August 2021 is my 12-year "veg-versary." It's been an interesting journey. I first dipped my toes in the veg-curious waters as a teenager who thought going vegan would be a great way to lose weight—because we all hear vegans are thinner, right? (We won't go into what a silly reason that was, since I wasn't overweight...)
That lasted about two weeks before I decided it was too hard and defaulted to a rather clueless form of vegetarianism. I had no idea what vegetarians really ate or how they replaced meat in a way that tasted good.
Thus began a stretch of back-and-forth vegetarian/flexitarian eating that lasted until 2008. During that time, I invested in cookbooks, experimented with vegetarian meat replacements and sometimes defaulted to meat at restaurants because it was hard to find a good vegetarian option. And cheese. I ate lots and lots of cheese.
I finally gave up meat that summer after deciding I really didn't like the taste or texture any more. I said goodbye to eggs and dairy the next year, much to the joy of my digestive system, which had been yelling at me that I was lactose intolerant for over a decade (I was just too stubborn to listen, even after getting sick from all that cheese!).
So there I was, someone who'd grown eating steak, lasagna, pizza, ice cream cones and barbecued chicken, looking at a future with no meat and no dairy. My quasi-vegetarian stint taught me enough that I didn't feel intimidated by the change—but I still didn't fully understand what eating only plants would look like.I also didn't know much about the true benefits of plant-based diets (or all the crazy things going on in our food system that make animal products such health and environmental hazards).But I learned pretty quickly.
And I was so fascinated that I kept right on learning, earning a Certificate in Plant-Based Nutrition from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and a Nutrition Consultant certificate from Bauman College.
When I saw Forks Over Knives, I cut out processed foods and made the the leap from plant based to whole food plant based.I was officially all in.
Were there bumps along the way? Sure. Is my diet "perfect" all the time? Of course not. As I said, it was a journey—and it still is.
Nobody wakes up one morning and craves leafy greens and quinoa after years of chowing down on Oreos cereal and dipping potato chips in sour cream; you have to take things one step at a time.I have learned a lot, though, and I'm sharing a snapshot of it here in the hopes that it can answer some of your questions and concerns about getting started on your own plant-based journey—and help you navigate the ups and downs along the way.
Disclaimer: Although I'm a qualified health coach, nothing in this post is meant to be health advice. I'm simply sharing my experience with living the plant-based lifestyle.
When you hear the word "diet," you usually think about what you have to give up. And sure, going plant-based means not eating meat, dairy, fish or eggs. It might sound like everything on your plate disappears, but in reality, a huge vista of possibilities opens up in front of you.
Suddenly, there's room on that plate for a rainbow of vegetables. Fruits of all kinds replace processed sugary snacks. Beans and whole grains become a blank canvas for exotic spice combinations.
Even making pizza turns into an adventure with options ranging from buffalo chickpeas to roasted veggies to cashew-based "mozzarella." It's nearly impossible to get bored with what you eat. And if you do find yourself in a rut, there are plenty of ways to mix things up.
As a kid, I remember eating pretty much the same things all the time. My family had pasta night, pizza night, steak night and special meals for holidays (all of which included meat and/or cheese). It was easy, it was familiar and it became a routine that lasted for years.
On switching to a plant-based diet, I had to figure out how to replace or adjust all those dishes. Fortunately, my mom taught me to cook starting when I was tall enough to reach the counter, so I had the skill set to draw on as I happily bumbled my way through the pages of vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, learning what worked and what didn't. By following this process, you can start going on culinary "world travels" from the comfort of your kitchen as you discover an amazing array of ethnic cuisines you may never have tried before.
Or extreme. Or that you eat only salad, can't have pasta, have to avoid chocolate and will never, ever be able to eat at restaurants again. Even if you explain this isn't true, a few of them will probably still think eating plant-based is bizarre or unnatural. Fortunately, I've found this to be less of an issue as the benefits of plant-based eating get more mainstream attention.
My advice? Don't worry about being "weird." Just keep enjoying the journey.
Usually because they love cheese. Which I can understand. Cheese is addictive. But it's funny how people will put those barriers in front of themselves as if to justify why they can't make any changes to their diets. As if blaming the cheese gets them off the hook for not at least trying some beans, grains or greens? It can be frustrating to run into this when you first make the switch and start experiencing the benefits of plant-based eating for yourself. Resist the urge to preach! Instead, let the food speak for itself.
Here's where the disconnect can be kind of funny: Every single time I bring a plant-based dish to a gathering or manage to convince my church to go plant-based for just one potluck, people love it. Sometimes they're wary at first, but the inevitable reaction once the food is in their mouths is a positive one.
I get asked for recipes, too.
You can talk all day about why you’ve decided to go plant-based, but what’s really going to make an impression is when you show people just how enjoyable the food is—so be generous and share!
This is the flipside of point #5. Unfortunately, no matter what you do, there are some people who see your dietary choices as a direct attack on them. Reactions can range from hostility to a sort of passive-aggressive "I'll show you!" effect where they eat more animal products as a puzzling form of retaliation for words you never said. I still can’t make sense of this attitude. The most I can say on this point is it’s best to disengage from the plant-based conversation with these people unless they start showing genuine interest.
On the other hand, I can completely understand why people push back when confronted with aggressive vegan messaging. I was that vegan for a while.
You know the type. The one who looks at everyone else's plate with dismay and/or contempt and points out the horrors of factory farming during meals.
Better alternative: Share good plant-based food, and answer questions when people ask—but not while they're eating. You can always follow up later.
I had some pretty bizarre health issues before I went plant-based. Digestive disruptions, skin problems, asthma-like symptoms and joint and muscle pain that was occasionally so bad I walked with a cane. In my early 20s.
Just about all of it disappeared when I went plant-based. I also get sick much less often now than I used to. In fact, I usually don't come down with anything unless I'm short on sleep.
I know that's only anecdotal, but given the body of scientific evidence backing up the numerous health benefits of plant-based eating, you'd think at least doctors would understand why I experienced such a change.
Some do. But others are still convinced I'm missing something because of the way I eat or are highly suspicious of my explanation as to why I'm healthy the majority of the time. (I'm waiting for the day when preventative medicine finally catches on!) That being said, don’t stop going to the doctor when you go plant-based.
Just like with any diet, it’s possible to get things out of balance or experience nutrient deficiencies. And it’s not a guarantee you’ll never get sick.Stick with your regular checkups. Good reports can be opportunities to highlight your diet's positive effects.
Suddenly, when you go plant-based, everyone expects you to be a wealth of nutrition information. And an expert in how to cook or prepare every plant food ever.I don't recommend giving snarky answers. Some people generally don't know you can get protein from plants or that hyper-processed foods are bad for them. Consider these questions teachable moments, and be open with what you’ve learned. And if you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to say so. I’ve been at this for 12 years, and I’m still discovering new things!
All the crazy diet "information" on the internet has completely scrambled people's perceptions of healthy eating, and plant-based diets are no exception. I've been asked if I can or do eat bread, pasta, chocolate, eggs, fish, chicken...and probably a few other things I'm forgetting.
Sometimes I wish I could just hand people an FAQ card so I can stop repeating myself: all plants, no animals. (No, not even chicken.) As with point #9, be patient when people ask these questions, and be careful not to add to the confusion yourself.
After spending 12 years traversing the plant-based spectrum, I've seen all kinds of dietary tribalism. From the ethical vegans to the salt-, oil- and sugar-free whole-food plant-based crowd to the proponents of high raw, everyone has a different opinion on the definition of plant based.This goes a long way toward explaining why #9 happens. (And Instagram influencers and YouTubers tend to make it worse.)
Don’t let it all overwhelm you. Focus on eating whole plant foods the majority of the time, and ignore the fads and hype.
I always tell people who are curious about how I eat that I didn't just wake up one morning craving salad.
In fact, my early forays into vegetarianism and veganism included a lot of convenience foods, and there was a period of time when I pretty much subsisted on giant quesadillas.
My family rarely cooked beans or whole grains when I was growing up, and vegetables were usually a somewhat limp side dish smothered in butter or ranch dressing.In short, I had to do a lot of experimenting. And that's still going on as I try recipes from unfamiliar cuisines and discover varieties of plant foods I've never eaten before.
And yes, now I actually do crave salad. All that trial and error has changed my tastes!
The shift can take a little while, but it’s worth the wait. You'll feel amazing the day you first taste the true sweetness of fruit or realize celery has salty overtones. (It really does.)
This is one of my favorite plant-based food stories to share: I was going through TSA screening at the airport on my way to Vegetarian Summerfest (now called Vegan Summerfest) one year. I didn't usually have any problems, but this time they had to check my bag.
Why? Because I'd packed my usual lunch salad to eat on the plane, and the round glass container it was in showed up as a big, mysterious blank spot on the scanner. The TSA officer took it out, inspected it, and declared..."This looks good!" I was in the clear—and I got to keep my salad.
Although I don't think I would have blamed him if he decided to "confiscate" it for himself!
Of course, I've learned more than 12 things over the past 12 years of being plant-based—including plenty of kitchen hacks and nutrition insights—and I'm sure the discoveries will continue as I keep going on the journey.
Thanks to Foster members Rob Hardy, David Burt and Chris Angelis for their input on this piece!