14 Tips From Real People on the Vegan Diet

It’s an ethical, healthy way of eating.

Veganism has been around since way before plant-based eating became cool. Strictly speaking, veganism is not a diet in itself, although dietary changes are almost always required to avoid eating animal products, says Nicole Stevens, a registered dietitian and owner of Lettuce Veg Out, a vegan and nutrition website.

“Veganism is an ethical stance against the use of animals for food, entertainment, clothing (or other ends),” she says. “People become vegan to minimize their use of animals in all facets of life — including not consuming any animals or animal byproducts in foods, as far as is practical and possible.”

That said, the vegan diet is a type of plant-based diet that’s worth considering if you’re interested in improving your heart health, preventing or managing diabetes and possibly losing weight. The vegan diet earned high marks in all these areas in the latest U.S. News Best Diets rankings.

Mainstream with floodgates open

It’s getting much easier to go vegan, now that veganism is becoming more mainstream. Multiple factors make veganism more attractive and doable than in the past, says Jenné Claiborne, a vegan chef, blogger and author of the “Sweet Potato Soul” cookbook.

“There are so many brands now,” Claiborne says, including products that replicate foods people are familiar with, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger. “They really opened the floodgates when they came out in restaurants, and now they’re in all sorts of restaurants — fast-food restaurants included.”

Vegan menu items are the first introduction for many people, Claiborne says. “Then they realize: Oh, I can eat this. It doesn’t taste like grass. It’s something delicious, and it’s the same as what I’m used to. What other things can I eat that are vegan?”

Look around any supermarket beyond the produce section, and you’ll see vegan chicken and cheeses, plant milks and creamers. Go online and find tons of vegan resources and recipes. Soon you could be creating tasty, nutritious vegan meals in your own kitchen. Use the following tips to help you transition to veganism.

Veganize your favorite foods.

Add “veganize” to your vocabulary. Learning how to convert your favorite foods to make them vegan-friendly is a good starting point.

“Either veganize recipes you already enjoy by buying replacements for meat, dairy or eggs, or search your favorite recipe with ‘vegan,'” Stevens suggests. “There’s a very good chance that something delicious will crop up.”

You can find a wealth of appealing recipes — such as vegan vodka sauce for pasta, vegan chocolate orange cake and vegan baked onion rings with quinoa — on Stevens’ Lettuce Veg Out website.

Ensure proper nutrition.

Maintaining good nutrition is important for sustaining a vegan diet — and good health. “If people begin to feel unwell, they aren’t likely to maintain a dietary change, even if spurred on by ethical principles,” says Stevens, who strives to empower vegans to live a balanced life without restriction and to gain confidence in the kitchen.

Make sure you eat enough to feel full and satisfied. “A common hurdle is feeling hungry,” she says. “Eating enough is a great place to start. Vegan foods may be less calorie-dense, so larger portion sizes may be needed.”

Including enough protein, healthy fats and carbs is also essential. Vegetables, no matter how nutritious, are not a meal on their own, Stevens points out. “Aim for vegetables to take up half the plate, a good source of protein for a quarter-plate and carbohydrates on the final quarter,” she advises. “Add some healthy fats in the form of a sauce, nuts, seeds or avocado, or in the cooking of the protein, veggies and carbs.”

Tweak traditional classics.

Claiborne, who originally hails from Georgia, ate plenty of soul food at the family dinner table. Now she’s creating recipes based on those traditional meals — with a twist.

“For me, a lot of the cooking journey has been about veganizing nonvegan recipes, things I had grown up eating,” Claiborne says. “I grew up in the South; I grew up eating soul food. My cookbook is all veganized soul food recipes. It’s been super fun to turn those recipes that we already are familiar with and just make them vegan.”

Cauliflower fried chicken for an entree, collard greens as a savory choice, oyster mushroom etouffee as a hearty stew and pound cake for a sweet treat are among her most popular “Sweet Potato Soul” cookbook and website vegan recipes.

Many ingredients are the same as for the original version, notes Claiborne, who is baking sweet-potato blondies at the moment. She uses flax eggs — made by grinding flaxseed mixed with water, along with standard flour and high-quality dark chocolate.

If you’re veganizing your own favorite recipes, “Just look at the ingredients,” she suggests. “A lot of them will just happen to be vegan — you usually don’t have to go to some special store.”

Go vegan in phases.

When Claiborne first developed a passion for cooking as a Boston University student circa 2007, she pored over food blogs, watched cooking shows on Food Network and spent a lot of time at local farmers markets. She grew interested in what’s now called plant-based eating, “although I don’t think we had that term back then.”

Little by little, Claiborne became a vegetarian. “I sort of flip-flopped between vegetarian and pescatarian (fish allowed) for a few years.” She moved to New York to be an actor, got a job in a vegan restaurant, loved the food and learned about different aspects of the vegan lifestyle.

For Claiborne, the transition to veganism was almost a natural progression. “It was a very gradual shift for me, nothing overnight,” she says. “By the time I became an official vegan, I was probably eating 90% vegan, anyway.”

So what is an “official” vegan? “I officially made the decision — no more animal products,” she says.

Keep food options open as possible.

“While certain people have allergies or intolerances to work within, additional dietary restrictions are often unnecessary and make eating vegan more complicated than it needs to be,” Stevens says. “Eating the widest variety of food possible makes veganism sustainable and delicious.”

For instance, if you’re not intolerant to gluten, there’s no need to exclude wheat or other gluten-containing whole grains from your mealtime options.

Talk to a dietitian or doctor.

As with any new diet, you should talk to a health care provider — particularly if you have a medical condition such as diabetes or food allergies. “Talk to a dietitian or doctor about your supplement needs to ensure you aren’t missing out on any critical nutrition,” Stevens advises.

Supplement for certain nutrients.

Veganism is one of the few eating plans for which many dietitians advise taking nutritional supplements. “While vegan foods can provide plenty of nutrients, they do not offer a source of B12, unless fortified foods are consumed,” Stevens says. “Therefore, a B12 supplement is recommended.” You should always speak to a doctor before starting new supplements, she adds.

Other nutrients of concern include vitamin D, iodine and omega-3 fatty acids, particularly EPA and DHA, and iodine, Stevens says. “Learning how to consume adequate iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin A and possibly selenium is also very helpful.” Her website provides in-depth information on individual nutrients.

Revisit replacement products.

“The ability to have meat, milk and butter is probably the biggest thing that’s really changed in the last five years for vegan cooking,” says chef Jack Bishop, the chief creative officer at America’s Test Kitchen.

It’s truly a different era. “If the last time you had a veggie burger was five or 10 years ago, it was a very horrible, disappointing experience,” Bishop notes. Since then, he says, there’s been a “sea change” with a new generation of high-quality replacement products that can truly mimic meat and meat dishes.

Recently published, ATK’s “The Complete Plant-Based Cookbook” includes some vegan recipes to get started. If you’re moving toward veganism, a combination of adapting familiar recipes along with trying out less-familiar foods, like chickpeas, is probably a good approach, Bishop says.

Explore vegan milk, butter and cheese.

Nonvegan dairy options have “exploded,” Bishop says. With the wide variety of plant-based milks now available, you can tailor the milk you choose to the specific type of dish you’re making.

For instance, he recommends using oat milk when you’re baking. “Oat milk has more natural sugars, which is similar to cow’s milk,” he says. “It does much better with java brownies.” Other plant-based milks won’t brown properly if you’re doing a cake recipe, he explains. On the other hand, for savory cooking he suggests turning to choices like almond milk.

Many plant-based butters are “really quite delicious,” he says. For instance, you can find cultured vegan butter that has a similar feel to high-end Irish or European butters. “It gives just a little bit of tang and a little more grassiness,” he says.

Vegan cheeses run the gamut from soft mozzarella to tangy cheddar to aged Parmesan.

Create a vegan feast.

When her father remarried several years ago, Claiborne volunteered to cater the wedding feast. The only catch was that few members of the extended family were vegan or particularly vegan-curious at the time — no pressure whatsoever.

“The whole family came down to Georgia and everybody congregated,” Claiborne says. “My dad and I cooked one of my most popular recipes: vegan crab cakes.”

With many family members residing in Virginia, Maryland or the District of Columbia — areas that are fiercely proud of their traditional blue crab-based creations — veganizing crab cakes was a bold move.

“We made the crab cakes for them, and it was a hit,” Claiborne reports. “We cooked them all day long to keep people happy.”

To put together successful vegan meals for yourself and your family, follow a meal plan of what you’ll eat for the rest of the week, Claiborne suggests. “Always make sure you’re well-prepped and have plenty of food in your kitchen,” she adds, to have on hand to cook or simply pull out of the freezer.

As you become more adventurous, you can create your own memorable all-vegan celebrations and feasts.

Learn about animal-product industries.

If you’re interested in veganism, educating yourself about the animal-products industries is critical to sticking with it, according to Stevens. “Learning where our food comes from and how it gets onto our plates provides the ethical and moral background needed to become vegan and stay vegan long term,” she says.

Strict vegans abstain from gelatin products and honey, forgo clothing made of leather, fur and wool, and avoid cosmetics and other products that contain animal substances or are tested on animals, among other consumer and lifestyle changes.

Consider your audience.

Sometimes you speak up, while other times you might as well save your breath. In terms of hurdles for people transitioning to veganism, having to explain their lifestyle choices to others is the most common, Stevens says.

“It’s helpful to have a good understanding of why you’re vegan to explain to others who are curious,” she says. “It’s also good to know when to save your energy, as not everyone is willing to listen or learn about something that may make them uncomfortable.”

Find selections at nonvegan restaraurants.

Depending on your location, like urban vs. suburbs, you may have limited vegan dining choices. “My grandmother has been trying to become vegan for a long time,” Claiborne notes. “But she goes to restaurants and there might not be obvious options on the menu. So she’ll do her best.”

That could mean falling back on a vegetarian option, or eating fish rather than meat. Simpler vegan dishes may be available, says Claiborne, who sometimes orders steamed vegetables and tofu at Asian restaurants.

Several fast-food chains offer menu items for vegan customers. Just a few possibilities:

— Chipotle, with vegan bowls, burritos and other combos, is the go-to fast-food choice for Claiborne.

— Cheesecake Factory offers vegan Cobb salad, avocado toast and more.

— TGI Fridays features Beyond Meat products like the Beyond Burger.

Give yourself grace.

If you find it hard to go all-out vegan right away, or you slip up with a nonvegan food choice, don’t beat yourself up. “There’s no such thing as a perfect vegan, so be graceful with yourself,” Stevens says. “Transition at your own pace. Just because you can’t change everything doesn’t mean that small steps aren’t an amazing accomplishment.”

Tips for going vegan

Going vegan is a journey that can change your life. Follow these signposts on the way:

— Veganize your favorite foods.

— Ensure proper nutrition.

— Tweak traditional classics.

— Go vegan in phases.

— Keep food options open as possible.

— Talk to a dietitian or doctor.

— Supplement for certain nutrients.

— Revisit replacement products.

— Explore vegan milk, butter and cheese.

— Create an all-vegan feast.

— Learn about animal-product industries.

— Consider your audience.

— Find selections at nonvegan restaurants.

— Give yourself grace.

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14 Tips From Real People on the Vegan Diet originally appeared on usnews.com

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