Posted: 27 Sep 2012 08:00 AM PDT
Post written by Leo Babauta.
If I could make a single dietary recommendation to people looking to get healthier, it would be to move to a plant-based diet.
Eating plants has been the best change I’ve made in my diet — and I’ve made a bunch of them, from intermittent fasting to low-carb experiments to eating 6 meals a day to eating almost all protein to eliminating sugar (all at various times).
Plants have made me slimmer, healthier, stronger, more energetic — and have increased my life expectancy (more on all this below).
Of course, the diet is simple, but moving away from the Standard American Diet to a plant-based one isn’t always so simple for most people.
Changing your diet can be difficult, but in this guide I’ll share a bit about how to change, talk a bit about why, and what you might eat.
What’s a Plant-Based Diet?
The simple answer, of course, is that you eat plants. You eliminate animals and (eventually) animal products like dairy and eggs.
The less simple answer is there is an abundance of plant foods that most people never eat, and eating a plant-based diet means you might widen the variety of foods you eat. For example, some of my favorite foods include: tempeh, seitan, tofu, kale, broccoli, quinoa, ground flaxseeds, ground chia seeds, raw almonds and walnuts, raw almond butter, olive oil, all kinds of berries, figs, avocados, tomatoes, lentils, black beans, spirulina, hemp seeds, nutritional yeast, organic soymilk, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, apples, peaches, mangoes, pineapple, garlic, red wine, green tea, brown rice, sprouted (flourless) bread, brown rice, steel-cut oats.
A “plant-based diet” is basically another way to say “vegan”, though in my definition it’s a little looser than “vegan” — you might eat some cheese on a salad if it’s been served by your gracious host, for example. So “plant-based” means you eat almost all plants, but depending on your preferences, you might eat something with eggs in it now and then without having a cow. My preference, though, would be to eat vegan all the time, ideally.
Why Should I Change?
There are a few important reasons to eat plants:
But … if you don’t do it to avoid pollution, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, increased death rates, animal cruelty, global warming, deforestation, and higher costs … maybe weight loss would do it. Vegetarians and vegans weigh less on average than meat eaters. That’s even after adjusting for things like fibre, alcohol, smoking … and calorie intake! Half of Americans are obese, but vegans tend to be much less obese (with exceptions of course).
That said, just going vegan will not necessarily cause you to lose weight. You could easily eat a lot of sugar, white flour, fake meats and fried foods and gain weight. If you eat whole plant foods, you’re likely to lose weight. Plant foods, for starters, have pretty much no saturated fat, low calories and tons of fiber, while animal foods all have saturated fat, lots of calories and zero fiber.
Beating Death: I highly recommend watching this video on uprooting the causes of death using a plant-based diet. It’s a bit long, but well worth the time.
How to Change
It will be no surprise that I recommend people start small and change slowly. A good plan is to make the change in stages:
What to Eat
So what do you eat when you’re on a plant-based diet that focuses on whole foods? Lots!
A few categories of foods to include regularly:
OK, by now you might be overwhelmed by all of this. How do you put it together? It’s not that hard once you get used to it. Start learning some recipes that combine some of these foods into meals, and over time, you’ll have a few go-to meals that you love that are full of nutrition.
Some examples that I like (but don’t limit yourself to these!):
My Food Journal: If you’d like to see my food journal (admittedly not always perfectly healthy), I’ve started one that you can see here.
Frequently Asked Questions
I’ll add to this section as questions come in, though obviously I can’t answer everything.
Q: Isn’t it hard to get protein on a vegan diet?
A: Not really, as long as you eat a variety of whole foods, and not a bunch of processed flours and sugars (the white kind that has little nutrition). There is protein in vegetables and grains, and even more in beans, nuts and seeds. I often eat protein-rich plant foods like tempeh, tofu, seitan, edamame, black beans, lentils, quinoa, soymilk, and raw nuts. Read more here.
Q: What about calcium or iron or B12?
A: Again, it’s not difficult at all. I’ve calculated the iron and calcium in my diet at various times, and as long as I’m mostly eating whole foods, it’s really easy. Nuts and green veggies are your best friends, but there’s also calcium-fortified soymilk and tofu and the like. Eat some kale, quinoa, raw nuts, various seeds, broccoli, tofu or tempeh … it’s not difficult. Vitamin B12 is a bit more difficult to get from regular plants, as the main source of B12 is usually animal products — including eggs and dairy. But actually, vegans have figured this out, and now if you drink fortified soymilk or almond milk, or use nutritional yeast or a few other good sources like that, you will have no worries. More reading on iron, calcium and B12 for vegans.
Q: Isn’t soy bad for you?
A: No. That’s a myth. I would stick to organic, non-GMO soy, but actually soy is a very healthy source of protein and other nutrients, and has been eaten by very healthy people for thousands of years. More info here.
Q: I follow the Paleo diet and believe this is how humans are meant to eat.
A: Well, if you’re eating unprocessed foods and have cut out white flours and sugars and deep-fried foods, you’re probably healthier than the average American. I admire the Paleo crowd that focuses on whole foods and that eats lots of veggies and nuts and seeds, but when it’s just an excuse to eat lots of meat, it’s not as healthy. It’s also not true that hunter-gatherer societies ate mostly meat — the crowd that believes this has made a flawed review of contemporary hunter-gatherers. Most traditional societies eat, and have pretty much always eaten, mostly plants, including lots of starches — respected anthropologists such as Nathanial Dominy, PhD, from Dartmouth College say that the idea of hunter-gatherers eating mostly meat is a myth. I’d also warn against low-carb, high-protein diets over the long run — in the short term, you’ll see weight loss, but in the long run they’ve been shown to increase cardiovascular disease (from June 21, 2012 issue of British Medical Journal).
Q: It sounds difficult and complicated.
A: Actually it’s very simple — you just learn to eat a variety of plants. It does mean learning some new meals, but instead of seeing that as a hardship, think of it as something fun to learn. If you slowly change your eating patterns, it’s not hard at all. Be flexible and don’t be too strict — you’ll find that it’s much easier if you allow yourself an occasional meal with animal products, especially in the first 6-12 months.
Q: What about fake meats and cheeses?
A: There’s nothing wrong with giving them a try now and then when you’re having a craving for something, but in all honesty you don’t need them. They’re more expensive and less healthy. Basically, they’re convenience foods.
Q: What if I’m allergic to soy or gluten or nuts?
A: It’s still possible to get all the nutrition you need from a plant-based diets without a specific kind of food (like gluten or soy), from what I understand. More here.
Q: It sounds expensive.
A: Actually it can be a lot less expensive, if you stay away from the vegan convenience foods (which are fine on occasion). Meat is more expensive than beans or tofu, for example. While fresh, organic veggies can cost a bit, you should get these in your diet even if you eat meat — and in the long run, you’ll save much more on medical bills.
Q: There’s no way I’ll give up (eggs, cheese, ice cream, etc.)!
A: Well, you don’t have to. If you want to eat mostly plants but also eggs and cheese, that’s much better than eating meat. But there are cheese substitutes you can try, and vegan ice cream, and in the long run, you might find that giving these things up isn’t as difficult as you think.
Q: What about eating out at restaurants or social gatherings?
A: I’d recommend you take it slowly at first, and eat mostly plants at home, and be more liberal when you eat out, for a little while. You don’t want to make this too difficult on yourself. But actually, once you learn some simple strategies, it’s not that hard to find vegan food in restaurants — some are easier than others, and sites like Happy Cow make it easy to find veg-friendly restaurants in your area. As for eating at friends’ and families’ houses, I’ve learned to offer to bring one or two vegan dishes, and it’s not usually a problem.
Q: What if my family and friends don’t support this change?
A: It’s best if you don’t start preaching — people don’t like it. This article might seem like a violation of that, but actually I rarely push veganism on this site, and when I do it’s only as a way to show others a healthy and compassionate alternative. Remember that those around you probably don’t know much about veganism, and are likely to react defensively. Take the opportunity, when they bring up the topic, to share what you’re learning, and the concerns you yourself had when you first learned about it. Show them some great vegan food. Share this guide with them. And always be patient.
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