Changing your diet in any way can be very challenging. Maintaining your new diet for a long period of time can be even harder!
Transitioning to a plant-based diet is a tricky move for the best of us. You need to confront your own mindset, bodily cravings, digestion changes, and use new cooking techniques (hello sweet spiralizer). On top of that, it is vital that you acquire optimal nutrients as you transition so that you don’t harm your health, run into a fatigue trap, or fall back into old habits.
Luckily, if there is one thing that vegans love to do, it’s share their abundant knowledge of how to gain nutrients from plants! So let’s use it to your advantage.
I asked a large number of vegans, vegetarians, self-proclaimed “flexi-tarians,” fellow health care practitioners, and holistic nutritionists about their experience with transitioning away from animal products. I was rewarded for my curiosity with an array of knowledge, actual food, recipes, and advice.
What it All Came Down to Was This:
Your success in transitioning to a plant-based diet, and maintaining it, relies heavily on how well prepared you are for the transition, and how much you understand your food's nutritional value versus your body's needs.
Below is a compilation of tips from everyone I talked with, to help get you started prepping for your transition. (P.S. They are all very excited for you. They will be cheering with pom-poms next to you in the kitchen as you whip out your food processor and cheese substitute — which is delicious by the way!)
1. The Mindset Reset(s)
It seems we could all use a mindset-reset when it comes to our food choices. There were three ideas brought to light amongst all the people I spoke with:
Your food is your fuel. Remember this. If you feel like crap, start addressing the nutrient level in your new diet versus your old diet, and try to match it with plant-based alternatives.
Food should be enjoyable, fun, and tasty! However it is also your body’s sustenance. It is the main source of energy used to keep you running in a healthy manner. Therefore, your meals should be your medicine, your nourishment, and a joy to tuck in to.
Keep it diverse and be open minded about changing stuff up or supplementing when your body needs you to.
Try not to form an identity around your food choices (i.e. “I’m a vegan,” or “I’m a carnivore”). You are not defined, or described, by what you eat. Setting up for success means allowing yourself some space to transition. Pinning your identity to your food habits can make you feel emotionally awful if one day you stray away from your diet.
2. "Hangry" Cravings
Be prepared to crave some form of animal product at some point. You will need to re-train your body when the “meat and dairy cravings” set in. Plan to keep healthy plant-based snacks around you at all times. If you find yourself craving a steak, reach for a high protein, but meatless snack. Give your body the protein it is craving in a different format.
Understand that changing a new diet shouldn’t mean going hungry. Hunger is the death of many good-intentioned diets. Using nutrient dense substitutes instead of simply refraining from eating is a great place to start.
A few of our advisees pin-pointed fats and proteins as the most challenging cravings they battled. Understanding where you can get your protein fix is important. Beans, legumes, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and tofu are a great place to start. The fats in our diets (butter, oils, eggs, fish, nuts) are vital in promoting cellular health and brain function, and in maintaining energy. Find healthy plant-based fats in nuts and nut butter, ground flax seeds and soaked chia seeds, avocado, coconut, and plant-based oils.
3. The Detox
Our group of plant eaters referred to this as “the meat sweats.” Glamorous, right?
Many people find themselves experiencing headaches and other detox symptoms when they first begin transitioning. You can lessen this by making sure you go slowly, drink plenty of water, and by ensuring you are getting the right nutrients from your food.
Also, research which nutrients help which symptoms. For example, if you are getting headaches from not eating animal products, know that magnesium and vitamin B6 can help. Simply add foods or supplements rich in these nutrients.
4. Slow and Steady
Try to transition as slowly as your body allows you to.
Start by building your vegetable intake before you begin removing animal products, so that your body gets used to the additional fiber and begins to detox early.
Let go of meat and dairy products one group at a time. Perhaps you start with eggs. Replacing them with meals like this delicious Tofu Omelet from Post Punk Kitchen that one very creative vegan prepared for me is fun way to try new things and accomplish your goal at the same time.
Just take it one meal at a time. Begin making all your dinners plant-based, then after a few weeks expand to breakfast and lunch.
5. Blood Sugar Rollercoaster
We are most vulnerable to nutrient imbalances and blood sugar drop offs when switching diets. This can take time to conquer and again, prep is key. Stay aware of the supplements your body needs and where to find them. Keep your food choices diverse so your energy level doesn’t plummet and you stay nutritionally sound.
Specifically when moving to a plant-based diet, try not to lean heavily on bread. Living on a diet of bread and supplement pills is not nutritionally sound and it messes with your blood sugar levels, causing fatigue, grumpiness, headaches, and more, ultimately withdrawing you from your well-intentioned diet.
6. The Nutrients You Need
Taking a deeper look at the nutrients that animal products provide us gives you an idea of how to fortify your diet and keep yourself from having too many cravings or a dip in energy.
As with any diet, you should make sure you use supplements to keep your nutrient levels high until you are confident that your food levels are enough to fortify your body's needs.
To see how many grams of each nutrient a food holds you can easily Google each product online.
Nutrients that you should become hyper-aware of are:
- Vitamin B12: Found in nutritional yeast, but frankly you need to supplement. Find a liquid B complex supplement and take it daily to keep your energy high and ward off anemia.
- Folate: a.k.a. B9, or its synthetic counterpart, Folic Acid, is very important for women’s health and in pregnancy. Alternatives lie in fortified cereals and many fruits and vegetables.
- Iron: Found in all your leafy greens, legumes, quinoa, and in pumpkin seeds.
- Vitamin D: Essential in helping you absorb calcium adequately, which is why supplements usually combine the two. It is a big hitter for everyone, as we only really get it from sunshine and supplements.
- Calcium: Found in all your leafy greens like spinach and kale, it can also be found in almonds and sesame seeds. Many milk and yogurt alternatives are calcium-fortified with calcium citrate, which is harder for your body to absorb.
- Omega 3: Replacing fish oils in your diet isn’t as tricky as it sounds. Omega 3 is also released from ground flax seed and soaked chia seeds. Fish get their fatty acids from the algae that they eat, so stock up on some of that goodness.
7. Inspirational Pit Stop
Heading out to eat at vegan and vegetarian restaurants regularly will help inspire new ways for you to use your replacement products and kitchen utensils.
Get creative and research your meals ahead of time to keep the inspiration and motivation running high.
What tips do you have to help transition to a plant-based diet? Share them with us below!