Making the decision to change the way one eats is deeply personal, and usually it happens gradually. Earlier this month, a federal panel recommended that Americans eat less meat and take on a diet lower in animal-based foods. They explained that a vegan diet not only can improve our health but has less of a negative environmental impact. Being vegan myself, I think it can only benefit others to at least ponder what life would be like on a diet filled with fewer animal products.
1. Think you'll miss that meat component to your meal? There are many meat alternatives.
I confess: Not all meat alternatives were created equal. Don't disparage if you try one and it tastes like your car tire. I promise there are lots of delicious ones out there. Look to our lists for starters or better yet, go food shopping with someone already well-versed in the diet you're curious about. I find that people are usually happy to share what they've discovered. When I found I had celiac disease I'd always ask other shoppers in the gluten-free aisle for their favorites. You'll learn something new and feel good about the human race. Replace your chicken strips with seitan, add tofu to your vegetable stir fry, or cook up some tempeh for breakfast. If you have a gluten allergy, Beyond Meat products are plant-proteins that are vegan and gluten free.
2. Won't be satisfied eating vegetables alone? Some vegetables are more "meaty" than others.
There are some vegetables that contain similar properties to that of meat and, after eating them, can even leave you with the same satisfied feeling. Mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, spinach, Chinese cabbage and eggplant are all foods that are rich in "umami" (a savory taste.) If you're in the mood to dig in to a steak, grill up a big portobello mushroom instead. If you're craving a piece of breaded chicken, satisfy your needs with breaded eggplant. There are plenty of ways to use "meaty" vegetables that will still leave you satisfied and full.
3. Concerned you'll no longer be able to dine out? Restaurants want you to be happy and they want you to come back.
You don't have to limit yourself to restaurants only specializing in vegetarian or vegan cuisine (even though I personally like to support them and these restaurants will offer you an abundance of choices). Every restaurant kitchen at the very least has vegetables, starches and grains. I've enjoyed many a meal out by taking advantage of the sides menu. There are meals hiding in there. I have even been known to pack my own butter substitute and sour cream. There's nothing that can stop me from eating up. Remember, the more we ask for these foods, the more the market will pay attention. The money of vegetarians and vegans is just as green (if not more so).
4. Think you'll be missing your protein? Protein doesn't only exist in meat.
And, if you've watched the documentary Forks Over Knives, you already know that we've been told we need more protein than we really do. Protein is important for growth and development and is a major material used by your body to help the muscles, skin, blood and organs work thoroughly. It's important that you give your body the protein it needs in at least one meal a day. Protein is in vegetables, beans and legumes, tofu and tempeh, hummus and tahini, nuts and seeds, rice and quinoa, and even protein powders if you're challenged in the kitchen or if you're a smoothie-lover.
5. Worried about your iron? A plant-based diet is not necessarily iron- or calcium-deficient.
A lot of people recommend taking vitamins and supplements once you cut animal products out of your diet. I do take a B12 supplement, but by eating a whole foods plant-based diet I'm getting most of what I need from my food. You can get your fix of iron and calcium through a diet rich in vegetables and grains. Iron-rich foods include whole grains, tofu, pumpkin seeds, lentils and sea vegetables. Natural calcium supplements include beans, nuts, seeds, leafy greens and sea vegetables. Plant sources of protein, like nori used on sushi rolls, can also provide adequate amounts of essential and nonessential amino acids.
6. Think your weekly meals will be boring? Plant-based diets turn ordinary cooks, into incredible chefs.
When you're forced to create meals out of vegetables and animal free products, you suddenly become a master chef. Your cravings for different foods mean experimenting differently with produce and trying recipes that you never would have tried before. Plant-based recipes don't mean your eating sprouts only. Craving tacos? Try them with mushrooms or grilled plantains! Want a burger? Make yourself a black bean patty! The amount of plant-based recipes available is endless and the more comfortable and familiar you get with your veggies the more you'll find yourself experimenting.
7. Need your daily milk fix? Cutting milk out of your diet can be better for your health.
The truth is, our bodies aren't meant to drink milk that isn't our own. Drinking cow's milk can actually increase the acidity in our body, which can pull calcium out of our bones. More and more people are finding themselves with lactose intolerance, experiencing gas and discomfort after drinking dairy, and generally rejecting it in their systems. Saturated fats are common in the American diet. Common sources of saturated fat include whole milk and other whole-milk dairy foods. These saturated fats can contribute to heart disease, have been linked to diabetes, and have also been linked to many cancers. In dairy cows, hormones can be used to increase milk production. When you drink milk from dairy cows, those hormones go straight into your body. While a variety of hormones are produced by our bodies and are essential for normal development of healthy tissues, synthetic steroid hormones have been found to affect cancer risk. There are lots of amazing milk substitutes that don't come with any of these problems. Almond milk, rice milk and coconut milk are all excellent (and delicious) alternatives.
8. Finding yourself limited? Quitting dairy doesn't mean quitting butter, cheese or ice cream.
In fact, switching to non-dairy products will not only be better for your health, but will most likely go unnoticed in your daily routine. The vegan alternatives to dairy products are getting better and better. Earth Balance makes an incredible "butter." Tofutti "cream cheese" is delicious on a bagel. Vegenaise "mayonnaise" makes everything taste good. Vegan Gourmet "cheese" is perfect, and the range of vegan ice creams is better than you could ever imagine, just visit your local Whole Foods!
9. Think you can get away with eating eggs? Eggs are tricky, but not exempt.
Nutritionists seem to go back and forth about the health benefits we receive from eggs. When it comes down to it, eggs come from chickens and if you are choosing a plant-based diet they should be removed. The nutritional benefits that eggs are said to hold -- protein, lutein and a variety of vitamins and minerals -- can be found in other sources. However, if you do choose to continue eating eggs, be sure that you are getting them from a trustworthy source. Buy from a farmer who guarantees you that the chickens have been well treated, are not forced to live in cages, and have not been pumped with antibiotics.
10. Concerned about breaking your new diet? Depriving yourself won't do you any good.
If you begin a plant-based diet or even decide to become a vegetarian and you don't have days where you are tempted by something animal-based, then good for you! There are bound to be times where you just want to "cheat." Like when that grilled cheese looks so delicious and that piece of salmon sushi becomes irresistible. Depriving yourself and resisting every temptation won't do you any good. In fact, cheating on occasion and sampling that one product will not only meet your craving, but will probably even put you off wanting to eat it again any time soon when you realize you could have done without it! Once you get into the plant-based world and start to feel so good, those little cheats become less and less appealing. Realizing that you can allow yourself the occasional slip up might lessen the fear of change. You won't forget how much a plant-based diet is better for you, better for our animals, and better for our planet!