By Kyle Wheeler, MS, NASM-CPT, Certified Wellness Coach and Fitness Coordinator
The concept is becoming more and more familiar: People are going “vegan” and changing the way they cook, order food, and eat. Is this just a trend, or is it a new lifestyle that’s here to stay? Here, we clear up confusion about what being vegan is and whether it’s for you.
First: What is a vegan diet?
Overall, a vegan diet is a subset of a vegetarian diet. A vegetarian diet involves eating mainly fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grain. But while vegetarians do not eat animal meat, such as chicken, beef, pork, and lamb, vegans also do not eat anything that comes from animals, including dairy, eggs, and certain food products.
People opt for vegan diets for many different reasons – doctor’s orders, grocery costs, environment, animal welfare. But my approach is simply about health and well-being.
It is not as much about giving up “bad” meat products. I like to point out that you can be a vegan and still drink soda and eat potato chips all day, but that’s not necessarily healthy. Rather, being a vegan is about seeking out plant-based nutrition and benefiting from the nutrients, minerals, and properties of plant-based foods, which have been found to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, improve blood sugar, reduce the risk of cancer, and promote weight loss.
Second: Is it right for you?
Despite the health benefits, becoming a vegan is a big decision, and it’s not for everyone. There are many ways to optimize your health, and a vegan diet is just one pathway. Knowing this, it’s important to be realistic about what you want to do and what you’re willing to do. If you naturally crave fruits, vegetables, seeds, grains, soy, and beans, a vegan diet may easily agree with you. If you can’t imagine life without a hamburger, the diet probably isn’t a good fit. And that’s fine. The point is to do what you enjoy – that way you’ll be more apt to stick with it.
Third: How do you do it?
From cooking dinner, to ordering at restaurants, being a vegan does seem challenging. The good news is that there are ways to make the transition to a vegan lifestyle easier:
Start gradually. People who go “cold turkey” (pardon the pun) are not usually successful.
Changing overnight is hard to sustain for the long-term. It’s better to make a gradual transition.
For example, aim to incorporate one plant-based meal into your typical rotation. It could be once a week or once a month, depending on how you typically plan meals. At the end of a year, you’ll have 12 plant-based meals – and 12 fewer meat-based meals – in your diet.
Also, gradually eliminate items from your life and bring new ones in. For example, if you normally have a cup of cheese, cut the amount in half. Then the next time, cut that amount in half. Or gradually replace foods with non-animal products. If you have a glass a milk, try a combination of one half dairy milk and one half almond milk. Slowly switch the proportions until you’re only drinking the almond milk.
Make plants an easy choice. Stock up on fruits and veggies and have them handy for quick grabbing. At a family meal, fill your plate with more of the sides and less of the main dish. Choose vegetarian options at restaurants.
Finally, be open and prepared. Find different ways to cook and explore options in the kitchen. Understand that new findings about food are always being discovered, so don’t be afraid to change as the research changes. Talk with other vegans and form your own opinions. And, understand that experimentation, research, label-reading, and commitment will be needed. You will have to take the first step, find a reason, and stick with it.
Going vegan brings many health benefits, and it’s been known to restore energy, improve mental clarity, and just make people feel better. But keep in mind: Just because it’s a great choice for many people, it’s not necessarily a good fit for everyone. The important thing is to eat healthy and do what’s right for you. For more advice, contact the fitness and nutrition experts at your YMCA.