The big question is – should I ease into a plant-based diet or just jump in with both feet? The answer to this question really depends on you. Are you the type of person who only drinks alcohol when at a social occasion or only eats desserts when offered by someone else? Do you need to completely clear the kitchen of certain foods in order to avoid them? Sometimes it is easier to make one sweeping decision (for example, “I am only going to eat plant-based foods for the next month”) than to ease into the practice (“I will eat all plant-based most of the time, depending on the situation”). The second scenario leaves it to you to make the same decision over and over again, sometimes in circumstances that almost guarantee an unhealthy choice, such as when you are especially hungry and tempted by a particularly enticing morsel. There are just too many situations in life today that tantalize you with high fat, high sugar or over-processed foods. “Just this once….” could become the start of a slippery slope that is impossible to climb out of.
Why not dive right in?
Physiologically, it may be better to dive completely into a plant-based diet. Changing your eating habits does involve a period of adjustment, both physical and mental, and it is disheartening to make the transition and then have to do it again after a few indulgences. Make it an experiment with a time limit. One month is more than enough time to notice beneficial changes. During that month put your whole heart into a complete diet change. At the end of the month, take stock. Are you enjoying new tastes? Are you satisfied with your meals? Are you feeling good? Are you losing weight? Then you will have some experience to make the decision about whether or not you want to continue. If this still does not sound good to you, by all means, start slowly and build on your discoveries as you go along. Dr. Craig McDougall from Forks Over Knives has this recommendation for those not quite ready to jump into 100% plant-based eating right away. “Add around 1,000 calories of legumes, whole grains, and starchy vegetables to your everyday routine. These starchy foods keep you full and satisfied, so you’ll naturally eat less of the animal products and processed foods that are making you sick.”
Kaiser Permanente Managed Health Care Group in the United States puts a priority on prevention of health problems and the booklet that they give to all their patients is full of helpful tips for starting a whole-foods plant-based lifestyle. Another great source is the Vegetarian Starter Kit from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. They both recommend the following steps. First, take a look at meals that you already enjoy that are plant based. They can likely be easily tweaked to become whole-food as well. Pasta dishes can readily incorporate whole-grain pasta and meatless sauces. Soups are often naturally whole-food plant-based. Next think of other meals that you enjoy that can be easily adapted to plant ingredients. These might include burritos, chili and burgers – all are easy and delicious without meat. After that, look for new recipes for your old favourites (surprisingly pretty much any staple meal you can think of can make the healthy conversion) and recipes for foods that you have never eaten before. You’ll find this an exciting and delicious journey. When we began eating plant-based, we did not repeat a recipe for a whole year and the experience turned every day into a food adventure. Now we have an absolutely huge recipe binder containing all our plant-based favourites and, when we plan our eating for the day, we look forward to our meals with more gusto than we ever did when we ate a more standard diet. Google makes this whole process easy. Type in “whole-food plant-based recipes” and you’ll find endless choices to peruse. Open your mind and make the process fun. Once you have mastered eight or nine main meals that you enjoy and can prepare easily, breakfast and lunch changes will be easy.
Prepare, prepare prepare….
Focus on the seemingly boundless bounty of foods from which you can choose, not the much smaller number of foods you want to avoid. Stock up your kitchen with all the ingredients you will need for this new venture and remove the foods that you no longer want to eat. Make sure you have healthy snack items available such as lots of fresh fruit, dried fruit, prepared carrot sticks, small whole-wheat pitas or naan breads and hummus or peanut or other nut butters. To save time during your busy week, prepare some foods ahead of time on the weekend. With a few ingredients already prepared you can mix and match for quick healthy meals all week long. Make a batch of granola; make a big pot of hearty soup; roast a pan full of vegetables; prepare a batch of brown rice or other grain; boil, roast or bake several potatoes or sweet potatoes; clean and chop salad ingredients and carrots for quick snacks; simmer a pot of beans. Extras can be frozen for later meals. Most importantly, don’t forget your reasons for changing to the plant-based lifestyle – they can keep you motivated. Some of these reasons might be to prevent chronic diseases; to gain more healthy years in a longer life; to feel more energetic; to lose weight; to preserve the environment.
Stand strong and conquer….
The experience of change will be different for everyone. By far the most common reaction to this lifestyle is positive. However, if you experience some negative symptoms, don’t give up! The end certainly justifies any small problems that might arise in the process. Most people feel better almost immediately – you might notice a sudden rise in energy level, better sleep, a clearer mind and fewer stomach problems. However, some people may experience symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and irritability as their body adjusts to the food changes. Gas and bloating might occur, especially if you were not eating very many vegetables before your diet change. This is caused by the sudden increase in fiber in your new foods which also inevitably results in more frequent trips to the bathroom. If you experience loose bowel movements at the start, rest assured that they will firm up as your body adapts to eating the more fiber-rich, nutrient-filled foods. Whatever your experience, any negative feelings usually will not last long and then, the motivating benefits will kick in. The one symptom that will stay with you as long as you eat this way, and one that you should be thankful for, is the increased number of bowel movements a day. This is not something to lament but is a sign of a healthy digestive system that is processing lots of fiber and moving food matter more quickly and efficiently through your digestive system, keeping the time that wastes are in contact with body tissues to a minimum.
Make sure you are taking in enough calories to feel satisfied with your meals. You definitely shouldn’t be feeling hungry after a meal. Don’t be afraid of starchy foods such as legumes, potatoes and breads. They will fill you up and stick with you until it is time for your next meal. Eat copious amounts of non-starchy vegetables and fruit. Don’t overdo calorie-dense plant foods like nuts, seeds and nut butters. Whatever happens, enjoy the journey. Do not be hard on yourself if you falter. Pick yourself up and carry on. When you succeed, you just might look back on this transition as the most life-enhancing decision you ever made.
HELPFUL SOURCES FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION
Kaiser Permanente. The plant-based diet: a healthier way to eat. http://mydoctor.kaiserpermanente.org/ncal/Images/New%20Plant%20Based%20Booklet%20201214_tcm28-781815.pdf.2013
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Vegetarian Starter Kit. https://www.pcrm.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/health/vsk.pdf
pcrm.org (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)
drmcdougall.com (Dr. McDougall’s Health and Medical Center)
nutritionstudies.org (T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies)
nutritionfacts.org (Dr. Michael Greger)