Top-age group triathlete and nutritionist Christine Warren shares how to successfully transition to a whole-food, plant-based diet – and stick with it.
It’s apparent these days that a shift is occurring in the world of nutrition – a BIG shift. The meat-and-potatoes diet of yesteryear is finally being given a run for its money – by plants! Plant-based diets have become a hot topic these days, with movies like The Game Changers, What the Health, and Forks Over Knives shedding light on not only the negative impact that the meat and dairy industries are having on our communities and planet but also the health benefits and incredible success stories of people across the globe making the switch.
If you’re like many people out there, you may be interested in making the switch but confused and down-right daunted about how to even begin. I transitioned from carnivore to vegan three years ago, and though it was a tough process in the beginning, it has now become a way of life and something I don’t have to think about much.
So, from one plant-based convert to another, here’s an intro to the plant-based lifestyle and 11 tips that can help you on your journey to embracing your plant-powered self.
What is a whole-food, plant-based diet?
You’ve probably heard the term ‘whole-food, plant-based’ (or WFPB for short) floating around… so what does a whole-food, plant-based diet mean? It is simply a diet that is based on the following principles: emphasizing whole, minimally processed foods, avoiding animal products, and focusing on eating whole food and plants, including vegetables, fruits, tubers (potato family), whole grains, legumes, seeds and nuts. It also excludes refined foods, like added sugars, white flour and processed oils.
Scientific evidence now indicates that many chronic diseases can be controlled, reduced, or even reversed by moving to a whole-food, plant-based diet. Scientific research discussed in T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study shows that a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and other major illnesses. Many people also experience less fatigue, weight loss, reduced inflammation, and a better overall feeling of health.
1Remember your why
It’s vital to know ‘why’ you want to change and what the benefits are, or it will be extremely hard to change the old habits into new and permanent ones. Maybe it’s that you don’t like the way you look or feel, perhaps your health is suffering, or maybe have medical issues; maybe you want to set an example for your family, friends, or children. For others, it might be the state of the environment or animal rights. Whatever the case, it is important to remember your motivation and keep that in the forefront of your mind when you have those tough days of wanting to go back to your old eating habits.
One big issue we face with food consumption is having a fixed mindset. Most of us have been raised to believe that certain foods and diets are what we ‘have’ to eat because that’s what our parents, culture, religion, and/or society have ingrained in us since birth. Making sustainable changes in anything you do, including what you put in your body, requires having growth (learning) and benefit (reward) mindsets.
As a first step, make little changes like cutting down on meat and processed food intake, while adding portions of plant foods to your daily meals (salads, grilled veggies, fruits, etc). Changing the proportion of plant and animal-based foods on your plate can help give your mind and body time to accommodate to the new diet. Try increasing the portion sizes of the vegetables while minimizing the meat. Go big on those salads and healthy vegetable, bean, and grain-based side dishes and try to fill up on these items first.
Next, gradually work on swapping animal-based ingredients with plant-based alternatives in your favourite recipes. For example, trade the ground beef in your recipe for something like lentils or seitan. If going ‘cold tofurkey’ sounds too overwhelming, you can also try starting with one meal at a time. Breakfast is usually the easiest, with things like oatmeal and berries, whole-grain toast with nut butter, or a tofu veggie scramble being easy and delicious ideas.
3Be a food detective
Know your food. If it comes in a package, you gotta read the label. You’ll be surprised how many companies are using milk-derivatives that you wouldn’t think would be in the product. The ingredient list should be simple and not jammed with a bunch of names of things you can’t pronounce. Looking for certified organic foods is the best route to go in avoiding unwanted additives. Just because it is in a green package with a heart on it doesn’t mean it’s actually good for you.
4Join a community
It’s a plant thing! Transitioning by yourself, especially if it’s against the way of the eating culture of those around you, will make it more difficult to be successful in the long term. The great news is, you’re not alone! Many online communities, chatrooms, and groups are forming to support and offer tips amongst fellow plant-based eaters. Ongoing support will be important on your journey and can be incredibly helpful and motivating. On Facebook, you can find the Plant-based Endurance Athletes, Plant-Based Diet for Beginners, and Plant-based Recipes and Transitioning Support with a whopping 125k members.
5Blogs and cookbooks
One of the many things that can be daunting about switching to a plant-based diet is knowing what in the world to cook now that meat and dairy are out of the picture. Start by googling ‘plant-based blogs’ to find some or hitting up Amazon for some new cookbooks. You’ll want to build up a good repertoire of recipes that you can rely on.
6Bulk food prep
Your new diet will most likely require more cooking, which means additional prep time. A shortcut that can be particularly helpful with this is bulk food prep. Spend one evening making large quantities of foods like rice, quinoa, beans, and cooked vegetables to keep in the fridge or freezer. You can also buy pre-prepped vegetables and packaged salad greens, as well as frozen and canned vegetables and fruits. When we’re pressed for time, stressed, or just don’t feel like spending 30 minutes to an hour trying to whip up an Emeril-esque meal, that’s when we tend to go for what’s easy and on-hand. When these healthy foods are prepped and ready to go, you’re more inclined to pick them.
7Make it a smoothie
It’s a common misconception that you will be sitting around eating salads all day. I’m here with good news: it’s not true! One tasty way to get in more of those fruits and vegetables is to get creative with your blender. Adding a green smoothie to your diet is not only nutritious but also a great portable snack to have on the go.
8Keep it clean
One of the reasons you’re probably making the shift in your diet is for the health benefits, which is why it’s important to not just substitute meat and dairy products with all the ‘fake’ versions. These products are often still highly processed and filled with refined oils, flours, sugars, sodium, and flavouring – you can eat Oreos and French fries and technically still be ‘plant-based’! In general, it’s best to stick to whole foods as much as possible.
9Consider a meal delivery service
No, I don’t mean Uber Eats! The meal delivery service industry is rapidly expanding and excitedly taking part in the growth of plant-based eaters. Using one of these services can help lessen the stress of cooking when you’re in a time crunch but also can help you learn to cook, understand what flavours and items taste good together, and broaden your palate. With companies like Green Chef offering a USDA organic vegan option in the US, treat yourself to some delicious plant-based meals that will remind you that eating a plant-based diet doesn’t have to be bland and boring.
10Give it time
It’s likely that your body is going to go through some changes during this process. You’re introducing new foods and probably much more fibre than your body is used to while also starting to change the composition of your microbiome (basically, the thousands of bacteria and microorganisms that live in your gut!). You may experience some bloating or digestive changes; it may be a little uncomfortable at first, but don’t panic! It’s totally normal, and rest assured your body will adapt to the changes in usually a couple of weeks
11Make it fun!
Eating is a celebration, not a chore! Plant-based eating can be fun, you just have to give it a little effort. Decorate your plate, try different toppings of nuts, herbs, and garnishes, have fun challenging yourself to try different foods. Understanding how to make your food taste great while still being healthy and wholesome is extremely important, so get creative and have fun with your flavours!
Stephen Graef, a sports psychologist with The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center sums up behavioural change like this: “Every time we perform a new behaviour, a new neurologic pathway begins to form in the brain. The first time, our brain’s neuro-construction team just comes out, surveys the land and gets out all of its equipment. The next time, it knocks down a couple of trees. Slowly, a dirt hiking trail emerges. Then, that trail gets paved. Eventually, that trail becomes an eight-lane highway.”
So, start small, surround yourself with like-minded people, and be kind to yourself. Remember, you’re embarking on a wonderful new journey, not a sprint to the finish.