The best part is that you don’t have to cut meat cold-turkey.
If you’ve ever thought about trying veganism (in which you consume only plant based foods), you’ve probably also thought about how hard it would be. How do you keep it interesting? How do you explain the change to your friends and family? How do you not crave cheese…All. The. Time?
It’s true, going vegan sounds like a great (and easy) idea in theory, until you try to put the whole thing in practice. That’s where we come in. With the help of top nutritionists, we’ve put together a 4-week, step-by-step plan that will take you–gradually–from meat eater to full-blown vegan.
Week 1: Start with Vegan Lunches
Here’s the science: Is being a vegan a worthy goal? The science says YES. Research shows that people who follow a vegan diet typically have a lower risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, lower body mass index (BMI), and a decreased risk of cancer.
In fact, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a greater consumption of plant-based protein (vs. animal protein) plays a role in supporting a longer, healthier life (and can help prevent death from cardiovascular disease, the leading killer of Americans, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
Move-the Needle Monday: To ease into vegan life, start with a meatless midday meal first (and don’t worry about going 100% plant-based just yet for breakfast, dinner, and snacks). If you’re headed to work or school first thing in the morning, you’ll have time to plan and pack your vegan lunch the night before. If you’re working from home, take a real lunch break with a plant-based meal that’s easy to prepare.
Brandy Leno, a nutritionist and culinary specialist for the Howard County Office on Aging in Columbia, MD, suggests making a soup that you can go to all week long. “My favorite vegan lunch recipe is a curry made with chickpeas, potatoes, roasted cauliflower, and finished with some coconut milk, lime, and cilantro. Any soup in general is a creative way to get a balance of carbs, fats, and protein all in one pot!” Leno adds.
The plan: You don’t have to go soup-to-nuts if you’re more of a sandwich-eater. Just swap out your lunchmeat for vegan cheese, a veggie burger, or a powerhouse sandwich filled with hummus, sprouts, tomato, and lettuce. Need more protein? Trade in your turkey sandwich for this protein-packed salad:
Spring Onion and Herb Chickpea Salad
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 Tbsp. avocado oil mayo
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
1/3 cup spring onions
1/4 cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper, to taste
Mash beans in a large bowl with a fork and add remaining ingredients. Mash together and serve open-faced on toast or as sandwich filling.
Top tip: Need some variety from soup and sandwiches? Make a nutritious and delicious entrée salad topped with beans, nuts, tofu, and seeds to get your protein fill, then add some fruit and veggies to the mix.
Week 2: Time to Add to Breakfast, Too!
Here’s the science: Eggs, bacon, and sausage are breakfast mainstays and a staple of popular low-carb diets. But Amy Allen-Chabot, Ph.D., a registered dietician and professor of nutrition at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, MD, warns that a diet rich in animal products is also high in saturated fat, which can be harmful to your health. “Vegetarian diets have been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels, especially low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. This is important since cardiovascular disease is the number-one cause of death in the U.S.,” Allen-Chabot says.
Move-the Needle Monday: While you’re at the grocery store searching for vegan-friendly goods, shop the outer aisles for fresh produce, and if you do venture to the inner aisles to buy pre-packaged products, be sure to check the labels. Just because a product is labeled as “vegan” doesn’t mean it’s better for you. Pay close attention to the list of ingredients, since many frozen breakfast foods can be loaded with preservatives. But don’t fret! Preparing a fresh and healthy breakfast can be easy with just a few simple ingredients—and a little planning.
The plan: Looking for something other than boring cereal and toast? This protein and calcium-packed recipe takes just minutes to assemble and can be made the night before for a quick and healthy vegan breakfast:
Pumpkin Pie Overnight Oats
Mix dry ingredients (oats, chia seeds, pie spice, and salt) together into a bowl.
Add wet ingredients (yogurt, milk, pumpkin, maple syrup, and vanilla) into the bowl and stir until well combined.
Pour the oat mixture into two individual serving containers, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the fridge. Let cool and set in the fridge for at least two hours or overnight.
Top tip: Want a non-dairy alternative that actually tastes great in your morning coffee, tea, or breakfast cereal? If you like a nutty flavor, try almond or soy milk in your cuppa Joe or bowl of raisin bran. Prefer a plain taste? Opt for oat, rice, hemp, or unsweetened coconut milk.
And just like that, you’ve moved the needle and made it through week two of our May Dream Big Challenge. You might be a bit sore, and you might still have a hankering for bacon. But hopefully, you’re also a bit more centered and less stressed, too. All in all, you deserve a pat on the back for committing to the program. Upward and onward … week three, here we come!
Week 3: You’re Ready for the Main Meal
Here’s the science: You probably know that regularly swapping out steak for a plant-based protein can reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, and even early death, according to Harvard Health. But are you worried you can’t meet your protein needs without meat? “The key is to eat a variety of foods from vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains,” says Amy Allen-Chabot, Ph.D., a registered dietician and professor of nutrition at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, MD.
Ryan Andrews, a registered dietitian and adjunct instructor at the State University of New York in Purchase, agrees, offering this advice: “Build your diet around a variety of plant foods, and eat at least one cup of cooked legumes each day.”
Move-the Needle Monday: Going vegan does take some big-picture consideration. Focus on how best to meet your protein, calcium, and iron needs through plant-based foods. Eating a variety of foods like soy, nuts, whole grains, seeds, beans, and vegetables will ensure that all essential amino acids are present to make complete proteins, says Andrews.
Include calcium-rich leafy greens (like kale and collard greens), as well as broccoli and bok choy. Plant-based milk alternatives are fortified with calcium and often contain more calcium than cow’s milk. Tofu made with calcium sulfate is also an excellent source of calcium.
To up your iron intake, include enriched grains, legumes, dried fruits, and leafy greens. To enhance iron absorption from plant sources, regularly consume vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits, strawberries, peppers of every color, and tomatoes to maximize your body’s iron absorption.
The plan: Stuck on how to build a balanced vegan dinner? Andrews offers this advice: “Finding some go-to dinner options is one of the most important things you can do.” He suggests the following easy-to-make supper staples:
Tempeh tacos, using crumbled tempeh simmered with taco seasoning, then loaded on a tortilla of your choice and topped with avocado, tomatoes, olives, lettuce, and salsa.
A loaded potato, which is basically the baked potato of your choice topped with spiced lentils, braised greens, and hemp seeds—yum!
How about a falafel bowl, which is rice or millet and falafel topped with hummus, hot sauce, roasted mushrooms, and a tahini sauce? Any of these options is filling enough to be your main meal.
Top tip: Do vegans need vitamin supplements? Possibly. “It can be difficult to attain all of the nutrients we need from food alone. If you are committing to veganism for the long-term, it’s wise to introduce a vitamin B12 supplement. Request lab work from your doctor to assess if other supplements are needed,” Andrews advises.
Week 4: Go for a Full Week of Vegan Eating!
Here’s the science: If you’re looking to lose weight and keep it off, adopting a long-term vegan diet might be the way to go. A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that a low-fat vegan diet had better outcomes for weight loss, body composition, insulin sensitivity, and cholesterol levels when compared to the Mediterranean diet—another reason to go vegan not just for a week, but potentially for always.
Move-the Needle Monday: What if you feel, well, deprived eating plants alone? “Cravings can certainly be hard to beat,” admits Brandy Leno, a nutritionist and culinary specialist for the Howard County Office on Aging in Maryland. “In my experience, the longer I ignore a craving, the more likely I am to want to binge on that food later.”
Fortunately, Leno points out, with things like dairy-free ice cream and plant-based “meat” products, it’s easier than ever to find a vegan solution to those cravings. “Make sure you’re not just hungry,” she advises. “Cravings can come more frequently or feel more powerful if you don’t eat enough throughout the day.” If the craving persists, it’s OK to give in once in a while. “Go out and order a small serving of what you’re craving or make something at home and share most of it with friends, family, or neighbors so that you’re not stuck with leftovers,” she says.
The plan: Looking for a healthy vegan snack? “I like whole grain crackers with bean dip as a light lunch or snack,” says Amy Allen-Chabot, Ph.D., a registered dietician and professor of nutrition at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, MD. Baked chips with salsa or guacamole can also be satisfying, she adds. Have a sweet craving? Try dairy-free ice cream, pudding, or yogurt made from milk alternatives, or bake some homemade vegan brownies.
Top tip: What happens if you fall off the wagon, or don’t want to give up your weekly burger night? Or maybe you’ve tried the vegan experiment and realized you’re just not ready to completely give up meat? Here’s the good news: Research shows that replacing only 3% of animal protein sources with plant protein was associated with 10% lower overall mortality in both men and women—so even making a few plant-based substitutions in your diet can help you achieve better long-term health.
Plant Protein and Mortality Risk: Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine. (2020.) “Association Between Plant and Animal Protein Intake and Overall and Cause-Specific Mortality.” https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865
Plant-Based Diets and Cardiovascular Disease Risk: Journal of the American Heart Association. (2019.) “Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults.” https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865
Vegan Diets and Health Outcomes: Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. (2017.) “Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies.” https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447
Vegan Diets and Type 2 Diabetes Risk: Nutrients. (2018.) “Insulin Resistance in Overweight Adults: A 16-Week Randomized Clinical Trial.” http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/10/2/189/htm