Adopting a vegan lifestyle can be an incredibly rewarding journey, offering numerous health benefits and promoting a more sustainable and compassionate way of life. It not only transforms the way you look at your food, but it heightens your awareness about the ethical and environmental implications of dietary choices. From discovering new vegetables and grains to experimenting with various flavors and cuisines, the vegan lifestyle can open the door to a world of culinary delights.
A vegan lifestyle means abstaining from animal-derived products and, according to some interpretations, seeking alternatives to products that exploit animals. The potential health benefits you may reap when you follow a vegan diet are immense, from weight loss and lower blood pressure to reduced risk of heart disease and certain cancers.
Ready to jump-start your vegan journey? You may already be well aware of the potential benefits of following a vegan lifestyle. But if you’re wondering how to become vegan, how to get protein without meat, and the potential disadvantages of being vegan, read on to learn more as dietitians, myself included, share the best tips and tricks for becoming vegan.
Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that following a plant-based diet is linked to a slew of health benefits, from supporting heart health to promoting a healthy gut microbiome. Whether you choose to go plant-based (aka follow a diet that is rich in plants but still includes small amounts of animal products) or full-on vegan (meaning avoiding anything derived from an animal), there is data highlighting how taking these steps may positively impact your health.
“A vegan or vegetarian diet affects the gut microbiome,” says registered dietitian Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD. She explains that eating more high-fiber foods increases the production of healthy bacteria in your bowel that may reduce inflammation. “Inflammation is linked with the development of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and dementia,” she says.
Andrews also shared that a recent study in the International Review of Molecular Science found that a vegan diet may aid in the prevention of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as it is low in fat and saturated fat and high in fiber and antioxidants. And a 2023 systematic review of studies found that vegan and vegetarian diets reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and ischemic heart disease, but not strokes, compared to non-vegetarian diets. The reason? Vegan diets tend to be lower in saturated fat, which is a nutrient that is linked to potential heart health concerns.
Plant-based diets are also protective against cancers of the digestive system. “A recent meta-analysis found that plant-based diets helped to prevent various digestive cancers including colorectal and pancreatic cancer,” Andrews explains.
Plus, when people are eating a wide variety of plants, they are naturally eating a diet rich in fiber, antioxidants, and other phytochemicals, which work together to reduce the risk of chronic diseases. And besides that, the wide spectrum of colors, flavors, and textures in plant-based meals makes for a delightful culinary experience while fueling your body with the right nutrients.
How to Become Vegan
Starting a vegan lifestyle can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be! A vegan diet can be simple, tasty, and nutritious. The journey begins with an understanding that veganism is not about deprivation, but about embracing a lifestyle that promotes health, compassion, and environmental sustainability. Remember, every small step counts, and any progress is a positive step. So whether you’re transitioning to a vegan diet for health reasons, ethical considerations, or environmental concerns, this guide is here to help you navigate your way to a happier, healthier, and more compassionate lifestyle.
Starting your transition gradually may help you achieve longer-lasting compliance. For example, you can start by introducing more plant-based meals into your diet, say two days a week. And then gradually reduce your intake of meat, dairy, and other animal-derived products. Up your plant-based meals to three or four days a week — then, finally, all seven days. The goal is to ease your body into the transition, and eventually it will become less reliant on animal products.
Focus on Easy Replacements
There are vegan alternatives for nearly every type of food. Familiarizing yourself with some of the easy swaps will help you as you’re trying to figure out what to eat at home or what to order out. For example, instead of cow’s milk, you might try almond, soy, or oat milk. Instead of parmesan cheese, opt for nutritional yeast. There are also many plant-based protein alternatives, such as lentils, chickpeas, tempeh, and tofu.
Animal-derived ingredients can be found in many packaged foods. Always check the labels and familiarize yourself with the different names of these ingredients.
Here are some surprising ingredients that are derived from animals:
- Gelatin: This common food thickener is derived from animal collagen, typically from the bones and skin of pigs and cows. It’s often found in items like marshmallows, gummy candies, and some yogurts.
- Cochineal/Carmine: This red food coloring is made from a type of insect. It’s often found in candies, ice cream, and cosmetics.
- Casein: This is a type of protein derived from milk and is often used in processed foods to improve texture. It can be found in some nondairy creamers and some so-called “vegan” cheeses.
- Isinglass: A type of gelatin derived from fish bladders, it’s often used in the clarification process of beers and wines.
- Lanolin: Derived from sheep’s wool, it’s commonly used in cosmetics and skin-care products.
Seek Support and Resources
Join local or online vegan communities. They can provide you with much-needed support, inspiration, and practical tips as you’re starting your vegan journey. And research which supermarkets and restaurants in your area offer vegan-friendly options so that you know where to go.
Create a Menu Plan
Do some research on simple vegan meals and take it upon yourself to stock your pantry and refrigerator with vegan snacks and ingredients so that you can have options at the ready, says Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of “The Plant-Powered Plan to Beat Diabetes.” Then, try to create a weekly menu plan, especially as you’re getting started. It doesn’t have to be too fancy, Palmer says, but having an idea of what you will eat until you get in the rhythm of things can be helpful. Meal planning can ensure you’re getting a balanced intake of nutrients. Make sure to fill your plate with a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Remember, diversity is key in a plant-based diet.
Be Gentle With Yourself
Mistakes happen, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip up. The goal is progress, not perfection.
Embrace the adventure and enjoy the discovery of new foods and flavors. If you want more hand-holding, you can speak with a registered dietitian to help you learn more about how to navigate a vegan lifestyle healthfully.
Disadvantages of Being Vegan
While there’s no denying the many benefits of a vegan lifestyle, it’s important to acknowledge that like any lifestyle choice, it also has its challenges.
- Nutrient deficiency: A vegan diet can potentially lead to a deficiency in nutrients like vitamin B12, iron, choline, iodine, and omega-3 fatty acids, which are predominantly found in animal-derived foods. Therefore, careful planning or supplementation may be necessary.
- Limited options when eating out: Navigating menus at non-vegan restaurants can be tricky, and options may be limited.
- Potential for processed-food over-reliance: With the rising popularity of veganism, there’s now an abundance of processed vegan foods in the market. While convenient, these can be high in sugar and unhealthy fats and low in nutrients.
- Time and planning: From reading labels to cooking more at home, a vegan lifestyle can require a little more time and planning, especially in the beginning stages.
Remember, every lifestyle choice has its pros and cons, and it’s all about finding what works best for your individual needs and circumstances.
How to Get Protein Without Meat
The question of getting enough protein is often one of the first raised when considering a vegan diet. Fortunately, there are many plant-based sources of protein that can easily be incorporated into your meals.
- Legumes: Beans, lentils, and chickpeas are not only rich in protein but also packed with fiber and essential nutrients. They can be used in a variety of dishes such as salads, soups, and stews.
- Quinoa: One of the few plant foods that’s a complete protein, quinoa is an excellent choice for vegans. It’s versatile and can be used in everything from salads to stir-fries.
- Tofu and Tempeh: Made from soybeans, tofu and tempeh are not only high in protein but also rich in calcium and iron.
- Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and hemp seeds are excellent sources of protein and healthy fats. They can be added to breakfast cereals, salads, or smoothies for an extra protein boost.
- Whole Grains: Foods like brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-grain bread not only provide protein but also provide necessary complex carbohydrates that are a great source of energy.
One consideration when choosing your protein sources on a vegan diet is to ensure you are consuming adequate amounts of essential amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and there are nine essential amino acids that your body can’t create in adequate amounts, but that you can get from the foods you eat.
Many plant-based proteins are considered “incomplete” as they don’t contain all the essential amino acids our body requires. But that’s where complementary proteins come into play here. Complementary proteins are two or more incomplete proteins that, when eaten together or within the same day, can provide a complete protein profile. For instance:
- Rice and Beans: When eaten together, these two form a complete protein. Both are staple foods in many cultures and can be prepared in myriad ways.
- Peanut Butter and Whole Grain Bread: This classic combination also constitutes a complete protein. It’s a quick and easy option, especially for breakfast or snacks.
- Hummus and Pita Bread: Chickpeas and whole grain pita bread pair up for a tasty complete protein.
There are also a handful of vegan-friendly protein sources that are considered complete proteins too, like pistachios. In fact, pistachios provide all nine essential amino acids along with 4.3 g glutamic acid (an essential amino acid) per 100 g (comparable with beef brisket) and 2.1 g arginine (another essential amino acid) per 100 g (comparable with chicken). Plus, pistachios have a high antioxidant capacity, making them a fantastic choice for those who are focused on protecting healthy cells from free radical damage in the body. That being said, if you’re considering switching to a vegan diet and have concerns about how it may impact your health and/or body, contact your healthcare provider. Changing your diet and cutting out certain foods is a big decision and speaking to a doctor or registered dietitian can help you figure out whether or not a vegan diet is right for you.