Plant Based Basics: Where to Begin
Updated: Aug 31, 2021
If you've arrived at this blog, I'm assuming you're already interested or curious about transitioning to a plant-based or plant-forward diet. This blog is not going to outline the benefits of plant-based or convince you of its merit (whether you're here for health, environmental, or ethical reasons), but rather give you the tools to support your goal of transitioning.
The truth is, you can know everything about plant-based nutrition, be an incredible plant-based chef, listen to every plant-based podcast, follow every plant-based instagram account, read every plant-based book, and still fail at the transition. It's not about knowing more, it's about applying it.
And applying the information isn't always easy.
We live in a society that is so focused on eating animal products. Many people's weekly meals are a rotation of chicken, shrimp, beef, and maybe a plant-based meal thrown in. It's habitual to refer to meals simply as the animal protein ("What are you ordering?" "The chicken!") . Many people feel that a meal is not complete without meat. Chances are the people around you are not doing this transition with you.
But I want to be very clear. Just because there will be obstacles and challenges, doesn't meant that transitioning to a plant-based diet is impossible or unlikely or even has to be a struggle. In my experience, it's all about mindset.
*The topics that I'm going to touch on in this blog are not exhaustive. There's very important factors that I don't expand upon, such as access to plant-based foods, financial burden, and more. These are very important and are worthy of a whole other blog post. Once I take a few more classes on the topic in my RD program, I will expand on this!!
Just to reiterate: the below steps assume that you're already interested in transitioning to some form of a plant-based diet. It's the how, not the why.
This blog also assumes that you know how to cook. When eating plant-based, especially in a health promoting way, home-cooking is essential! If you're not at least somewhat comfortable in the kitchen, tackle that first. Start making more recipes at home! Practice makes progress. One new thing at a time!
Last but not least, this blog assumes that you aren't looking to go cold turkey with plant-based, but are interested in a slower transition. Some people find it easiest to flip the switch all at once and that's AWESOME. But this blog is targeted to those who want to take it a bit more slowwww...
Here we go!
WHERE TO BEGIN
Step 1: Examine your relationship with food
If your relationship with food is in need of improvement, a plant-based diet may not be the best choice right now. Red flags can look like food fears and body image struggles. It's important to enter plant-based eating with a mindset of abundance, not restrictions or rules. This will set you up for success and ensure that your intentions are stemming from compassion and love toward your body.
Step 2: Define what plant-based means to you (and this can change!)
Time to pull out your journal! When I first went plant-based, I did it thinking I would not ever give up all animal products. I approached it with the mindset of an experiment. What would it feel like to eat more plants? My definition of plant-based was simply making plants the main part of every meal.
With this intention, I slowly let go of buying red meat, then chicken, then fish, eggs, and dairy, over a period of about 6 months. Along the way I found plant-based recipes that I loved and looked forward to making again and again. And now here I am eating no animal products at all. While my mindset and my definition of plant-based has changed and evolved, it always felt organic, natural, and never forced.
Start by writing out what this transition means to you. (I love pen and paper, but the notes section of your phone works great too!). Write about:
Why? For me, this was really focused on diabetic health. I had read about and seen the benefits of going plant-based on insulin sensitivity. This gave me a great answer when people asked me: Why are you going plant-based? And for the first few months, I would answer just that: I'm seeing if a plant-based diet can help make managing my diabetes easier. Can't argue with that! Then after I started seeing the incredible results myself, I became so much more confident in this why (and leaned into a few other important "whys" too!).
What does a plant-based diet mean to you? Seems too basic to be a question, but it's an important one! Some people may define plant-based is eliminating all animal products and processed food completely, while others may define it with some wiggle room. Or may just a diet that is based in plants. If putting a label on it at all makes you feel stressed, then just define it as eating more plants! You don't have to align with what your favorite blogger or Instagrammer does, just align with what feels good for YOU. And this is a good question to revisit down the road of your journey. Maybe you start off with a more conservative approach and realize how good you feel, then take the full jump in! No matter what you decide, remember you always have the power to change your mind.
Obstacles you may face and how you plan to overcome them (Eating out with friends, visiting family, lunch out at work, etc.) Navigating some of these scenarios will help when you approach them in real life. In your first iteration of this, these solutions may just be: eat plant-based when convenient. And that's great! Forcing yourself into a strict set of rules or finding awkward and forced solutions probably won't feel good. There was a point in my transition where I was cooking and eating 100% plant-based at home, but at restaurants and on special occasions I would eat meat/dairy. This worked for me because I was still getting many of the benefits of plant-based without feeling restrictive or obsessive. Once my "why" changed to include more ethical and environmental reasons along with the health ones, this pattern started to shift as well. And because I already had the foundation of about 6 months on a plant-based diet, I was better able to navigate these situations.
Who are your cheerleaders? I don't recommend diving into this alone. Even if your accountability partner is not going plant-based themself, it's great to have someone (or a group of people) supporting you. For me, this was my husband (who is not plant-based) and instagram community. You will want someone on your side.
Step 3: Add more in
Here's the fun part! No matter what you set as your destination for plant-based, the journey is going to start with eating more plants. This is where the relationship with food concept really is important.
The reason that a lot of people fail going plant-based is because they aren't eating enough calories. When you eliminate or minimize meat and diary, you are taking out a huge percentage of calories from your diet. That's why a way to approach it is by simply adding more plants first, instead of totally eliminating animal products.
There was a long period of my life where I thought bananas were terrible because "they had a lot of sugar". I would replace them with cauliflower in my smoothies in the name of health (lol). When I went plant-based, I was able to recognize the importance of eating all of those higher calorie fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that are so often demonized in our society. So go ahead and push that cauliflower rice aside, and eat the real thing in abundance!
Repeat Steps 1-3 again and again! Yup, that means continuously checking in with your relationship with food (especially around periods of stress), redefining what's working and what's not in your life, and then adding in more of the good stuff!
Okay, but like where do I actually start?
I hear you. Most humans crave structure and want a very specific guide to follow. I'm here to tell you that that probably won't work. Meal plans can be great for the short-term, but if you're looking to build long lasting habits the best thing you can do is eat in a way that feels the most natural to you and be aware of the process. As you transition to plant-based, small changes overtime go a long way. Here's some suggestions of ways to start:
Find recipes that excite you and add them into your rotation Most people have a rotation of recipes that they go through. We like simplicity and we like what we know. Start by finding a plant-based recipe or two that sound appetizing and try them out. If you like them and they weren't a burden to make (some plant-based recipes are SUPER complicated), add them into your rotation! Then add another, and another, and another. Find recipes that you look forward to making and eating! Slowly but surely you will end up with tons of plant-based options that will make a full-transition seem quite simple.
Change one meal at a time I have to give credit to Mastering Diabetes for this method. They suggest to first switch over to a plant-based breakfast, then lunch, then dinner. Of course, the timeline is up to you.
Eliminate types of meat This is most similar to what I did, combined with the find recipes one. My transition lasted over about 6 months and over that time, I started making more plant-based recipes as part of my week, while also slowly eliminating beef, then chicken, then fish, eggs, and dairy. I eliminated each once I realized I was no long eating it, so more reactive than proactively declaring the elimination. This felt super natural because it happened as I was getting more excited by the delicious plant-based meals that I was making.
Make plants the star of the meal If the thought of eliminating meat from a meal sounds daunting, consider significantly decreasing the quantity that you eat in a meal. Make plants the star of the show, and have meat be the supporting actor. Once you get comfortable with eating less meat, it may be easier to start adding in full-plant-based recipes. This is also an easy way to do plant-based if you cook for your significant other or family. Let's say I was cooking a pad thai dish, I could cook chicken on the side for my husband to add to his meal, while knowing that the dish can be easily adapted to my plant-based version as well.
Work with an RD or doctor to ensure that you have a good handle on your health. While a plant-based diet can bring incredible health benefits, one that is not well-planned can lead to deficiencies, most commonly in iron, Vitamin D, and Vitamin B12. And while the protein concern can be real, eating a varied diet that contains lots of beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds will usually have you covered. But it's always best to check with health professional on this stuff! I take supplements to ensure all my needs are being met.
Processed Plant Foods
I definitely eat a lot of plant-based whole-foods, but I also like to eat vegan ice-cream, cereals, bread, candy, and more! For me, restricting all processed foods did not feel mentally healthy. This goes back to defining what plant-based means to you. You do you.
Adjusting for Insulin Sensitivity
A plant-based diet can majorly impact your insulin sensitivity. I used a few rounds of basal testing to help me adjust and played with my insulin:carb ratios to adjust. Work with your endo if you need help!
What if I get bored eating plant-based?
There are more than 20,000 species of edible plants on earth. There is so much flavor out there that you have probably never tasted! Instead of eating the same rotation of meats, check out the vast number of plant-based blogs and accounts that exist to find inspiration for new meals and plants to try. You'll never know what will end up being your next favorite dish!
Explaining your new way of eating
You don't owe anyone an explanation, but if someone asks I usually explain the diabetic health part. If they're more curious, sometimes I'll go into the other stuff.
Some people are going to be super inspired and supportive of your plant-based-ness, while others will roll their eyes, make opposite health claims, and bring you down. There's no right way of handling these interactions, but I can pretty accurately predict that arguing your point of view won't change theirs. Instead, I usually just smile, nod, and shrug it off. Then I go run a marathon, wake up with abundant energy, and trust in myself that I'm going the best thing for my body. Haters gonna hate, I choose to lead with love.
Is it expensive?
Personally, I spend less per week at the grocery store than I used to (thank you to my accountant husband for that analysis hehe). Often meat and cheese make up a large chunk of a grocery bill. BUT if you replace that with processed vegan food, like vegan cheese etc., it's probably going to be just as if not more expensive. By focusing on buying mostly whole foods (fruits, veggies, beans, whole grains), you will probably find you can spend less. Nuts and seeds can get expensive, I like to buy those in bulk to save. I'm hoping to do a whole blog on this in the future.
I'm not seeing any results (insulin sensitivity)
When I first started eating more plant-based meals and taking out red meat, I didn't either. You're going to get out of it what you put in. It's a spectrum, and the closer you get to whole-food plant-based, the more sensitivity you will see. Once I took out all meat/dairy I saw a big jump, then when I limited oil and processed food intake I saw my best insulin sensitivity ever. That wasn't super sustainable for me long-term (I lasted like 2 months), so I found a happy place that worked. I still choose to minimize oil and processed foods day-to-day, but include them when I intuitively want them.
I have soooo much more to say on this topic. But I'm going to sum it up by saying that you can do this if you want it. You will probably fail here and there, and that's okay. You may feel lost and unsure and just like you're winging it. I did too. Trust in yourself and treat this journey as an experiment. You're not signing a contract. You can change your mind. It's an exploration of yourself.
Its progress not perfection.
But you've got to take the first step somewhere. It has to start with one plant-based meal, so what are you waiting for?? Today is the day!