What a Plant-Based Diet Is — and Isn’t — Explained
Health•7 min read
Veganism has grown exponentially in the last several years. Today, it is a mighty campaigning and ethical force. Want to get involved?
Words by Hemi Kim
Veganism has grown exponentially in the last several years. While vegans are a small group, they are also a mighty campaigning and ethical force. Veganism appeals to many people who want to reduce animal suffering, protect the environment, and contribute to a fairer and more sustainable future. To become vegan requires a significant change in lifestyle, mostly in one’s eating habits. But this doesn’t need to be difficult. Fellow vegans have created online resources that can help you start your vegan journey. Some of their tips and insights on vegan health benefits are summarized below.
There is no single way to become vegan, but taking small steps is a tried and true way of achieving goals. Here are some steps you can take that will help on your journey to veganism.
Using the internet to learn about veganism is a great way to do research. Many documentaries are available on streaming services—like “Cowspiracy” and “Food Inc.”—and they can help you think about your motivation and why veganism appeals to you. One place you can start reading is the Food Empowerment Project, an organization that is committed to being anti-racist in its approach to veganism.
Take some time to imagine an ideal world. Are you thinking that you want to live in a world where you’re not contributing to the suffering of animals and where animals are treated with more dignity than they are afforded now? Values like these are compelling motivations to abstain from eating meat for long-term vegans, according to research summarized in a blog post by vegan dietician Ginny Messina.
In addition to concerns about nonhuman animal suffering, many people become vegan for health, social justice, or environmental reasons. Religious and spiritual communities from around the world have been practicing what is now known as veganism for centuries.
Becoming fully vegan can be as hard as changing any habit, especially if you’re not surrounded by people who see veganism as normal and acceptable. According to ChooseVeg’s Vegetarian Starter Guide, “Only about a third of people who ditch animal products do so all at once.” Most people make gradual changes in their lives to start with, like going vegan for part of the day, or only cutting out chicken and fish. Knowing that you’re easing into veganism at your own pace is one way to help plan your transition.
Before deciding to go vegan, look in your pantry or at the meals you eat. ChooseVeg’s Vegetarian Starter Kit can help you identify familiar grocery items that are already vegan and that you can stock up on canned beans, bread and pasta, rice, nuts, and frozen veggies. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s Vegan Starter Kit also recommends stocking up on healthy food staples like a colorful array of fruits and vegetables: fill your plate with “a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes,” eating “as much of these foods as you like, until you feel full.”
Setting goals is most effective when it’s done with the support of others. You can join vegan community groups or seek support from professionals. Community groups and coaches often offer free online classes and digital content or in-person sessions focused on healthy, plant-based cooking that can support your dietary and lifestyle changes. Veganuary.com lists social groups in the United Kingdom and Ireland that converge on Facebook and Meetup to offer “support, advice, and friendship” to new and existing vegans.
Treat yourself with kindness, “like we would treat a dear friend,” writes Marianna Pogosyan for Psychology Today. Self-kindness and self-care form self-compassion, a practice rooted in Buddhist psychology. If your friend were taking on a new project to improve their lives, wouldn’t you celebrate their new adventures? You might need to remind yourself that you’re unlearning what is normal, and taking on a new normal. Changes can be stressful, even when they are good, so take care to make space for self-reflection and self-compassion.
It’s okay to make mistakes. When becoming vegan, you might feel guilty if you fail to meet a goal you set. It’s so normal to feel that way that ChooseVeg’s starter kit counsels its readers to “remember that none of us is perfect. If you find yourself cheating once in a while, don’t beat yourself up. You can always start fresh at your next meal.”
The number of free, DIY vegan starter kits available online is evidence of the many ways people have found to help them become vegan. But it’s also a sign of how things can get tricky when changing up how you engage in daily activities. For example, the Afro-Vegan Society’s African American Vegan Starter Guide includes tips on handling family reunions, eating out, and grocery shopping.
Yes, you can become vegan on your own. There is no certification process or governing body from whom to seek a seal of approval when you’re changing your eating and purchasing habits. According to the Food Empowerment Project website, being vegan is simply a matter of deciding to “avoid consuming anything that comes from a non-human animal or an insect.”
It’s understandable to worry about getting enough protein when you’re inundated with meat-centric misinformation about the nutritional content of food. You can get enough protein as a vegan simply by eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, and nuts.
Food cravings are intense desires to eat specific types of food. While going vegan is not the same as beating a food addiction, you can deal with cravings using insights from people who have studied interventions for food cravings and substance abuse. In The Leading Voices in Food podcast, author and nutritionist Dr. Lilian Cheung promotes a mindful way of eating, in which “we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them,” a practice of the Buddhist concept of equanimity.
Once a week or so, Cheung recommends eating in silence, disconnected from digital devices, without watching a show or reading a book, at least for the first part of a joint dinner or lunch. In the podcast, she says that mindful eating has resulted in improved eating behavior outcomes, including binge eating, emotional eating behavior, and learned eating behaviors.
Table talk with meat-eaters is a known minefield for vegans, and tips for navigating these situations can be found in free online starter guides. ChooseVeg provides tips on how to talk to people about your food choices. The Afro-Vegan Society offers scripts for deflecting comments about your veganism after the meal.
Eating a variety of fruits, veggies, grains, and beans should be enough to get all the nutrients you need, except for vitamin B12. You’ll want to look for B12 separately. A Well-Fed World’s EcoFood Guide explains that the way we sanitize food in modern times eliminates soil as a source of B12 from human diets. According to the Afro-Vegan Society website, B12 and Vitamin D are micronutrients that vegans can struggle to get enough of. To get B12, vegans can eat foods like algae, seaweed, tempeh, cereals, nutritional yeast, and fortified foods. To get vitamin D, the guide suggests that you “sit in the sun for a minimum of 30 minutes.”
Food access, family dynamics, and food security are all things to consider when looking at your options to go vegan. And, while plenty of budget-friendly options exist, switching to a new mode of being does require some planning time and mental bandwidth. If you’re working multiple jobs or going to school while working, for example, fast food options can be super convenient, though they are seldom vegan. It’s good to be realistic about the time and energy you have to spend on your vegan transition. It’s okay to adjust your pace towards veganism based on the limits you’re working within.
Authors and filmmakers have helped inform the public about how going vegan supports animal liberation, the environment, and personal health.
Peter Singer popularized the framework of speciesism with his highly influential book “Animal Liberation.” While he’s not the only thinker on the matter, his views are widely embraced by animal advocates and the animal protection movement.
New vegans have found compelling documentaries to help them commit to their veganism. The film “Cowspiracy” is an example of convincing environmental storytelling in support of veganism.
Dr. Ginny Messina is a vegan dietician who cautions against pushing a pro-vegan agenda when talking about health. Messina writes that going vegan is not necessary for good health, but that there are ways to go vegan that are healthy. The following information relies on web-based resources to highlight popular benefits of going vegan for health reasons.
Most reports linking better mental health to veganism are based on people eating whole foods. That means eating fresh vegetables like squash, spinach, and cabbages, fresh fruits like apples and oranges, and complex carbs like dried or canned black beans. But it’s important to note that relying on diet alone is not recommended for treating mental ailments including suicidal thoughts, depression, and anxiety.
Being vegan does not automatically mean better brain health, however. Dr. Georgia Ede, who practices medicine at a college where veganism is popular mostly for non-health reasons, writes about the role of micronutrients in promoting brain health in a vegan diet in Psychology Today. Ede cautions that “unsupplemented vegan diets pose great danger to brain health.”
Mood is also connected to your gut, and about 90 percent of serotonin receptors are in your gut. When people talk about gut health though, they usually mean being able to eat and digest food with ease. The parts of your body that help you digest food include your stomach, esophagus, and other parts of your gastrointestinal tract. Some diseases of the gut are acid reflux, Crohn’s disease, hemorrhoids, and constipation. Eating a plant-based whole foods diet—focusing on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes that are not packaged or ultra-processed—can protect you from poorer gut health outcomes, but veganism is not a cure for any specific disease.
To prevent cancer, public health advocates promote eating less meat and more veggies. Eating cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale is a dietary strategy against stomach, lung, and colorectal cancers.
A vegan diet alone is not a cure for diabetes or cancer, but standard dietary guidelines for reducing chronic diseases such as diabetes (and cancer) are mostly vegan already. Eating whole vegetables like kale, red bell peppers, carrots, or eggplant, and whole fruits like berries, pineapples, or grapefruits, are at the top of the list for curbing the risk of diabetes.
Eating a vegan diet also puts you at a lower risk for heart disease. Vegans eat foods with less saturated fats and are less likely to get hypertension. As with diabetes and other chronic diseases, however, it’s important to consider multiple factors that impact personal health outcomes. Changing what people eat is just one aspect of building a healthy life or community.
When you become vegan, you may discover many unexpected side effects. One delightful side effect is that you learn that other people in your life and community are also vegan or veg-curious. By becoming vegan, you can model new futures for the people around you, potentially inspiring others to try it themselves.
As the fervor for veganism grows, so will the proliferation of supportive materials to help more and more people make their diets and purchases increasingly free of animal products. Follow the links in the article above to find even more information about how to become vegan.
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