A friend recently asked me to write about how someone can go about switching to a vegan diet. So many health and athletic benefits come from switching to a vegan diet from a “standard American” diet, but how should one go about doing this? Some people do this overnight (yes, literally they wake up and do not put any more animal products in their mouth). Others take years to fully embrace plant-based eating. I switched to being vegetarian overnight and had no hang ups with that method at all. Going vegan was another story and took some time for me. The best way is to take it at whatever pace that works you. All it takes is commitment and an open mind. You don’t even need to shop at the expensive health food store. One way to start is to replace one kind of meat you feel you can go without with a plant-based food that is a hearty staple, such as lentils, black beans, or chickpeas. Some people find mock meats to be suitable replacements, which can now be found in many grocery stores. Rest assured, if you slowly replace meat in your diet with whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, vegetables, and seeds, you can get the full range of proteins needed for the body to perform well. It’s just a matter of learning about the nutritional profiles of different foods and how to cook them. For example, soy offers all the essential amino acids that the body needs. If you pair a whole grain, such as brown rice, with any kind of beans, you can arrive at a “complete” protein. It’s also important to really embrace eating different fruits and vegetables. Fruits and veggies contain so many minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants (as well as protein!) that athletes need for recovery. For athletes with strong cravings to meats, the best way to remove them from your diet is to gradually stop eating them over time. If you stop eating certain foods for some time, your body will stop craving them. Some find keeping a log of what they eat helpful. Using a log will allow you to track your progress and also note what foods you like over others and what keeps you feeling your best.
Another aspect of going vegan diet is removing animal milks, dairy, and eggs. For athletes, eliminating dairy products yields many performance benefits because dairy contributes to creating an acidic blood profile. The more acidic-forming the foods you eat are, the less your body will absorb nutrients and minerals. This includes calcium, which is why people who consume lots of dairy products still get osteoporosis and fractures. Many find it very hard to remove dairy, cheese, and eggs since these products are found in so many prepared and traditional foods. Again, most remove these items from their diet slowly, even if it takes a long time, because over time you will find what replacements you like the most and what is convenient for you. For example, if you drink cow’s milk, try replacing it with a plant-based milk, such as almond or soy milk. If you enjoy cheese (which research has shown can be addictive), try slowly cutting down on how much you eat and then slowly removing it from dishes you regularly make. Many people find cheese to be the most difficult to remove, so give yourself time to find other plant-based foods that replace cheese for you. Currently, hundreds of plant-based cheeses are on the market that have the flavor and consistency nearly spot on as dairy cheeses! It’s worthwhile to do a little searching and taste-testing.
One big misconception is that veganism is all about restrictions, but I feel just the opposite. These days almost any dish can be veganized. Seriously! Google search “vegan comfort foods” and you will be blown away with what you can make or buy.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to replace a physician’s, dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice and is not intended to cure any cause, condition, or disease. Before starting any new diet, check with your doctor and clear any diet changes before beginning.