Five Keys To Enjoying Your Plant-Based Journey
When embarking on a plant-based journey, setting yourself up for success is critical. A well-planned plant-based diet, with clear goals, can be delicious, healthy, and deeply rewarding. A less thoughtful approach, with unrealistic expectations, can lead you to become a frustrated “ex-vegan”.
Before we dive in, let’s get our definitions straight.
A plant-based diet excludes all foods derived in whole or in part from animal sources. This means no meat (red, white, game, fish), dairy, eggs, or other animal-derived products (like honey, and gelatin / collagen).
Veganism is not a diet per se. It’s a philosophy and a way of living. One can think about a vegan food label like a Halal or Kosher label — it reflects alignment with beliefs and practices.
Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.” The Vegan Society
If you’re ready to try a plant-based diet, a vegan lifestyle, or both, these tips will help you enjoy the ride.
1. Know your why and plan accordingly
What do you hope to achieve? Weight loss? A lower environmental impact? Less animal suffering? More energy? Resolution of a health issue? Chronic disease prevention?
Knowing your “why” is vital. It will help you stay the course when old habits are calling, and steer you towards a plan that supports your goals.
If environmental impact is your priority, do some homework on how different foods compare. While eating lower on the food chain is almost always a win for eco-footprint, there is a lot of variation among plant-based foods. For example, many nuts have a larger eco-footprint (land use, water use, greenhouse gas impact) than grains and seeds, as shown by Our World in Data. Thus, oat milk may better fit your goals than nut milks.
If better health is your goal, it’s vital to realize that a “vegan” or “plant-based” label does not guarantee that something is healthy. There are plenty of plant-based foods that are NOT particularly nutrient dense, from sodas, to Oreo cookies, to french fries, and vegan ice creams.
If health is your top priority, you’ll be well served by dialing up your nutrient density, and keeping an eye on common dietary pitfalls (refined grains, excess sodium, saturated fats, and added sugars, especially sugar-sweetened beverages).
As told by this this 2019 review of heart health and plant-based diets by scientists at Harvard’s School of Nutrition:
“ Plant-based diets containing higher amounts of healthy foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, oils, tea, and coffee are associated with lower cardiovascular risk. However, plant-based diets including higher amounts of less healthy plant foods, such as refined grains, potatoes/fries, and foods and beverages high in added sugar, are linked to increased risk.”
It’s a similar story for other chronic diseases, like diabetes, for which studies suggest that plant-rich diets can be beneficial — if specific choices are made.
If weight loss is your priority, you may benefit from focusing on foods that help you feel more satisfied without excess calories — such as fiber-rich foods with a lower calorie density (see my Less is More Lifetime Diet).
2. Explore, expand and enjoy
While omnivores may think of plant-based diets as restrictive, boring, and bland, those who know how to have fun with plants feel the opposite. The options are vast, exciting, and delicious! A plant-based diet can be either simple or gourmet, mild or spicy, chaste or indulgent. You are in the drivers’ seat.
Plant based diets also don’t have to be filled with “weird” foods like chia seed pudding and tofu (I promise, they are delicious when done right!). You can easily thrive on simple fare such as oatmeal, smoothies, whole grain peanut butter sandwiches, hearty soups, curries, bean chilis, tacos, and veggie burgers.
The keys to success lie an open, positive mindset, a willingness to expand your horizons, and a bit of fun in the kitchen.
One of my top tricks for creating delicious plant-based fare is to play with all your tastes — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami, with special attention to those that tickle your fancy.
The less recognized fifth taste, umami, can really help you reach new culinary heights. Umami is an earthy flavour that is derived from specific amino acids. While abundant in meat, you can also get this from mushrooms, miso, nutritional yeast, and garlic.
One of our staple toppings, which I call “vegan pixie dust”, packs a serious umami punch (try this recipe; I like it with a bit less salt and more nutritional yeast). It’s also super nutritious, with ample vitamin B12. I use it like parmesan cheese, sprinkling it on soup, pastas, salads, and more.
U-what? Check out this umami database to learn more about what umami is and where to find it.
Much of the decadence of meaty dishes comes from the sauce, so be sure to get saucy with your food. Try marinating your tofu in soy sauce, agave, balsamic vinegar, and garlic, and dressing your quinoa with our fave dressing — glorious glory bowl (warning, it’s addictive!). If you like smoky, rich sauces, try this mega-Mexi bowl with chipotle cashew sauce — my non-vegan hubby is a big fan.
There’s also something to be said for creaminess, and dairy is not the only act in town. Try adding cashew cream to soups (like this awesome Creamy Tomato Bisque) or tuck into this indulgent coconut curry (use oil instead of butter and ghee to veganize). For dessert, try an avocado chocolate mousse or splash out with some vegan ice cream.
For more pizazz, play with adding seeds and nuts for added texture and nutrition, like walnuts, hemp hearts, flax seeds, or sunflower seeds on salads or in your smoothies and morning oats.
Last but not least, use fresh produce when possible for maximum flavour, especially fresh herbs. Fresh cilantro and lime can transform a lentil soup or salad, while fresh mint can turn simple watermelon into a light and bright salad. One of my all time faves is this Turkish white bean salad with fresh dill.
For more plant-based inspiration, check out my resources below.
3. Focus on diversity and balance
While many people worry that plant-diets will cause them to develop all sorts of nutrient deficiencies, this fear is a red herring. Since plants and animals use the same building blocks, we can get virtually everything we need from plants. Yes, even protein (for the record, plants have ample protein, and are NOT missing any amino acids).
In fact, covering your nutritional bases on a plant-based diet is easier than you think.The simplest strategy is to follow the “vegan plate”. This approach incorporate foods from all of these groups: whole grains, fruits & veggies, nuts & seeds, and beans, pulses (like lentils) & tofu. If you do this consistently, most nutrients will take care of themselves.
Unfortunately, many newbies fall short nutritionally either by becoming overly restrictive (eg. only eating fruits, which lack protein or fat) or by simply replacing meat and dairy with refined carbs. These foods aren’t an issue in moderation, but when they dominate your plate, you risk falling short on protein, fats, and certain micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Variety is not only the spice of life, it’s the key to covering your nutritional bases.
Real world data on plant-based nutrition. Many studies, such as this one in Switzerland, have compared the nutritional status of those on plant-based, vegetarian and omnivorous dietes. Not surprisingly, they find that these dietary patterns each have different nutritional strengths and weaknesses. It’s also important to note that the nutritional status of plant-based devotees varies a lot depending on their choices. Just like an omnivorous diet, the healthiness of a plant-based diet depends on the specific choices you make within this broad umbrella of foods. This review of average nutrient intakes in vegan populations by Jack Norris, RD shows that most vegans are doing just fine nutritionally, thank you very much.
The one nutrient that anyone on a plant-based diet should seriously think about supplementing is vitamin B12. B12 is produced by bacteria in the soil and in the guts of ruminants (like cows). Vitamin B12 is most reliably obtained from a supplement, though one can also make a point of regularly consuming fortified foods (like plant milks and some nutritional yeasts), provided you are periodically checking your B12 levels .
Nailing your nutrients. Low iron is the world’s most common deficiency, not just in vegans but in omnivores, too! You can boost your iron from plant-based sources if you do a bit of homework on sources and absorption (here’s a great resource from No Meat Athlete), and, as a last resort, taking a supplement. Vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike may want to consider a Vitamin D supplement (the sunshine vitamin), depending on where they live. Other nutrients to look out for include calcium, zinc, and selenium, all of which can be simply addressed with a well-planned, diverse, vegan diet. Read more here about nutrient requirements and plant-based sources: https://veganhealth.org/.
4. Be patient
We should not expect our preferences to change overnight. Most of us have been eating the same foods for decades. You’ll probably find that you crave your old foods for the first few days or weeks. This doesn’t necessarily mean that your body “needs” them, merely that it’s used to them. Eventually, you’ll develop cravings for the plant-based foods you fall in love with.
You may think of your taste preferences as hard-wired, but they are likely more flexible than you realize. Consider the spice-rich diets of Indian cuisine — such preferences are not genetic, they are acquired.
Indeed, as a mom of three, I know all too well that it can take several tries to get my kids to warm up to a new food. Adults are the same.
So, don’t dismiss soy milk, or almond milk, if it’s not love at first sip. Give it a few days. Try it in smoothies and in oatmeal first. Be patient with your taste buds. If you’ve given it a full week, move on to another brand or another alternative. Maybe oat milk is a better fit for you.
You’ll also want to be patient when it comes to expecting health transformations.
5. Be realistic
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but plant-based diets are not a panacea.
While nutrient-dense plant-based diets are consistently associated with health benefits in observational studies, with minimal nutritional risks, we need to be realistic about what they can deliver. There is absolutely no guarantee that they will clear your skin, cure your cancer, or melt away excess fat.
Furthermore, most of the diseases that we face are chronic diseases that progress slowly and silently over years. We shouldn’t expect an immediate reversal.
While many people view veganism and plant-based diets as all-or-nothing, this is not how I see things. Sometimes, perfect is the enemy of good.
I feel that any steps you take towards meeting your plant-based goals is a win. Through this lens, the most important thing you is that your dabbling whets your appetite for more.
Change is hard, so cut yourself some slack. It’s not just plant-based plans that evaporate after January. We see similarly high dropoff rates for other common New Year’s Resolutions, like waking up at dawn (I have already failed), meditating daily (no dice), saying no to sweets (I didn’t even attempt this one), and working out daily (thankfully, this habit is mine to keep).
Similarly, don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t find your way to a 100% plant-based diet. Some people will get there eventually, with incremental steps; others will choose “plant-rich” over “plant-based”.
I like to pass along sage advice I got years ago from my vegan mentor: “if eating a bite of cheese helps you stay the course with the rest of your diet, that’s still a win”.
To recap, consider these tips as you begin to shift your diet:
- Know your why and plan accordingly
- Explore, expand and enjoy
- Focus on diversity and balance
- Be patient
- Be realistic
I hope this helps you on your journey. Check out the resources below to learn more, and enjoy the ride!
My Food Story
I grew up mostly vegetarian and always felt uncomfortable with the idea of eating animals. To explain my feelings, I ask people — “how do you feel about eating a cat or dog?” That’s how I feel about eating any animals.
I didn’t know any vegans until my 20s, at which point my graduate school advisor, and a few others, showed me that it’s possible to thrive without dairy. I didn’t think I could live without cheese or eggs, but after spending some time living in China, I discovered that I didn’t really miss it when it wasn’t around. With time, I came to appreciate the other benefits of a plant-based diet. I see the lower environmental impact as increasingly important, and give my plant-rich diet a lot of credit for the excellent health I have always been fortunate to enjoy.
Currently, I prefer to call myself a quasi-vegan, or mostly-vegan, rather than holding myself to a perfect standard. My kids are vegetarian and my husband is pescatarian. Our pantry is brimming with legumes and whole grains, and our fridge is exploding with veggies, non-dairy milks, and tofu, but we also “stock” dairy products and eggs for those who choose to consume them. This is where my “mostly” comes in — sharing a taste of something non-vegan that the kids are enjoying.
- Challenge 22: A comprehensive resource for vegan transition
- Registered dietitians with plant-based expertise: Pamela Ferguson, RD, PhD, Desiree Nielsen, RD, Vesanto Melina, RD (author of Becoming Vegan), Jack Norris, RD
- More plant-based food inspiration: Simple Veganista, Minimalist Baker, Forks Over Knives, Pick Up Limes
I’m a scientist and mother of three young children. I completed my PhD in genetics at Stanford and spent the first decade of my career working in cancer research, drug development, and personalized medicine.
My new career chapter is dedicated to empowering others to make well-informed healthy choices, rooted in science. I’m also passionate about helping people to fall in love with the plants on their plates.
Check out my website at https://FueledbyScience.com to see more of my work, including articles, videos, recipes