Plant-based eating is skyrocketing in popularity as people are becoming more aware of the benefits to their own health, the sustainability of the planet and importance of animal rights. More people are identifying as plant-based or vegan, with the United Kingdom having the fastest growth, seeing numbers quadrupling over a four year period. The plant-based food industry has an estimated value of US$5 billion in 2019. In the United States, 37% of households now buy plant-based milks, whereas dairy milk sales are dropping.
For many of us who are wanting to make the transition, we can be unsure of how to start. So, what’s the best way to switch to a plant-based diet and stick to it? Below are some simple strategies to help you make sustainable, long lasting change and smoothly switch to a wholesome plant-based diet.
Know your ‘why’
Being clear on why you would like to switch to a plant-based diet will help you succeed in the long run. Many people want to make the change to lose weight but find that they are not successful initially. However by avoiding processed foods and added oils and instead filling up on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, you will lose weight and feel fabulous.
If you want to change the way you eat for environmental reasons, try to choose whole plant foods that are grown locally and have minimal packaging. Visiting local farmers markets and shopping at bulk food stores will help you achieve this.
Avoiding eating animals for ethical grounds is also a valid reason to keep meat off your plate. You will find vegan food everywhere, but vegan doesn’t always mean healthy. Many vegan options are highly processed and contain ingredients that are not healthful, like saturated fats and sodium. Samantha Butcher, a food and wellness coach for Nourish Food & Wellness, says that “being mindful of the choices you make and your motivation behind this will help you make better choices in alignment with your goals and values.”
Understand how your brain works
We are hardwired to choose foods that are high in salt, oil and sugar, as these products stimulate the pleasure receptors in our brains, release dopamine, increase our caloric intake and help us survive and therefore reproduce. Doug Lisle explains in his Tedx Talk that as humans, we seek out pleasure from these foods, try to avoid pain and strive to conserve our energy stores. Unfortunately, in our modern world this means many of us make unhealthy food choices and easily become overweight. Knowing this and being mindful of why we make the choices we do can help us understand how our brain works.
Eating plant-based isn’t about deprivation; it’s about eating an abundance of nutrient dense and delicious food. Often people find they must eat a greater volume of food to consume enough calories. This leaves us feeling satiated and nourished while reaching our ideal weight.
Start by changing one meal per day
If you commit to one plant-based meal per day, then that’s an excellent start. Many people find it easy to change what they eat for breakfast as there are many delicious plant-based options. By Googling recipes for plant-based breakfasts you will find some inspiring and mouth-watering choices. Just visit any supermarket and you’ll find an abundance of milk alternatives on the shelves that vary in taste and texture. Soy milk has been given a bad rap in recent years but as we explored in a previous article, it’s actually extremely good for you and protective against some cancers. Whichever milk replacement you prefer, try to choose one with few ingredients and without added oils and preservatives.
Once you are in love with your new breakfast choices you can look at changing your lunch and dinner meals. It’s always a good idea to start with recipes you are familiar with. Replace the meat with lentils in a bolognaise sauce, add beans to your burrito or tofu to a stir-fry. Starting slow will also give your gut microbiome time to adjust and avoid any discomfort along the way. Get creative with your meals, try new ingredients and experiment with flavours!
Cut down on your meat, dairy and egg consumption
With the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) stating that red and processed meats contain carcinogenic compounds, cutting down or eliminating these from your diet is one of the best things you can do for your health. If you can’t go cold Tofurkey, start by slowly transitioning out some of the foods you are used to eating and replace them with plant-based alternatives. Although many of the fake meats on the market are not necessarily healthy for us, there are other options that are minimally processed and full of nutrition.
In baking, eggs can be easily left out of recipes and substituted with flaxseed meal or mashed banana. An excellent scrambled egg replacement is tofu scramble, packed with protein and calcium and totally delicious. Omelettes can be whipped up using besan (chickpea) flour and offer all the protein and fibre you need.
Samantha suggests to her clients “when someone is struggling to give up something they love, [they should] just try it as an experiment for a week or two. This takes the pressure off making the change. When people have the opportunity to experience how much better they feel without these foods, it makes it easier to sustain changes for the long term.”
Be kind to yourself
Even those of us with the best intentions can slip up sometimes and make food choices that were not optimal. Eating at restaurants is getting easier but sometimes people may be shocked to find that their meal has been prepared using animal products. Try not to beat yourself up over this (or the chef) as mistakes happen. Just know that 99.99% of the time you are aiming to eat an optimal whole plant-food diet.
Eating with friends and family may be challenging as they can be offended if you don’t eat what they have on offer. Taking a dish to share allows you to follow the path you have chosen and also encourage others to eat more plant-based foods. That way you can avoid feeling pressured to eat something that you didn’t want to.
“It’s helpful to know that falling into old habits is normal part of the change process, particularly if we are tired or stressed,” says Samantha. “Don’t see this as a failure; acknowledge that it’s a part of the change process and pick up where you left off. Recognising that this is normal allows us to be more compassionate with ourselves. If you feel like you’ve failed, you might want to give up.”
Seek help from others
If you have a diagnosed medical condition, it may be best to make the transition to a plant-based diet with your doctor’s supervision. That way they can monitor you and see how healthy you become eating this way. Also, if your medication needs adjusting, then they are there to offer guidance.
If you are struggling with making the change, it can be beneficial to seek the guidance of a wellness or health coach.
“Working on mindset and what drives your behaviour is important when we want to make changes,” Samantha explains. “Having insights into these can be an effective tool to move forward. It’s important to get mindset right and see change as a gain in better health, better mood and increased energy rather than a loss or deprivation.” That’s where a wellness coach can help shift the mindset. “Getting support is useful particularly if you are an emotional eater. The underlying reasons for eating certain foods can be worked through,” she says.
Many of us also find the transition to a plant-based diet is easier when we are surrounded by like-minded people. Joining groups on social media or finding a local community who eat this way can be great support.
Find what works for you
Whatever your motivation is for transitioning to a plant-based diet, the change can be a smooth one using some simple strategies to help you on your way. Remember that no one is perfect, but when you incorporate more whole plant foods into your diet, you are doing great things for your health, becoming aligned with your core values and are part of the solution to global issues. So why not take the first step today?