If you’re trying to eat a healthy diet, you’re likely aiming to consume more fruits and vegetables. You may have thought about transitioning to a vegan diet but felt daunted by the prospect of swearing off burgers, hot dogs, milk and many other animal-based products, Heal Me Healthy.
About 3% of the U.S. population adheres to a vegan eating regimen, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. That translates to more than 9 million individuals in a country with 329 million people.
Here are six things to know that could help you ease into a vegan diet.
Six Tips for Starting a Vegan Diet
That means abstaining from:
“A lot of times people think it’s going to be this huge change. It’s really primarily about finding alternative sources of protein and cutting out dairy products,” says Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and food writer in the Los Angeles area. She’s the author of the books “California Vegan: Inspiration and Recipes from the People and Places of the Golden State,” “The Plant-Powered Diet” and “Plant-Powered for Life,” and also writes “The Plant-Powered Dietitian” blog.
Cutting out meat, poultry and seafood means you have to find alternative sources of protein. “It’s completely possible to get the protein you need on a plant-based diet,” she says. “Many people overestimate how much protein they need.”
As for dairy, you can exchange plant-based milks and yogurt for those made from animal milk.
There are a wide array of plant-based milks, including:
- Almond milk.
- Cashew milk.
- Coconut milk.
- Hemp milk.
- Oat milk.
- Pea milk.
- Soy milk.
It’s useful to keep in mind that some of these plant-based milks are not as nutrient-dense as dairy milk, Palmer says. Plant milks based in soy or pea are comparable to dairy milks.
2. Start off slowly. If you’re interested in eating a vegan diet, it may be beneficial to start slow. For example, you might begin by working meatless Monday into your usual routine, Palmer says. Do that for a couple of weeks, and then try a flexitarian diet, which is plant-based but allows for eating animal products – like steak, poultry or fish – on occasion. “A lot of people find it helpful to transition to veganism gradually, over a period of a few weeks,” she says.
3. Pay attention to protein. While most Americans get enough protein in their diet, shifting to a vegan diet could cause a drop in protein intake if you’re not adequately replacing animal protein with plant-based sources of protein, says Alexandra Oppenheimer Delvito, a registered dietitian based in New York City. “Eating a variety of plant protein sources throughout the day helps ensure you are getting enough of all the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks for proteins that our bodies cannot make on their own,” she says.
Plant-based sources of protein include:
- Dry peas.
- Whole grains.
These foods supply not just protein but fiber, vitamins and minerals.
4. Supplement, supplement, supplement. You’ll need to consume supplements and fortified foods to meet all of your nutritional needs on a full vegan diet, says Jill Weisenberger, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator based in Yorktown, Virginia. “Specifically, we get vitamin B12 only from animals, so if you’re vegan be sure to take a supplement with 100% RDA (recommended daily allowance),” she says.
“Vitamin D is also hard to get, as is zinc and a few other nutrients. Your best bet is to work with a registered dietitian nutritionist who can help you flesh out your personalized eating plan and the appropriate supplements.”
5. Don’t overlook the importance of variety. With all eating patterns, variety is key to maintaining your commitment, enjoying your meals and optimizing health, Delvito says. “It’s easier to stick with a way of eating if you have a wide selection of delicious, healthy foods you enjoy,” she says.
Incorporating a variety of foods that are different colors and flavors also provides a mix of nutrients and polyphenols which are known to support good health and immune function. Research published in the American Journal of Nutrition in 2019 suggests that flavonoids are beneficial for cardiometabolic health.
Foods that are rich in flavonoids include:
- Soy products.
Including different color fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices and beverages like black, green, oolong and white teas are a great way to add variety, flavor and beneficial nutrients.
If you’re struggling to find recipes, consider taking a cooking class, where you can learn how to prepare an array of dishes that will help you vary your vegan eating regimen. Talk to friends who follow the approach, or you can also join a Facebook group for vegan eaters for a sense of support and camaraderie, Weisenberger suggests. Finding like-minded people is helpful.
6. Remember that vegan does not equal healthy. A diet being “vegan” doesn’t make it good or bad. A vegan diet can consist entirely of soda and cotton candy, says Dr. David Katz, former director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Connecticut, and one of U.S. News’ Best Diets expert panelists. As with any diet, it’s important to make sure your eating regimen is balanced and varied, and that you make good choices as to which vegan foods you consume.
Like any diet, even if it’s strictly plant-based, issues of balance, variety and food choice remain crucial.
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