Switching to a plant-based, or vegan, lifestyle after growing up eating meat, consuming dairy, and never thinking twice about what I was consuming was a big switch up for me. Learning how to navigate different protein sources, meet nutritional needs, and order at restaurants were all things I had to learn as I went. So, to help out anyone reading this who is ready to make the plunge, here is my advice to you (and my younger self.)
Educate yourself on plant-based substitutes prior to cutting out meat
When I first decided to stop eating meat in high school, I also had no concept of what tofu was. Nor did I substitute meat for plant-based protein. Nor did I use protein powder. I was basically eating carbs and dairy, and I kept wondering why I didn’t feel my best (hindsight is 20/20!) When I took this approach (or lack thereof) to cutting out meat, it was no wonder I didn’t last long (probably about 6-months before I started eating meat again.) I set myself up for failure, and I have seen so many others do the same. Here is my advice to avoid my mistakes.
- Prior to going plant-based, research, research, research protein sources. Learn about which protein sources you could replace your usual protein sources with, learn what your local grocery store carries (most carry tofu and some form of vegan nuggets at the minimum,) and what you could actually see yourself implementing into your diet. If I could go back and do everything over again, I would have used an alternative protein source for every other meal intandem with my meat consumption instead of cutting meat out cold-turkey (ha, ha.) Here are my favorite protein swaps to get you started:
- Tofu scramble instead of eggs. Cut out your morning eggs for some delicious tofu! To make it even tastier, mix in a bell pepper, some spinach, nutritional yeast, your favorite shredded vegan cheese, some hot sauce, and enjoy.
- Jackfruit + kidney beans instead of shredded pork/chicken. As a lover of all things barbeque, I found myself craving a bbq pulled pork sandwich every fourth of July. Thankfully I discovered jackfruit about a year into my vegan journey; it’s natures version of shredded meat! However, it lacks protein as it is a fruit, so mixing in some mashed kidney beans will give your veganized shredded “meat” a hearty texture and keep you full for hours.
- Seitan slices instead of deli meat. Seitan (say-tan) slices were first introduced to me when I started eating out at vegan restaurants. This is the most common deli meat replacement I have seen, and it’s for good reason; the texture is crazy similar! You can buy seitan deli meat slices at the some grocery stores, such as the Tofurky brand, and they make a great addition to a sandwich, sub, or shredded up in chik’n pot pies!
- Get out of your comfort zone. When I first went plant-based, I was not adventurous in my eating at all. It took me about one year into my vegan journey to venture away from Beyond Burgers as my only protein source. Diversity of protein sources is key for a healthy gut and healthy body (learned that the hard way,) so make sure you are mixing it up when it comes to your proteins. The best way to do this? Have fun with it! Go out to eat at more vegan restaurants and try new things. Cook a new protein every night. Research recipes until you see things that jump out at you. Write your own recipes for crying out loud! Just enjoy the learning curve and be patient with yourself. And, of course, give each protein sources a chance (or five.) It took me awhile to realize I loved tofu, so let your taste buds adapt with time.
There are, of course, so many other plant based protein sources, such as edamame, walnuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, soy milk, pea milk (or pea protein powder, my favorite!), kidney beans, chickpeas, quinoa, plant-based patties, etc! As a new vegan, I would recommend trying every protein source you can find until you find the ones that you can see yourself incorporating into your daily food routine.
Learn how to navigate ordering at restaurants
When it comes to eating plant-based at restaurants, where you live is probably the biggest factor indicating how difficult it will be for you. For me, in my small Midwestern town, it was hard to find anything fully vegan, but when I went to college in the city, my dining options multiplied immensely. No matter where you live, I want you to feel like you can go enjoy a meal at a restaurants without breaking your plant-based lifestyle. Here is what I have learned to do over the last few years when it comes to ordering at restaurants.
- Research the menu before hand. This is the most obvious tip, of course, but it’s also one of the easiest things you can do. Restaurant chains, if they exceed a certain number of stores, are required to post not only their menu, but also their nutrition facts (these are your best friends!!) Pay attention to the keys on the menu if applicable (V, Veg, GF), read up on ingredients, and browse the appetizer section (if worst comes to worse, you can usually manage to get fries and a side salad.)
- Call ahead. Not a fan of calling? Me either. However, this is one of the best ways to get the information you need (as someone who has worked in the restaurant industry for over 5 years, I would recommend calling during the day before a rush if you want the most detailed answers.) You can inquire about certain dishes, ask if they have any way to veganize dishes, and you can ask what oils they cook foods in, if they have separate fryers for meat, etc! Speaking with management, or the chefs if they allow it, will be your best bet.
- Use Happy Cow. Happy Cow is a vegan’s best friend. It functions as a website and an app, and it helps locate vegetarian and/or vegan friendly restaurants near you. Simple as that! If you are pressed for time or don’t want to call restaurants with a bunch of questions, this is the app for you.
Read up on your nutritional needs
Prior to going vegan, I did not realize how many vitamins, minerals, and nutrients I was getting from fortified dairy products and meats. In a society that is geared towards animal consumption, there is a learning curve when you steer away from eating these products in term of meeting your nutrient needs. Here is what I wish I knew about nutritional needs for vegans before making the switch.
- Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is extremely important, and if you go without if for too long, you can cause irreversible damage to your body (so make sure you’re getting this in your plant-based diet.) Essentially, it helps to keep the blood and nerve cells healthy while also helping with DNA repair. The best source for B12? Fish, meat, dairy, and eggs. For someone carrying out a plant-based diet, you can sneak in some B12 with nutritional yeast (my favorite), fortified cereals, tempeh, and some mushrooms. But, the easiest way to get B12 is through supplementation.
- Iron. This one is kind of obvious, but low iron is very common among the vegan community. Iron is most commonly found in lean meats and fish, but can also be found in beans, apples, pomegranates, and prune juice. Iron is a key player in helping blood flow and moving oxygen from the lungs to muscle tissue. If you’re low in iron, you will feel fatigued, potentially develop anemia, and lightheadedness.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids. This is something I pushed to the back burner and did not supplement for a long time – omega 3’s are so important for keeping your heart healthy and happy! Most commonly found in fish, there are other sneaky ways to get in more omega 3’s, such as: nuts, chia seeds, brussels sprouts, and flax seeds. You can also find vegan “fish” oil supplements packed with omega 3’s!
- Protein Sources. When I first started my plant-based journey, I was for sure lacking in protein: I could not gain muscle mass, was tired all the time, and had poor balance. As a vegan, I cannot stress this enough: vary your protein sources. For me, protein powder was my best friend for the first few months, and now I rely on tofu, beans, plant-based burgers, tempeh, and more. I recommend trying about three different protein sources a week. This could look like tofu stir fry on Monday and Tuesday, smoothie bowls with protein power and nut butter on Wednesday and Thursday, and plant-based “deli meat” sandwiches to finish out the week.
People will question/comment on your eating habits…a lot
When I first made the switch, my friends and family were hesitant (and they made sure to express it.) “It’s just a phase,” some will say. “But where will you get your protein?” they will ask. At the end of the day, it’s always important to remember that this is your life, and you only get one of them, so don’t be too phased by the opinions of others. When it comes to constant questioning, comments, and some disapproving remarks regarding your eating habits, it may take a toll on you. My article, “5 Common Objections to Going Plant-Based,” addresses the best ways to respond to objections. Here is my other advice.
- Know why you’re going plant-based. Like most things in life, if there is no passion or reason for doing it, it most likely won’t last long (or be enjoyable.) For me, I knew I wanted to go plant-based for animal rights reasons, and that is my “why.” For some, a plant-based diet may be for health reasons, for the climate, religious reasons, etc. Whatever your reasoning is, stick to it, and craft your responses to common objections around your reasoning. For example, when people ask “but our ancestors ate meat, why should I stop?” Someone who is plant-based for animal rights reasons may respond, “Well, our ancestors did not pump farm animals full of antibiotics and factory farm them. Until farming practices are more humane, I am choosing not to participate in any action that contributes to animal cruelty.”
- Don’t take it to heart. At the end of the day, you choices and behaviors are up to nobody but yourself. If you choose to eat in a way that makes you feel good, weather that’s gluten free, 80% plant-based, dairy free, etc, that’s up to you! People will always have opinions, even those closest to you, so it’s best to remember to take everything with a grain of salt. If you’re happy with your choices, it truly doesn’t matter what others say; take everything with a grain of salt.
16-year old me would benefit from this advice and insight, and I hope many of you will as well. For those nervous to take the plunge, or struggling to stick with it, remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day. Good things take time — enjoy the journey, push yourself to new lengths, and dive in!
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