Whether it is Covid-19 driven or simply a general upswing in personal health and well-being, it has certainly been a heart-warming surprise this year to be approached by several friends and social-media acquaintances announcing their interest in transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle. Now, I am not a doctor, nor will I ever purport myself as an expert, but as you can see, my journey to plant-based living over the last 10 years has really benefited me. In fact, I consider it one of the wisest decisions I've ever made for myself. I am eternally grateful for the optimal level of health, well-being, and balance that has resulted from it.
It was not, however, the easiest transition (which I openly share with anyone who asks).
Expounding on that declaration, it surprised me that I had never penned my own "Beginners Guide" for the herbivore curious. An authentic, positive resource that I wish I had available to me back in the day. Perhaps it was because everyone has a very personal story to tell of how they began their journey and why, whether it be for animal rights, health, genetics, climate change, politics, or all of the above. There isn't one way to come at it. In fact, this endeavor and investment in your health is as fun and unique as you. It's a mix of trial and error, experimenting with new foods/cuisines/recipes, researching, defining, redefining and customizing a plan that works best for YOU.
My personal approach naturally centers around identifying your intrinsic purpose (and this will likely evolve over time), listening to your body and sensing what it is truly asking for. This includes a mindful balance of intuition and research. I've gotten a whole lot wrong along the way, changed my approach, hit what I call the "Backsliders Club" more than once, and most notably, have not been perfect. This isn't a contest; rather, it is an investment in the best version of yourself. It is like any major undertaking of value; consistent nurturing will yield positive, thriving results and neglect will result in the opposite. Have pride in knowing how much respect you are showing yourself, but do not be too hard on yourself either.
Without further ado, I am honored to share my SeasonedSenses guidance and support guide towards a realistic plant-based transition:
Be PATIENT. Your body very well may/will initially object to your lofty ambitions. Many people have shared with me their struggles with fatigue early on, and therefore, cease pursuing their new endeavor after a couple of weeks or so. I do, however, hear this same frustration when anyone embarks on any sizable lifestyle change. I believe it to be an actual withdrawal period that the body is responding to, not the validity of the change. Go slowly, be patient, but be persistent.
Listen to your body. While I did not experience initial fatigue per se, my body alternatively responded with cravings galore! My sheer desire of not wanting to harm animals did NOT trump a lifetime of environmental conditioning, family traditions, careless nutritional habits, etc. My view is that it is completely acceptable and normal to join the "Backsliders Club” from time to time. If it becomes stressful or overwhelming, take a break, regroup and continue. This is not a race. I have to confess that it does disappoint me when people push this myth that going vegetarian/vegan is simply effortless if you really “want it” enough. This sets a very unhealthy precedent, which shames any misstep or variation. Embarking on a plant-based diet is like any other lifestyle choice; it takes patience, forgiveness, confronting bad habits, discipline, sometimes even trauma; all of that self-awareness stuff. Take your time. No one is ever 100% perfect.
Supplement. I believe everyone should supplement, including non-vegans. It’s simply not a realistic notion that we’re nutritionally perfect 100% of the time, especially with our overstretched, modern lifestyles. Thankfully, there are so many amazing vegan multivitamins out there right now, as well as more specialized products, as this industry has really evolved over the last 10 years or so. Have fun researching them and see what may be of interest to you. Some of my favorites are Garden of Life, Sunwarrior, Vega, and No Meat Athlete's Complement Series, but that is truly just scratching the surface. Additionally, I love my Vitamin B Complex shots. I started to get these for work, when my schedule was littered with deadlines, which demanded laser focus. They are also very helpful to support a vegan diet, where the B’s can be naturally deficient. These beauties are life savers.
Identify Your Staples. Especially when plant-based research becomes overwhelming or you’ve hit a wall, creating a list of staples is helpful. This foundational list will be unique to you as it was to me and may even evolve over time. I found it particularly beneficial for me at the start to identify and create a list of foods that I could rely on in a pinch, especially when I was processing more information than I could keep up with. The only risk is that it can become monotonous and stale if you don’t remind yourself to freshen up or expand your list from time to time. Your food choices will naturally expand with practice and good old trial and error, but to have that foundational "safety net" at first kicks a lot of unnecessary pressure out of the picture.
Reconsider Protein. Perhaps not right this instant, but keep it in the back of your mind until you are ready. Protein deficiency anxiety is the #2 fear (besides the aforementioned withdrawal symptoms) that I hear from people who end up abandoning plant-based diets. Their fear is that they will not be able to find enough vegan protein sources, they will gain weight or wither away from malnutrition, should they continue. There are two things (I believe) that are going on here. One, there exists this modern mindset that we require way more protein than we actually do (thank you, fad diets everywhere). Second, an omnivore’s plate looks much different than a plant-based plate, so it can be difficult to conceptualize. We have been conditioned to envision our plate as protein/vegetable/starch, so the only substitute one can imagine replacing chicken or beef or fish with is a literal substitution = soy. Not necessarily so. I actually consume very little of it and still incorporate loads of protein in my nutritional profile. Healthy vegan proteins will tend to be what I identify as “hybrid”, meaning high protein AND carbs or high protein AND fats. Think of lentils, chickpeas, beans, split peas, nuts, seeds. Therefore, your new plate will transform itself into another shape...more like a bowl! It takes some getting used to, but that's half the fun in discovering new things. I've identified some of my favorite protein sources in my Spring post, Plant Based Proteins, should you be interested in inspiration and insight to begin your own list of staples. The vegan meat industry has positively exploded in the past few years and I am thrilled to see how many people are embracing it. I believe they serve as a great transition to a plant-based diet. I admit, I indulge myself on occasion. Field Roast, Beyond Meat, Follow Your Heart, Kite Hill...all very tasty.
Eat Your Rainbow! If I feel something is lacking, I immediately consult my whole food rainbow. This ideology really applies to everyone and every sound nutritional profile, but particularly when you are transitioning to a new diet, you really want to pay attention to what your body is truly asking for. Heavily summarized: Yellow/orange foods: Immunity, focus, mood. Reds/Blues/Purples: antioxidants, heart health, blood flow, liver, kidneys. Greens: Power, strength, iron. You get the idea. Keeping this in mind ensures that your nutritional profile centers around fresh, whole foods.
Embrace Your Seasonings! Spices, homemade dressings, toppings (nuts, seeds, etc) are a must. Seriously, my spice pantry is stuff of legend, but I do have my favorites. I added them to the list at the bottom of this post.
Macros. This is completely personal, so I'm not going to delve too far into this. Prior to last year, I didn’t follow my macros at all, and I make sure to be cautious not to become too obsessive about it. I personally follow a VERY LOOSE macro balance of 40/30/30 ish, but this changes considerably when I am in a training season or an off-season. Everyone is different. The main reason why I wanted to share this personal choice with you is to show you that it is not only possible to reach certain macro levels (referring back to the protein conversation), I am able to do so with ease.
The Vegetarian/Vegan Transition. I was vegetarian for about 3 years before I took the plunge to vegan. I find it a reasonable and realistic approach at first, but I would caution not to live there for too long. The vegetarian trap is very real and can end up being unintentionally detrimental. I was guilty of it. All of a sudden I’m justifying grilled cheese and ice cream for dinner every night because it is technically “vegetarian”. A dairy and fat heavy diet was not a good look for me. Confession: dairy, by the way, was hands down the toughest to break up with. OK. It was specifically cheese. It is so hard! Eventually, something clicked and that commitment to ditch the dairy was an absolute game changer. It was like my whole body woke up and experienced that feeling I was waiting for in my plant-based transition. Thankfully, these days the non-dairy alternatives are bountiful, taste great, and the cheese even melts! Woo! Ten years ago, these amazing products weren’t so abundant. My staple list below will include a few for you to get you going, but again, be patient with the things you are having a harder time transitioning away from. It will come.
Again, I do not pretend to be a doctor or an expert. I am simply sharing my story with the intent to offer the support that I would have appreciated myself at the onset. Therefore, if there are any health concerns that keep you from going plant-based, then do not go there. I truly believe everyone should discover their own way that provides the greatest benefit to them. Get to really know your body and what it truly needs. When it comes to whole living and plant-driven lifestyles, I prefer to assume the role of a promotor over the role of activist.
At some point, you are going to become over-saturated with information overload or hit a roadblock or experience resistance from family, friends, social media, your own doctor…Stay the course. Once you get the hang of it, you won’t even need to think about it anymore. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is not one way to come at this. I actually eat differently as a vegan now than I did four years ago. You learn, you evolve, you experiment, you adjust, you revisit, but as long as the primary objective is your health and well being, you are on the right path!
Most importantly, enjoy it. You deserve to feel good, look good, do good.
Here is my current list of staples that are always on hand :
*Field Roast Sausages
*Beyond Meat (sausages and burgers are amazing)
*Follow Your Heart Vegan Egg
*Chao Creamery Cheese
*Kite Hill Cheese
Spinach/Chard/Bok Choy Blends
Apple Cider Vinegar
ALL OF THE SPICES