always thank you for paying attention to it and what it needs. Maybe the full plant-based isn’t for you, and that’s okay. These tips can apply to just about anybody and any diet. Just listen to your body and feed it.