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How to transition to a vegan or vegetarian diet with ease

Susan Tucker Nutrition Counselor & Health Coach Green Beat Life, LLC

Eating a plant-based diet is not just a trend. For many people around the globe, it’s a serious health, lifestyle and environmental decision. More and more people are becoming vegetarians, vegans or adapting a diet that is by majority, plant-based, because of the proven benefits for health and well-being, and for some, the difference it makes on their environmental footprint.

There’s a vast variety of food choices available within a plant-based diet that fulfill all the essential nutritional needs, such as protein, fat, fiber, and all the minerals and vitamins needed for a well-balanced diet. The proven health benefits of a plant-based diet are growing every day, including weight loss, improved digestion, lowered cholesterol and increased energy. A vegetarian diet may include dairy and/or eggs, while a vegan diet includes neither. As one transitions to a vegetarian or vegan diet, there are a few important tips to keep in mind. It may seem daunting at first, but just like with anything else, it’s a matter of knowledge. Then it is quite easy!


Do transition sensibly

Before starting any new diet or health regime, run it by your health practitioner. Mostly, this will give you peace of mind. Change can be unnerving and you want to make sure your vitals are in good standing before you transition.

For most people it is seamless, and almost immediately they start feeling the benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet. Many have reported that their cholesterol and blood-pressure go down and their energy increases. During the transition period that you may feel a difference in your energy, hunger and cravings. Don’t worry, it is just a matter of making the proper adjustments and learning what to eat. Take it step by step.

For some going ‘cold turkey’ works, but beware of binging and unusual cravings if you launch a dietary change too suddenly. If you are used to consuming animal products a few times a day, perhaps designating half your day or week to your transition is the way to go. Taking the support of a nutritionist may also be helpful. All in all you want it to be a positive and healthy switch.

Do get in the right mind-set

Approach a vegetarian and vegan diet with the right mind-set. Rather than thinking it is about what you can’t eat and then feeling deprived because you have to cut out foods, think of it as what you can eat or reframe your approach as this is my new dietary lifestyle. Getting in the right mind-set for any type of dietary change greatly affects appetite.

It is not about taking foods out and finding ways to replace them, but rather entering into the diverse world of plant-based nutrition, and knowing what you can eat and feeling abundant. You will discover a whole new world of food choices, and will certainly be enjoying foods you may not have thought to include in your meals, or perhaps always wanted to, but did not even consider until now.

Do keep it real

Once you have made the decision to become a vegetarian or vegan, you’ll be choosing some new and different food products, especially the packaged ones. Eat real food and beware of ingredients! For example, you may find yourself wanting to replace a hamburger with a vegetarian or vegan version - a veggie burger.

Many of the products that replace animal products are not always so healthy and contain excess oils, sodium, wheat by products or eggs, which would not be a choice for vegans. For all foods, always look for the most unprocessed and natural ingredients. A veggie burger, for example, made with legumes and/or grains will be your best bet, and are very delicious.

Do try new foods and recipes

Once you are eating a plant-based diet, try some of your favorite recipes, vegetarian or vegan style. Perhaps you have a favorite chili recipe. Try it without the meat! Or a stir-fry with veggies and shrimp? Try it with tofu or tempeh, or just add more veggies and serve over a grain of choice and a fabulous sauce. You will start to notice that a lot of satisfaction from meals comes from the seasonings, rather than the actual food item itself.

The tongue wants diverse interesting flavors and receiving them sends messages to our brain that we are satisfied. Seasonings will actually be enhanced with the plant-based versions of your recipes because your meals are fresher - your palette becomes more refined.

Keep a variety of condiments stocked in your kitchen. Start building your own plant-based meal library and soon you will discover the endless possibilities. You can invest in some vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, and collect recipes online.

Do understand you are getting the nutrition you need

You may be worried that once you leave animal foods behind, you’ll be depriving your body of well-needed everyday nutrients. Truly, you will be well provided for within a plant-based diet. Variety is key to keeping a the macro (protein, fat, carbohydrates) and micro (minerals, vitamins, antioxidants) nutrients in check.

When switching to a vegan diet especially, one of the first things your friends or family members, will ask you is ‘Are you getting enough protein?’ They never asked you before! There are very few of us, even vegetarians and vegans, that aren’t getting enough protein, in fact, the average American diet often provides too much protein, which is harmful to one’s health. Rest assured that grains, vegetables and legumes are rich in protein. The main concerns may be Vitamin D and B12. You can check your levels with your health practitioner and supplement as needed, or include fortified foods in your diet.


Do not be a junk food vegetarian or vegan

Just because you are a vegetarian or vegan, does not mean you are healthy and eating clean! Vegetarians and vegans can easily live on junk food and frequent fast-food joints. For lacto-ovo vegetarians (dairy and eggs are included), it is easy to fill up on cheese and eggs, adding excess fat and cholesterol to the body. A vegan can easily order a veggie burger with fries, and delight in vegan treats which are often packed with sugar and oils. Many of the fake meats marketed for vegetarians and vegans are delicious, but remember they are a processed food, and eat them only once in a while, along with other healthier choices. For any healthy and clean diet, there is effort to be made.

Do not rely on supplements and nutrient replacers

As a new vegetarian or vegan, you may be feeling nervous that you are not getting the vitamins and minerals you need. You may find yourself stocking up on lots of supplements, power bars and protein powders. It’s really not necessary! Rest assured that as you build a well-rounded, diverse vegetarian and vegan palette, and stock your shelves and fridge amply, you are well provided for.

The vitamin and supplement business is a multi-million dollar enterprise and we have all been deterred from eating real food. Of course, if your health practitioner detects a deficiency that is one thing, but food and the way it is naturally designed, provides optimal nutrition when eaten properly. Of course, from time to time, we may grab a power bar or whip up a shake, but choose those that are made from real food.

Do not relapse in restaurants

Once you transition to a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may be timid to ask for what you want when eating out. Don’t be afraid to ask the server what they have for vegetarians or vegans if you don’t see much on the menu. Most restaurants will come up with something for you.

You can design a plant-based meal from most any menu, to suit your dietary preferences. Look at all the side dishes, soups and salads on the menu, or pick and choose off the entrees, and make a main course for yourself. If you know that you are going to a vegetarian or vegan challenged restaurant, have a snack before hand, and simply eat lightly when you get there, so you won’t be tempted to relapse.

Do not be rigid and punish yourself

Imagine yourself, now a vegan, getting a cup of coffee at a café. The café only has cow’s milk, and no other choices like soy or almond. You don’t have time to find another place. You can either take it black or go ahead and use a little milk (as long as you are not lactose intolerant nor have a dairy allergy). Don’t punish yourself for these allowances every now and then. It’s fine!

Do your best to stick to your dietary choice and beliefs, but don’t punish yourself when there is an unavoidable situation when you cannot adhere to your mainstay diet, or you make the deliberate choice to share a non-vegan dessert with a friend. The emotional impact of punishing ourselves for the food we eat can be damaging. Leave yourself a 5% -10% allowance. The other 95% - 90% of the time you are vegan!

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Your dietary life and relationship with food is meant to bring you vibrant health, balance and energy. Choosing a plant-based diet brings lots of fresh foods into your life. It also brings more awareness about how one’s food choices affect our environment. It brings diversity and creativity into your dietary life. And most of all it is a great investment in your health, which is priceless.

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Susan TuckerNutrition Counselor & Health Coach

Susan Tucker is the founder of Green Beat Life, LLC, a nutrition counseling practice based in New York City. Susan is a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition where she earned certification in Nutrition Counseling and Health Coachin...

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