En español | Perhaps you've thought about eliminating meat from your diet for environmental or health reasons. Or maybe you've been cutting back on burgers and pork chops already, but recent issues with COVID-19 at meat processing plants have you contemplating going cold turkey on animal products. Of course, no diet overhaul is ever easy, and adopting a vegan diet — one that eliminates meat as well as staples like dairy and eggs — can be challenging. We talked with experts to find out how to sidestep any obstacles in your way and how to making cutting out meat a bit easier.
Veggie vexer: Too much too soon
Once you make the decision to follow a vegan regimen, it's tempting to want to dive right in, eat tofu at every meal and try every nondairy cheese out there. The problem with that, says Bethany Doerfler, a clinical registered dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, is you're likely to burn out just as quickly and soon find yourself headed to the nearest hamburger stand.
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Food fix: Small shifts
Make small weekly changes that will ultimately move you to a vegan diet, Doerfler suggests. “Take baby steps,” she says, adding that you should make changes in increments of four to eight weeks. “If you want a faster route, you could shorten it to three to four weeks. It usually takes that long for our palate to adapt to a dietary change and develop a new habit."
For the first interval, try cutting out red meat and pork. During the second phase, she suggests gradually discontinuing chicken and fish by beginning to eat plant-based proteins such as beans and tofu several times a week. In the final phase, you can eliminate eggs and dairy.
To make the adjustment easier, Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian and author of The Flexitarian Diet, recommends relieving some of the pressure of vegan perfection. Blatner created the flexitarian diet, which allows for a little leeway in a mostly vegan diet. “Being flexitarian means being vegan most of the time, with a little flexibility for things like social events and travel,” she explains. “You still get the health benefits without feeling so strict.”
Veggie vexer: Eating out
Whether it's at a restaurant or a friend's house, there will be times when you don't have that much control over the food that is served. Here's what to do.
Food fix: Online menus
It's best to do some research in advance, Blatner says. Look up restaurant menus online before you go. That way, you'll have time to figure out what to order. “It's getting easier to find plant-based, vegan options on menus,” she says. “Call ahead to ask questions, so you can enjoy your time, instead of worrying about your order.” You may need to get creative with substitutions, she adds. Look for salads or pasta dishes you can order without meat; then add in protein or healthy fats, such as beans or avocado.
If you're going to a friend's house, be sure to give your host a heads-up about your dietary needs, says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, nutrition and wellness expert and author of the forthcoming Smoothies & Juices: Prevention Healing Kitchen. To make it easier on your host, you could offer to bring a side dish that could double as your main course, such as roasted veggies with chickpeas.
Vegan vexer: I can't eat anything
Sometimes it seems that every commercial you see on TV is touting a tantalizing dish that you can't eat. Baby back ribs, anyone? It can make you want to give up before you've even started.
Food fix: Recipe research
It's easy to fall into the rut of focusing only on what you can't eat, Blattner says. “The key to making the transition to vegan is to focus on what you can have.” Before you take the plunge, she suggests collecting easy vegan recipes that you'll look forward to making.
Check out vegan cookbooks from your library, or do a “vegan recipe” search on the internet. Be sure to look for recipes you can use as substitute meals for your current favorites, Blatner advises. (Yes, there are vegan versions of mac ‘n’ cheese.) Getting excited about your food future will make it less likely that you'll fall into the trap of yearning for the past.
Vegan vexer: Vegan food is so expensive
Higher grocery bills were one of the top reasons that kept people from eating a vegan or vegetarian diet, according to a recent survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change. In fact, almost half of those surveyed (49 percent) said they thought a meal with a plant-based main course was more expensive than one centered on meat.
Food fix: Whole foods
Yes, some prepackaged vegan items are more expensive than their non-vegan equivalents. A recent search on a grocery-delivery-service website revealed that the price of a nondairy single-serve yogurt container was $2.39, whereas the same-sized container of dairy yogurt was 75 cents.
While this difference is steep, eating vegan doesn't have to be expensive. In fact, Blatner notes, it can actually be cheaper than following a more typical American diet with animal products, provided that you stick with natural, whole foods like beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. “What gets pricey are the things like vegan cheeses, yogurts and burgers,” she says, adding that you can keep costs down by consuming prepackaged vegan foods only on occasion.
For dinner: Roasted Tomato and White Bean Penne
This flavorful pasta from Blatner takes no time to make and is sure to become a fast favorite.
- 2/3 cup uncooked whole-grain penne
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, whole
- 3 cloves garlic, whole
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
- Dash of salt and black pepper
- 1/2 cup canned cannellini beans, rinsed and dried
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
Cook pasta per package directions (reserve 4 tablespoons cooking water). Toss whole tomatoes and whole garlic cloves with 1 teaspoon oil, salt and black pepper. Place on cookie sheet and broil for 8 minutes until tomatoes start bursting and garlic is tender. Mash broiled garlic with remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil and 4 tablespoons cooking water from the pasta. Toss all ingredients together and serve.
Nutrition facts: Calories 511, total fat 17g, saturated fat 3g, cholesterol 4mg, sodium 257 mg, carbohydrates 76g, fiber 13g, protein 21g
Vegan vexer: I'm bone-tired
If you don't get all the nutrients necessary to fuel your body when you're eating vegan, you could experience a loss of energy. The most likely culprit is a lack of B vitamins, which are found only in animal products, Doerfler says. This can be even more of a problem after age 50, when our bodies begin to absorb less vitamin B12. This particular nutrient contributes to red-blood-cell production and cushions nerve endings, so along with feeling tired when you don't have enough of it, you may experience tingling sensations in your extremities.
Food fix: A supplement
The good news, Blatner says, is that vitamin B is one of the easiest supplements to take because, in addition to pill form, it comes in easy-melt tablets that you can place under your tongue. The recommended daily amount of B12 for both men and women is 2.4 micrograms (mcg). Blatner suggests timing your daily supplement with when you need an energy boost. “Keep them on your bathroom counter and take them in the morning, or on your desk at work and take them in the afternoon,” she says, warning not to take these supplements too close to bedtime because the resulting energy boost could interfere with your sleep. You can also get B12 from both nondairy milk and nutritional yeast if they are fortified.
Vegan vexer: Meatless meal planning is hard
If you're used to creating menus around a main course that features meat, meal planning — especially on the fly or when you're hungry — can make you feel lost or frustrated.
Food fix: Taco Tuesday
"Instead of planning your meals around an animal protein, plan around a theme,” Blatner recommends. You could try an ethic-food theme, such as Italian, Mexican, Asian or Mediterranean. Or consider developing a menu based on food type, like pizza, tacos, pasta or breakfast for dinner. Search websites such as Pinterest to find vegan meals that fit the theme.
When it comes to finding new go-to dishes, start by gathering recipes of vegan versions of your favorite meals and other easy recipes that sound good; then try out one new recipe each week. Before long, throwing together your new vegan go-to meal will be just as easy as preparing their meat and dairy predecessors. Here are some vegan-approved ideas to get you started.
Breakfast: Oatmeal with nuts and berries; toast with peanut butter and bananas; fruit-and-protein-powder smoothie with nondairy milk
Lunch: Toast with avocado, topped with sunflower seeds; salad with beans and nuts or seeds; peanut butter and jelly sandwich with veggie sticks
Dinner: Bowl of rice with lentils and roasted veggies; pasta with marinara sauce and chickpeas; burrito with rice, black beans, corn, salsa and avocado.
Snacks: Fruit with roasted chickpeas; veggies with hummus; popcorn with nutritional yeast
Vegan vexer: Don't I need calcium after menopause?
It's wise to be concerned about your calcium intake, especially for women who are postmenopausal, but dairy isn't the only option for this nutrient, Largeman-Roth says.
Food fix: Fortified “milk”
"There are plenty of vegan calcium sources; you just need to work them into your diet,” says Largeman-Roth, who suggests subbing in calcium-rich dark leafy greens such as collards, broccoli rabe, kale and Swiss chard. Women over 50 should get 1,200 mg of calcium a day, men between the ages of 51 and 70 should get 1,000 mg a day, and men 71 and older should get 1,200 mg a day. If you feel the need to supplement what you're getting, consider fortified orange juice or a nondairy beverage, like almond or soy milk.