How You Can Ease Into a Vegan Diet

Vegan diets have gained in popularity over the years, especially among people with a desire to boost their health, to protect the planet or other altruistic reasons. But the prospect of giving up cheese, fish and many other animal-based products can be daunting.

Still, millions of people follow the vegan diet. About 3% of the U.S. population adheres to a vegan eating regimen, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. That translates to nearly 10 million people in a country of 330 million people.

Benefits of a Vegan Diet

Research suggests that the vegan diet can be good for the planet. It’s also good for your overall health and weight loss. For example, a study published in September 2022 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that both a low-carbohydrate vegan and vegetarian diet can reduce body weight and improve glycemic control and blood pressure. The study involved 164 male and female participants with Type 2 diabetes.

Maintaining glycemic control means keeping your blood glucose steady and within normal range. Glycemic control is important for people with diabetes or pre-diabetes. However, many people, including some without diabetes or pre-diabetes, have erratic blood glucose that goes up and down, but within the normal range. Even if blood glucose stays within the normal range, this fluctuation is tough on the body. Ideally, our blood sugar will stay consistent and balanced throughout the day.

What’s more, plant-based diets have the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Research suggests that agriculture, particularly livestock production, is a key contributor to climate change.

Whether your motive is to drop pounds, shield the environment or to save animals, here are nine tips for easing into a vegan diet:

[Read: Plant-Based Diets for Athletes.]

9 Tips for Starting a Vegan Diet

What does being vegan mean?

Following a vegan diet means eliminating all animal products from your diet

.

That means abstaining from:

— Dairy.

— Eggs.

Fish.

— Meat.

— Poultry.

“A lot of times people think it’s going to be this huge change. It’s really primarily about finding alternative sources of protein, and cutting out dairy products,” says Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and food writer in the Los Angeles area. She’s the author of the books “California Vegan: Inspiration and Recipes from the People and Places of the Golden State,” “The Plant-Powered Diet” and “Plant-Powered for Life.” She also writes “The Plant-Powered Dietitian” blog.

As for dairy, you can exchange plant-based milks and yogurt for those made from animal milk.

There are a wide array of plant-based milks, including:

— Almond milk.

— Cashew milk.

— Coconut milk.

— Hemp milk.

— Oat milk.

— Pea milk.

— Soy milk.

It’s useful to keep in mind that some of these plant-based milks are not as nutrient-dense as dairy milk, Palmer says. Soy or pea plant milks are comparable to dairy milks in terms of protein content. Each type of milk has about 8 grams of protein per cup.

[See: 11 Cheap Plant-Based Meals.]

Start off slowly

If you’re interested in eating a vegan diet, it may be beneficial to start slow. For example, you might begin by working meatless Monday into your usual routine, Palmer says. Do that for a couple of weeks, and then try a flexitarian diet, which is plant-based but allows for eating animal products — like steak, poultry or fish — on occasion.

“A lot of people find it helpful to transition to veganism gradually, over a period of a few weeks,” she says.

Pay attention to protein

While most Americans get enough protein

in their diet, shifting to a vegan diet could cause a drop in protein intake if you’re not adequately replacing animal protein with plant-based sources of protein, says Alexandra Oppenheimer Delvito, a registered dietitian based in New York City. “Eating a variety of plant protein sources throughout the day helps ensure you are getting enough of all the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks for proteins that our bodies cannot make on their own,” she says.

Cutting out meat, poultry and seafood means you have to find alternative, plant-based sources of protein. “It’s completely possible to get the protein you need on a plant-based diet,” she says. “Many people overestimate how much protein they need.” Getting enough protein is important to maintain healthy bones, muscles, skin and hair.

The current recommended dietary allowance, or RDA, for adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of an individual’s body mass (or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight). This is the minimum daily intake to prevent a deficiency.

Plant-based sources of protein include:

Beans.

Chickpeas.

— Dry peas.

— Lentils.

— Mankai.

Whole grains.

— Vegetables.

These foods supply not just protein but fiber, vitamins and minerals.

Supplement, supplement, supplement

You’ll need to consume supplements and fortified foods to meet all of your nutritional needs on a full vegan diet, says Jill Weisenberger, a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator based in Yorktown, Virginia.

“Specifically, we get vitamin B12 only from animals, so if you’re vegan be sure to take a supplement with 100% RDA (recommended daily allowance),” she says. “Vitamin D is also hard to get, as is zinc and a few other nutrients. Your best bet is to work with a registered dietitian nutritionist who can help you flesh out your personalized eating plan and the appropriate supplements.”

[SEE: 7 Habits for a Long, Healthy Life.]

Embrace meal prepping

It’s really hard to eat a healthy, plant-based diet if you don’t have essentials on hand to prepare vegan meals, Palmer says. Many of the healthy foods and seasonings you’ll want to have on hand are pantry staples that you can store for a long time. Whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds

, as well as herbs and spices are good choices.

It’s also a good idea to store low-sodium or unsalted canned vegetables and beans and canned fruits without added sugars. Keeping these ingredients on hand will make it easier to prepare healthy vegan meals.

Consider setting aside some time each week to prepare several meals at a time that you can keep in the refrigerator.

Vegan dishes you can prepare and refrigerate include:

— Grain bowls.

— Pasta bowls.

— Hearty salads.

Each of these can include a variety of fresh veggies and fruits, such as broccoli, cauliflower, sliced carrots and avocado slices.

Don’t overlook the importance of variety.

With all eating patterns, variety is key to maintaining your commitment, enjoying your meals and optimizing health, Delvito says. “It’s easier to stick with a way of eating if you have a wide selection of delicious, healthy foods you enjoy,” she says.

Incorporating a variety of foods that are different colors and flavors also provides a mix of nutrients and polyphenols which are known to support good health and immune function. Research published in the American Journal of Nutrition in 2019 suggests that flavonoids are beneficial for cardiometabolic health.

Foods that are rich in flavonoids include:

— Cocoa.

Fruits.

— Soy products.

Tea.

Including different colored fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices and beverages like black, green, oolong and white teas are a great way to add variety, flavor and beneficial nutrients.

If you’re struggling to find recipes, consider taking a cooking class, where you can learn how to prepare an array of dishes that will help you vary your vegan eating regimen. Talk to friends who follow the approach, or you can also join a Facebook group for vegan eaters for a sense of support and camaraderie, Weisenberger suggests. Finding like-minded people is helpful.

“Veganize” your favorite foods.

It can be easy to make a vegan version of your favorite meal, Palmer says. For instance, if you love lasagna, you can prepare your version of this dish by leaving out the meat and subbing in lots of vegetables, like eggplant, spinach, summer squash and zucchini.

Keep in mind, most your meal should consist of beans, lentils, peas, whole grains like brown rice and a variety of vegetables. For lasagna, you could use either traditional pasta or pulse-based based versions. Palmer notes that individuals can find many vegan recipes and dish ideas online, including on her website.

Remember that vegan does not equal healthy.

A diet being “vegan” doesn’t make it good or bad. A vegan diet can consist entirely of soda and cotton candy, says Dr. David Katz, former director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Connecticut, and one of U.S. News’ Best Diets expert panelists. As with any diet, it’s important to make sure your eating regimen is balanced and varied, and that you make good choices as to which vegan foods you consume.

Like any diet, even if it’s strictly plant-based, issues of balance, variety and food choice remain crucial.

Consider consulting with a registered dietitian with an expertise in plant-based eating

If you’re starting a vegan diet it would be helpful to meet with a registered dietitian who knows about vegan diets, Palmer says. “They can help create a meal plan that works for you so can meet all of your nutritional needs,” she says. Don’t assume that all registered dietitians are familiar with vegan diets. Check the websites of registered dietitians and talk to them about their familiarity with vegan diets.

More from U.S. News

Try These Vegan Potluck Ideas

14 Tips From Real People on the Vegan Diet

Vegan Breakfast Ideas

How You Can Ease Into a Vegan Diet originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 11/17/22: The story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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