"Eat food, mostly plants, not too much." - Micheal Pollan.
Ok, so you've decided to give a plant based diet a try. You're excited and perhaps a bit nervous. When most people hear of a diet devoid of animal products, their mind immediately goes into panic mode. You'll hear comments like "I could never do that!" or no way I could live without cheese."
The truth is that these knee jerk reactions are not based in experience. Living in a plant based way is actually quite freeing, and ironically, the restrictive nature of the program provides a level of simplicity and calm you'll never get from counting calories.
However, that is not to say it's easy to stick to. Any change in your life requires a bit of effort in the beginning. Habits are a good servant, but a poor master. It will take time to re-program your body.
In my experience, there are three big challenges to succeeding on a new diet program.
Challenge #1: What to Eat
Transitioning your Food Choices
The power of eating plant based is in it's simplicity - just avoid animal products. This means foods like chicken, steak, eggs, butter, and cheese are no longer on the menu. The good news is that a huge variety of healthy foods you've likely been ignoring are now available. Fresh fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, rice and potatoes will become your new best friends.
You might notice that I use the words "plant based" instead of 'vegan'. I do this to highlight a spectrum of choices - swapping any animal products for fruits and veggies is a good thing, and a healthy shift. If you can't let go of milk in your coffee or the occasional cheese pizza, that is ok. Don't beat yourself up, but at the same time, to see if the program is really for you, consider being strict, at least for a few weeks.
Personally, I eat a vegan diet as I find it much easier to stick with a strict program than to allow myself cheats now and then. Perhaps surprisingly, when driving a behavior change, it is easier to stay on a program 100% of the time than 99% of the time. Cheat meals are the fastest route to failure.
Keep it simple. Something fast and easy, and if you have a long drive to work, make it commute friendly. In my case, this means a bowl of oatmeal with fruit, or a smoothie with kale, berries, and plant protein.
Of course you can technically have items like toast and peanut butter or cereal with almond milk, but keep low nutrition foods to a minimum. We want not only to avoid animal products, but more importantly, to eat in a highly nutritious way. We are not counting calories, but rather, making every calorie count.
Lunch or Dinner
Most of the items mentioned below can work for both lunch or dinner - it's a matter of preference.
If you're out and about, having a veggie salad goes a long way. I often hit the Whole Foods salad bar and load up on broccoli, cauliflower, kale, carrots, and red onions with a vegan friendly balsamic dressing. Instead of a water, I might grab a cold pressed juice to drink with my salad. A lunch like this keeps your energy high and avoids the afternoon doldrums.
Another great option is to stick to your favorite meal, but skip the meat. A staple for me is the Chipotle veggie bowl. It's simple - rice, beans, guacamole, and veggies. Fast, delicious and filling. If you haven't used the Chipotle app, give it a try. It's very well done and you can skip the line.
Given the carb-o-phobia so common these days, you'll be happy to know that pasta has returned to your plate. Heating up some spaghetti with marinara is fast, easy and delicious. I usually add a sliced up baguette with a dipping sauce of olive oil, balsamic, and pressed garlic. Perhaps not the most healthy, but out of this world good and a special treat.
Lastly, I find chili and soups to be incredibly easy and satisfying. Most minestrone and lentil soups are vegan. There a several brands like Amy's and Engine 2 that make it easy to heat up a bowl in a couple minutes. Painless and healthy.
No matter how hard you try, you will end up with moments where you're caught hungry without any options. You might be at a restaurant with limited options or in the car on the go, but in these cases it will help to have some emergency foods at the ready. For me, that means items that are tasty and portable.
Challenge #2: What to Say
DEaling with family and friends
Any change you make in your life will be met with skepticism. The truth is that as loving and supportive as your friends and family are, they are comfortable with today's you. Remember, you aren't just changing yourself, you are changing your relationship with others.
This is a critical thing to understand - everyone from your spouse to your parents will consciously or unconsciously want you to stay where you are. It's only natural and not something to get frustrated or resentful about, but rather something to expect and understand.
One strategy is to keep things to yourself. Any new change in behavior is fragile - it's a sapling. If you expose it to the harsh world too soon, you risk failure and regression to the life you had before.
If you're like most, you're excited about this new change - optimistic for the future, and therefore you won't be able to keep it all inside. Even if you remained silent, inevitably, co-workers notice you skipping the usual chicken burrito or your spouse sees that your sausage omelet is suddenly replaced by oatmeal.
At this point, the most powerful thing you can do is to change your expectation of these conversations. Let go of the idea that you will win others over. It will not happen - your circle of friends are now diet and nutrition experts who will challenge your new approach - deal with it.
The natural tendency is to argue your side, but this is rarely productive (at least early in your journey). If someone is pushing you on protein requirements, you can just say, "yeah, I've heard that as well, so that's why I'm just doing it for a few days".
At this time, I find turning the conversation to how diet is personal works well. No one argues with your freedom to try something new and see how you feel. It is very reassuring as they expect you, at some point in the near future, to go back to "normal".
This is a key point- normal is what most people are doing - it doesn't mean it's right or natural or even best for you. What is considered 'normal' is an ever changing social construct. For example, today, protein has become the base of every single meal we eat. So it's normal for us, but definitely wasn't for our gatherer-hunter ancestors from millennia ago. Just know that you are fighting an uphill battle so don't jump directly into the fray without strong fortifications - flank!
It's going to be tough, but there is a secret weapon to navigate this situation - the experimental time limit. It's the best way to avoid any issues. By letting people know up front you are 'experimenting' you are also letting them know that they haven't lost you to the dark side. It's amazing how much comfort this provides people.
Challenge #3: What to Think
Staying motivated in the storm
You made the leap, but starting will not be enough - you must finish. The road to a new future is treacherous and you will be assaulted from all sides. In order to weather the storm, you must stay connected to the mindset that brought you here. Easier said than done.
The media machine will bombard you with messages about how fat is healthy again, or how all the pro athletes are going Paleo. You might even be tempted by your office co-worker loading butter in their coffee as the latest bio hack. It's easy to slide back and question yourself. You need strong voices on your side to silence the whispers of doubt.
Quiet time is when you will build your reinforcements! We all have time where we are in the car alone, walking the dog, working out at the gym. These are the perfect times to reinforce your mindset by connecting with the true believers. If you don't do this, you'll find self-doubt creeping in.
You'll begin to wonder if you're doing the right thing. That friend questioning you about protein will get louder in your head. If you're not careful, you'll lose your footing and stumble. It's easy to do. This is where leaning on the well known experts in plant based nutrition will help you stay the course. I recommend everyone watch Forks Over Knives and What the Health as great primers on plant based nutrition. Haven't watched them? Do it now.
Now you might be thinking, but I don't want to hide from other perspectives - what if I'm wrong about this? Shouldn't I listen to other people's view?
Being open minded is an admirable trait, and one that brought you to this moment. However, you are in a special place - you're trying something new.
You need to give this enough time to know if it's right for you. Keeping the right voices in your head is a temporary bridge to your future- you wont need it forever, but you do for now. Remember, you haven't made a permanent life decision, you always have time to consider dissenting views and try new things.
In these conversations, know that everyone, including ourselves, have biases. Everyone has their reasons for their dietary choices and that's great. Food is personal, I encourage everyone to find what works for them, but when you share your plan, don't be attached to winning people over.
Success isn't convincing others you are "right" - success is staying on your plan and learning what works for you.
Rich Roll Podcast
The Rich Roll Podcast is one the best resources out there. He has fantastic interviews into the power of a plant based diet with people who treat those suffering with lifestyle disease. I encourage you to sign up for the podcast in the app of your choice (my favorite is Overcast). Alternatively, you can listen online via Soundcloud.
Here are a few of my favorite episodes:
Each of these folks is an MD focused on lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, obesity and heart health. Let that sink in, when it really matters and lives are on the line, these doctors turn to a vegan diet for results.
The Power of Data
Ok, one last thing. If you're embarking on this experiment, I encourage you to get a baseline blood test to understand your current levels of cholesterol, glucose, inflammation, etc. I used WellnessFx, but you can get the basics with your primary care doctor.
Once you have baseline blood work, plan to get re-tested at the end of your experiment. I have heard that results happen fast on a vegan diet, within 2-3 weeks, but I prefer a month or two of strict dietary compliance before getting the final lab test. (they aren't cheap and I want to be sure)
As a side benefit, knowing you have a blood test coming up will help motivate you to stick with the new plan. If after your second test, the numbers end up being positive, it will move you beyond the vague "how am I feeling?" and strengthen your motivation to continue.
Lastly, if people still question your lifestyle, you can now use hard data to say, "it worked for me, see the data" and that either ends the debate, or for the honestly curious, piques their interest.
Note that even if you have amazing results, as I did, don't expect friends and family to jump on board. People change not when you're ready, but when they are ready.
This last part will be frustrating. If eating plant based worked for you, you'll want everyone to join in? You won't understand why friends or family aren't at least giving it a try. The truth is that if someone is in enough pain, they will look for an answer, but it may not be your answer.
You have to be ok with being a lighthouse in your own life. Even if you are the only one who ever adopts a plant based lifestyle, that's ok. If you feel better and your numbers are heading in the right direction, that should be enough - don't tie your happiness to changing others - we all have our own journey.
If you have questions, feel free to drop a comment below. I wish you the very best in your new life.
Welcome to Plant Power.