So, you're ready to take loving the Earth and yourself to a new level, and are considering trying a vegan diet. Switching from your regular meat and dairy-filled diet to a fully plant-based diet may seem daunting at first, but with the right steps taken, you can transition to this new lifestyle, sustain it, and reap the immense benefits. We have put together a comprehensive vegan guide for you, to help you take the next steps toward your new lifestyle.
First things first. What exactly is a vegan diet?
A vegan diet goes a step further from a vegetarian diet, eliminating all food containing animals or animal by-products. To keep things simple, the "big four" that vegans exclude from their diet are meat, (including poultry and seafood), dairy (including cheese and milk), eggs, and bee products like honey. For the most part, any foods containing animal by-products will fall under one of these categories, although there are some hidden ingredients and additives to look out for. These include Omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish, gelatin derived from pigs and cows, or ingredients like whey and casein, which are both dairy products.
Benefits of a vegan diet
Including the obvious ethical and environmental benefits of avoiding foods that are processed in ways that exploit animals and our land (did you know that it takes 2400 gallons of water to process 1 pound of meat?), there are numerous health benefits to switching to a plant-based diet.
Loading up on fruits and veggies can result in a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, a healthier gut, and even glowing skin. Lindsay Sammut, a Holistic Nutrition student at the Institute of Holistic Nutrition says she looks at food for healing. "(A vegan diet) is really powerful for alkalinizing your body and getting rid of inflammation. A lot of people go that route because plants are so powerful and everyone has that systemic inflammation nowadays."
Health benefits of eliminating meat from your diet
Since livestock are kept in such close quarters, they are routinely fed antibiotics to keep bacterial infections at bay, leading to anti-biotic resistant "superbugs", which could then be passed on to you. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 2 million people fall sick ever year by these "superbugs," which cannot be treated at regular facilities. Eating a vegan diet eliminates this risk - although it is important to keep in mind that plants do have their own risks of contamination such as pesticides or GMOs.
Foods like red meat contain high amounts of an amino acid called L-carnitine, which transports fatty acids from the blood into cells that transform these fatty acids into energy. While this is great, when too much L-carnitine is absorbed into our blood stream, our liver converts it to a toxic substance called TMAO, which leads to cholestrol plaque buildup in our blood vessels. This leads to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. L-carnitine is not found in large amounts in plants, which eliminates this risk for those on a vegan diet.
Health benefits of eliminating dairy and other animal by-products from your diet
Health benefits of added fiber and fat in a vegan diet
Eliminating meat, eggs and dairy from your diet will naturally lead to substituting these foods with more fibrous, plant-based foods like beans, vegetables, lentils, and fruits, which are necessary for optimal health. Why is fiber so important in our diet? Fiber helps lower blood cholesterol levels, reduces inflammation and blood pressure, helps control blood sugar levels, and of course, keeps you regular. Not only that, high-fiber foods are much more filling than low-fiber foods, keeping you satisfied for longer.
Ready to take the plunge? Here is a guide for success
1. Do your Research
Making the switch to a vegan diet can be a drastic change if you are currently an omnivore, and it is not a temporary diet change to lose a few pounds. Veganism is a lifestyle change and a mindset shift, therefore, it's important to research not only how a plant-based diet positively affects your health, the environment, and animal welfare, but also which nutrients you will be excluding from your diet and how to compensate for them. This vegan guide is a great place to start.
"A lot of people want to do the veganism thing, but they tend not to do it properly," Sammut says. "They’re lacking nutrition and they’re just giving up meat. When you go vegan, you have to really make sure that you’re bulking up on other good things."
2. Make a Plan
Once you've done your research and perused some vegan guides, changing eating habits that have been ingrained takes commitment and a bit of planning. Find interesting and fun restaurants with vegan diet options to try. Substitute old habits for new ones. Some people prefer to transition to a plant-based diet by eliminating one animal product at a time, while others choose to go cold-turkey. It's all up to you, how your body feels, and what is most compatible and sustainable with your personality and lifestyle.
3. Find inspiration
If you have a close relationship with food, you may find switching to a plant-based diet more difficult than those who simply view food as fuel, but we promise, a vegan diet can be just as exciting as a standard diet! There are so many resources available and fun ways to get informed, that this can actually be the fun part. Find YouTubers, bloggers, and Instagrammers who share simple and fun vegan recipes. Seek to understand how others made the transition, which will help you in your own journey. Finding a community is so helpful in maintaining motivation and inspiration for this cause. Some of our favourite YouTubers include Liv B and Sophia Miacova, while the subreddit r/vegan is a community of 187,000 members looking to offer advice, recipes, and discussion.
4. Make a grocery list
Once you've gotten inspired by all the vegan dishes to try, it's important to have an idea of your vegan diet staples. Most of these foods can often be bought in bulk and kept on hand in your pantry. Know which produce you want to stock up on, have a general idea of what meals you’re planning for the week, and make a detailed list. This takes the grocery shopping experience from daunting to fun and achievable. Keep in mind there are a growing number of vegan snacks, mock meats, and cheat meal items too.
Feeling confused or overwhelmed? Here's a quick vegan grocery guide to get you started with the basics:
Nuts and Seeds
Beans and Legumes
Fruits and vegatables
Plant based oils and fats
Raw cane sugar
5. Experiment with vegan ingredients and cuisines
There are a wide variety of vegan ingredients that are just as healthy and delicious as regular ingredients—you just have to know where to look. Miss cheese? Try nutritional yeast, which has a delicious, nutty, cheesy flavour. Want to make pancakes? Substitute eggs for flax seeds, which are packed with protein. Tempeh, soba noodles, tahini...these are all ingredients that will elevate your vegan dishes from bland and boring to bursting with flavour.
6. Monitor how you're feeling
Listen to your body and keep track of how you're feeling. Are you feeling tired or dizzy? Your body may be lacking in certain nutrients you can easily remedy for, like iron or vitamin B12—and no, a protein deficiency with a vegan diet is not as common as most think. In fact, Sammut says what many new vegans miss the mark on, is fat. "Our brains are made up of mostly fat, our bodies thrive on fat…it’s incredibly important. Sometimes you can get those symptoms of low protein or low B12 but really your body isn’t fuelling itself. I’d say something just as important than protein would be fat." Avocados, nuts and seeds, are all great, healthy sources of plant-based fats.
7. Supplement if necessary
This goes hand in hand with monitoring how your body is feeling. Sammut says something she has learned in her studies of Holistic Nutrition is that our agricultural practices have changed so much over the past 100 years that food does not give us all the nutrition it once did. "Everyone, no matter what your diet is, should be supplementing, at least with a multivitamin," she says. Work with your doctor and have your blood work done to pinpoint vital nutrients and vitamins that your body may be missing.
The four main vitamins to keep an eye on are as follows:
Vitamin B12: this vitamin is used to make DNA in our bodies, keep our cells healthy, and make red blood cells. It is crucial for our bodies to maintain a healthy brain and immune system and symptoms of a vitamin B12 deficiency can include tiredness, weakness, and low metabolism. The recommended amount of B12 per day for adults is 2.4 mcg/day. Since B12 isn't produced naturally in the human body, we need to obtain this nutrient from animal sources like meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs. Here's where it gets tough—if you are now on a vegan diet, all these sources of B12 are eliminated from your diet, and the only way for your body to obtain it is through B12 supplements. In fact, some studies have shown that up to 92% of vegans are deficient in B12.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is a crucial nutrient for our bodies to properly absorb calcium and phosphorous, to keep our bones healthy and strong, and boost our immune system. Symptoms of a vitamin D deficient include tiredness, low mood, and eventually, weak, brittle bones. As you may already know, vitamin D is best obtained from direct sunlight, however, for those living in colder climates such as Canada or northern US where the sun doesn't shine 24/7, vitamin D deficiencies are extremely common. As vitamin D can also be found in foods like fatty fish, or fortified dairy products, those on a vegan diet are at an even higher risk of a lack of vitamin D. The recommended amount of vitamin D in adults is about 400-800 IU/day, however, you can go up to 1000-4000 IU/day if you are indoors most of your day or live in cold or cloudy climates.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: We hear this word all the time, but what are Omega-3 Fatty Acids and why are they so important? Omega-3s, including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) lower blood fat levels, curb joint pain, are important for visual and neurological development, and can even help curb depressive symptoms. They are extremely important for our bodies to function well. EPA and DHA are found in many types of fish, however, vegans can also obtain Omega-3s from plant-based sources like nuts and seeds. The recommended amount of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in adults is 250-500 mg of EPA and DHA combined for optimal health benefits.
Iron: This nutrient is vital for transporting oxygen throughout our bodies through hemoglobin. If you don't have enough iron, your body can't make enough healhty red blood cells, leading to a lack of oxygen being transported in your body, and leading to constant fatigue. In a regular diet, iron can be obtained through meat, fish, and poultry, however, vegans need to obtain iron in other ways through beans, peas, lentils, and some fruits and vegetables. The recommended daily amount of iron is 18mg per day in women, and 8 mg per day in men.
Note: we recommend to always visit your doctor before self-diagnosing any deficiencies, to be sure of which vitamins will be most beneficial to you and prevent over-supplementing.
8. Get a friend on board
Just like how starting a new fitness regimen is much more fun and motivating when done with a friend, having a partner, friend, or family member join you on your journey to veganism is a great way to stay accountable. You and your partner in crime can bounce ideas off each other and having a buddy will help keep you motivated and feel like you aren’t in this alone.
9. Be a KIND vegan
We’ve all heard the stereotypes and they exist for a reason. Some vegans, after learning so much about unethical practices and the cruelty that animals endure become extremely bitter and angry. Although understandable, keep in mind that projecting that energy onto others in an attempt to get them on your side is not the right approach. Instead, express empathy. Share your learnings about veganism when asked, instead of parading it into every conversation. Lastly, understand that everyone is on their own journey. Kindness and patience is key in helping others understand why this lifestyle has been life changing for you.
10. Remember that veganism goes beyond food
If you're going vegan for ethical reasons, you may want to consider the clothing, cosmetics, or accessories brands you choose to support. Many stylish brands now offer vegan leather, ensuring that no animals were harmed to bring you that beautiful bag, while others like Versace, have pledged to go fur-free out of respect to our furry friends.
Have you made the switch to a plant-based diet? We'd love to hear your tips and advice in the comments below.