Whatever your own personal reason is for wanting to give up or reduce consumption of animal products, many people feel daunted by the change and fear they will starve to death or die of some terrible affliction of malnutrition. While going veg in a city like New York or San Francisco, towns where vegan restaurants, organic food co-ops, and vegan meet-ups are common, going veg in Mobile, or anywhere in the deep south, is a bit more challenging. The good news is that incorporating plant-based foods into the diet or even going entirely vegan is not nearly as difficult as it may seem. It does require a shift in perception. It calls on us to drop habits that have been with us for decades, but we are not bound by our habits. Humans have an amazing capacity to adapt and change, if only we can believe that about ourselves. We can be the people we want to be. We really can.
Transitioning to a plant-based diet does not have to be painful, nor does it have to be all-or-nothing. The decision to go vegetarian or vegan is a deeply personal one. So go at your own pace. Educate yourself, and be honest about what you learn. If it’s too much to give up the steak altogether, or the cheese, or whatever that last hold-out is, ok, so be it. Give it up little by little. Go meat free one day a week to start, then two days, etc. The more you can reduce your consumption of animal products, the better, for everyone involved. As they say, progress, not perfection.
One of the biggest barriers to adopting a plant-based diet is the misconception that a vegan diet is lacking in essential nutrients or adequate protein levels. Not true. According to the American Dietetic Association, in addition to all the leading world health organizations, a properly planned vegan diet can provide all nutritional needs at all stages of the life cycle, from infancy, through pregnancy, and into old age.
Vegan athletes such as Mac Danzig, mixed martial arts champion; Arian Foster, running back for the Houston Texans; Tony Gonzalez, 6′ 5”, 246 lb. NFL tight end for the Atlanta Falcons; and Scott Jurek, two-time winner of the Badwater Ultramarathon (toughest extreme sport marathon on earth) demonstrate the sufficiency of a vegan diet under even the most demanding physical conditions.
While much of the world’s population does struggle to obtain enough food, including protein, that is not the case for most Americans, who tend to consume too much protein. Excess protein in the diet has been linked to osteoporosis, kidney disease, calcium stones in the urinary tract, and some cancers. A vegan diet can easily provide an optimal amount of protein, with a variety of protein sources including beans, nuts, seeds, unrefined grains, and vegetables. And despite another common misconception that vegetarian proteins are somehow incomplete or inferior to their animal-derived counterparts, there are plenty of vegan sources of protein, like soy beans, that contain all the essential amino acids, same as meat. But whereas meat, (red meat and grilled chicken in particular), has been linked in numerous studies to various forms of cancer and heart disease, soy products, in contrast, have been linked to the reduction of certain forms of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and diabetes.
So now that you know that you can give up meat and dairy without dying right away, here are 10 basic tips that should help to make the transition go smoothly:
1. Eat plants. Lots of them. The more the better. Eat a rainbow of plants every day. Eat whole-foods, i.e. foods that look the way Mother Nature made them.
2. Avoid processed or refined foods like the plague, especially hydrogenated oils.
3. All people, herbivores and carnivores alike, should eat a variety of foods to ensure adequate nutrition. If you are giving up all animal products entirely, you may want to consult with a dietician, or at least do some research. One good nutritional resource is www. pcrm.com. Strict vegans will need to take a B-12 supplement, and depending on sun exposure, may need to seek out a good source of Vitamin D, which can be synthesized by the body from sun light, but is not found in plant-based foods, unless they are fortified.
4. While there are not yet many veg friendly storefronts in Mobile, AL, there is an abundance of resources on the web, both for products and recipes. A couple favorites are: www.veganstore.com and www.veganessential.com
5. The basic elements of a healthy vegan diet should include varied protein sources (including seeds, nuts, beans), unrefined grains, vegetables, (especially dark leafy greens which are full of anti-oxidants and cancer fighting phytochemicals, besides being good sources of calcium), healthy oils (unsaturated oils and Omega-3s found in flax and hemp seeds), and fruits. Try to include something from each of these groups into your diet every day. For example, for dinner, try stir frying a variety of vegetables and tofu in canola or olive oil, and serving over whole grain rice or quinoa, followed by a bowl of cut fruit topped with soy yogurt (more calcium) for dessert.
6. Protein sources such as beans, seeds, nuts, and even tofu can be found in just about every major grocery store. Other specialty products that are high in protein include tempeh (tastes just like bacon when fried crisp in olive oil and a little soy sauce), and seitan (wheat gluten), which can be found nationally at Whole Foods, Fresh Market and many large chain supermarkets. Locally, look for tempeh at Whole Foods and Virginia's Health Foods and Fairhope Health Foods, and for seitan at Whole Foods, Virginia’s and Fairhaope foods.
7. While cooking for yourself will usually be the healthiest option, there is a plethora of new meat alternatives and vegan convenience foods on the market that are easy to prepare, healthy and yummy. Try anything by Gardein, Morningstar Farms Riblets, Smart Dogs, or Amy’s Garden veggie burgers, all available locally at most major grocery stores. When eating out, look for steamed vegetables, whole grains, and bean dishes. The best restaurants for vegans are usually ethnic restaurants or natural food stores. There are some good ones in Mobile too, like Fusion of Flavors on Airport Blvd. and Rice on Government and Yak Katmandu kitchen in Mobile and Fairhope. Mellow Mushroom has lots of great vegan options. And in a pinch, you can actually survive (though it’s not recommended) at fast-food restaurants by sticking with salads, baked potatoes, and vegetable soups. Chains like Moe’s Southwest Grill offer many inexpensive vegan options, and even Burger King has a vegan burger.
8. Giving up dairy seems to be the last frontier for most people. Maybe that’s because vegan cheeses have historically tasted and handled like Chinese plastic. Luckily, this is changing. There are many new vegan cheeses that melt, so you can still enjoy grilled cheese and pizza. Locally, Mellow Mushroom offers vegan pizza with delicious Daiya Cheese, which can also be purchased at Virginia’s. The new breed of nut based cheeses like those made by Kite Hill and Myoko's are so delicious they really have taken the martyrdom out of veganism.
9. Experiment with new foods and new preparations. Add more spices. Replace eggs with ground flax seeds. Use raw cashew cream to make dishes creamy. Discover the joys of Veganaise and Just Mayo (vegan mayonnaise).
10. Finally, this is really not that hard to do, and it gets exponentially easier with time. In short order, you should feel more energy; your digestive tract will work more efficiently; your waistline will begin to shrink. Furthermore, there is a real spiritual pleasure that arises when you eat compassionately and sustainably, and treat your body as a temple by filling it with pure, healthy foods.