There's a lot of stigma behind labels these days. Most people feel the need to categorize themselves and others into neat little boxes of definition when, in reality, the world works more like a Venn diagram (does anyone even use these anymore?) than mutually exclusive squares. Math references aside, I'm thinking specifically of dietary lifestyles. Beyond the most general terms like "omnivore" and "herbivore," we can very easily get caught up in the world of "pescatarian," "pollotarian," "lacto-ovo-vegetarian," "ovo-vegetarian," "lacto-vegetarian," "vegan," "raw vegan," "100% vegetarian," "flexitarian," "fruitarian," and "microbiotic," to name a few. One thing to remember, though, is that labeling yourself limits yourself.
No two people are the same, so no two people have exactly the same lifestyle tendencies. Don't get me wrong; sometimes it's easier to explain to people that you're "vegan," even if you do eat honey, or that you're "vegetarian," even if you still eat fish. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that you shouldn't feel the need to fit yourself into one particular genre. Find what works for your specific body and live it up! This is why I prefer to use the term "plant-based diet" to describe the vast number of variations found among lifestyles, whether you occasionally eat red meat or you only eat uncooked fruits and vegetables. The most important point I want to emphasize is to be aware of what you're eating. Therefore, I hope this list of tips helps shed some light on making the transition to a plant-based diet, if that's the route you choose to take.
Quick disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever been, a registered dietician, nutritionist, nurse, or doctor. If you have any questions or concerns about making any lifestyle changes, I would recommend talking to your doctor first. This is simply a compilation of tips I have procured from my own experiences.
1. Make it personal. Before you start to make any changes with your food intake, do some research. Figure out why you want to make these changes and get passionate about it! The worst thing you could do is decide to eat a plant-based diet because someone else told you to do so, or because you just feel like trying out something new, but really aren't that into it. I guarantee it won't last. With most things in life, you have to decide why this is important to you and let that be your motivation to change. Otherwise, it will be very easy to slip back into your old ways. Whether it's for ethical, health, ecological, or financial reasons, that's up to you, but find a reason to want to change. To educate yourself, I recommend watching a few documentaries (Forks Over Knives is a fantastic one, as well as Fresh, Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, and Food, Inc. if you have a strong stomach), reading some books (Veganist is the one that Oprah read!), and checking out some online articles (like here, here, here, and here). Hit up Google and read/watch as much as you possibly can, preferably from as many different sources as you can find. You'll notice there are people that try to scare you into a plant-based diet, but you'll also find that there are many people who take a practical look at all healthy lifestyles. Get out there and learn!
2. Don't go cold turkey. One of the worst ways to transition to a plant-based diet is to skip the "transition" part and just jump right in. Weaning yourself off the foods you've been eating for years is something that has to happen slowly, just like any other addiction. Start by replacing one meal a week with a meatless alternative, gradually increasing the number of meatless meals at your own pace. For example, say you're planning on making spaghetti for dinner tonight. Instead of browning the ground beef for the sauce, skip it. Try making a delicious spaghetti sauce by adding spices instead of meat! I would also suggest not throwing out the meat you already purchased. If you've completely cut out red meat from your diet, make a dish to bring to a friend or family member. Then, the next time you head to the grocery store, simply avoid the meat counter. Challenge yourself to find new, exciting recipes that don't include animal flesh.
3. Try out some recipes. Many people who decide to stop eating meat tend to lean towards the processed meat alternatives instead. I won't lie -- I did it too! Morning Star is a great company that makes delicious alternatives to ground beef, sausage, and chicken. They even make frozen dinners and you can find them in just about every grocery store (including Wal-Mart). However, any processed food, whether it's made from vegetables or not, is not a healthy option. Therefore, don't be afraid to try some recipes out in your own kitchen! Believe it or not, cooking vegetarian/vegan food is actually a lot easier than cooking with meat. You don't have to worry about food poisoning from undercooked meat, plus the food doesn't take nearly as long to cook, and you'll save a lot of money not buying meat. Some really great cookbooks I recommend you try (check your local library if you can't afford or don't want to buy them): Veganomicon, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Super Natural Cooking, Super Natural Every Day, The Kind Diet, Fresh at Home, The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook, and Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. Don't forget blogs either! There are some really fantastic (and free!) sites out there that cater to vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, including: 101 Cookbooks, Sprouted Kitchen, Green Kitchen Stories, Mighty Vegan, Happyolks, My Darling Lemon Thyme, Choosing Raw, Post Punk Kitchen, have cake, will travel, Not Without Salt, Pure Vegetarian by Lakshmi, Roost, No Meat Athlete, and Two Spoons.
4. Get colorful. An easy way to make sure you're getting enough vegetable variety in your meals is to rely on color. You should try to strive for a plate that has a lot of green (dark and light), some orange, some red, and a little bit of yellow, white, or brown. A trap that many people fall into is relying too heavily on carbs such as pasta, bread, and rice, to make up for the lack of meat in their meals. Try using whole wheat pasta, quinoa, and whole wheat bread (homemade is great!) instead, and eat them in moderation, as with all things. As for adding leafy greens to your menu, it's much easier than you might think. Add some Romaine or green-leaf lettuce to your deli sandwich, chop up some kale and throw it in your salad, or add some spinach leaves to your scrambled eggs or breakfast burrito.
5. Try some new snacks. Okay, so you've got the whole meal part down, but what do you do about snacks? It's so easy to grab a bag of chips or a couple cookies to tide you over until dinner, but those choices kind of ruin the whole "eating healthy" thing. Instead of snacking on foods that are high in sodium, fat, and sugar, start replacing them with fruits and vegetables. An apple with some nut butter (almond, peanut, sunflower, etc.) is a great choice, or if you like the nut butter idea, why not have some with celery? Instead of eating dessert, eat some fruit, such as bananas, apples, oranges, peaches, strawberries, mangoes, or melons! Carrot sticks are another great snack, as long as you're not dipping them in fatty salad dressings. Try some cheese with your carrots! Or if you want something salty, you can get all kinds of nuts and seeds in bulk at your local health food store (like Whole Foods, Earth Fare, and Fresh Market); just make sure you get them unsalted, so you can add however much salt you want. Usually the pre-salted nuts have way more sodium than your body needs. Don't keep unhealthy snacks in the house either. You know that saying, "out of sight, out of mind?" It definitely works in this case. If you don't have sweets and fatty snacks to tempt you, you'll find you'll stop craving them.
6. Find out what your body likes. We live in a world where dairy and meat alternatives are plenty. This is super helpful for anyone who doesn't want to make their own nut milk or cultivate their own soybeans and turn them into tofu! As far as finding the right alternatives, especially where dairy products are concerned, it's important to try different kinds so you can decide what you like. The three most popular dairy-free milks are soy, almond, and coconut milk. Some great brands to try are Silk soy milk, Almond Breeze almond milk, and So Delicious coconut milk. So Delicious also makes scrumptious non-dairy coffee creamers, yogurt, and ice cream! It's a little trickier to find cheese alternatives that don't taste weird, but Lisanatti makes some great "cheese" out of almonds, and Daiya is another good choice. As for meat alternatives, tofu, tempeh, and seitan are the most commonly found options. You should try out Nasoya tofu, WestSoy seitan (or you can easily make some at home!), and Lightlife tempeh.
7. Don't forget your protein. One of the questions people following a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle most often face is, "don't you get enough protein?" A common misconception is that plant-based diets don't provide enough protein for your daily intake, but in all actuality, Americans eat way more protein than their bodies need. This site offers a great breakdown of the necessary daily protein intake for vegetarians and vegans, and here's some more awesome protein information! An easy rule I try to follow is to make sure I include one serving of protein in every meal, whether it's peanut butter, cashews, tofu, almond "cheese," or beans, for example. It's actually pretty easy to make sure you have enough protein, and not using meat to fulfill the requirements means less cholesterol and fat, too. Win-win!
I hope this post has helped open up your dietary perspective a bit. If nothing else, I hope you give some of these tips a try. Plants are delicious and good for you! You really can't go wrong. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know if there's anything I left out or if you have any questions. I'd love to hear your thoughts!