Coincidentally, two of my friends approached me this week about healthy eating, so this blog post is for them and for anyone else wanting to lead a healthier life style by adopting a plant-based diet. I changed my diet drastically to vegan overnight as a New Years resolution in 2010. This worked for me but most people prefer gradual changes to a healthier diet. I've outlined some steps to becoming a nutritarian , on which the premise is that you use food for fuel for your body. Crappy food = crappy body (both inside and out).
First of all, being healthy isn't about just losing weight. Your outside appearance, like fat around your midsection, is just an indicator of how bad things are going on the inside. Your main goal for changing your diet should be to get healthier and prevent diseases like diabetes and heart disease, not just to lose weight.
Second of all, I'm not a doctor nor a dietician/nutritionist so these steps are just my own opinion from my own experiences and from my research. I strongly believe that we don't actually know what the ideal diet is for humans. However, I do believe that we should strive to eat like we evolved to eat. Our early ancestors were omnivores with more plants than meat, read my post on this topic.
So, here are the steps! The timeline to get through them is up to you :)
1. Eliminate fast food and limit eating out. I bring my own lunch to work and if I don't, then I try to eat from the salad/soup bar in our cafeteria. I only go out to eat once or twice on the weekend. You never know exactly what's in a meal at a restaurant so the best way to be healthy is to make your own food from scratch. It takes more time and effort (although you can easily spend and hour at a restaurant) but it will save you money!
2. Eliminate sugar and refined carbs. Read my post on why sugar is toxic for your body. Unfortunately, added sugar is everywhere, from cereal, to ketchup, to drinks. I don't by anything that has added sugar or high fructose corn syrup in it. Also beware of sugar substitutes, like diet soda. These substances trick your body into thinking that you're getting sugar and therefore calories, but you don't get the calories so your body actually ends up craving more. Refined carbs are basically anything that's white: white bread, white flour, white rice, white pasta, etc. These foods have been stripped of their nutrients and affect your body in the same way as sugar (empty calories). Instead, eat whole grain bread and pasta and brown rice. The next step of limiting processed foods will make avoiding sugar and refined carbs.
3. Limit processed foods. Your goal should be to cook everything from scratch. No boxed or frozen meals. Yes, this is going to take more time, but you'll know exactly what's going into your food. Some things I do buy in a box/bag/can, like beans and rice. ALWAYS read the label of anything you buy. The labels on the front of a box are not regulated, "natural," "low-fat," "low calorie," don't mean anything. A good rule of thumb is that if you don't understand an ingredient on the list, then its bad. The ingredients are also listed in order of the largest quantity. For example, many times, bread labeled "whole grain" actually has "bleached flour" as the first or second ingredient.
4. Cut out dairy. I think that cutting out dairy from your diet is even more important than cutting out meat. Animals (including humans) are not meant to eat the milk of another species! The purpose of milk is also to turn a baby mammal into an adult mammal. The milk, yogurt, and cheese that you're eating is meant to turn a baby calf into a huge cow. Whether you think you're lactose intolerant or not, you are as a human. The theory is that some cultures (like Americans) have developed a better resistance to cow's milk because of consuming it over past generations. Unlike Asians who do not traditionally consume much milk and tend to be more lactose intolerant. Therefore, milk is an unnatural thing to put in your body and you'll be amazed at how good you feel once you cut out dairy. P.S. The "fact" that you need to drink milk to get calcium is propaganda from the American Dairy Association. Vegetables, and especially leafy greens like spinach and kale, have more than enough calcium.
5. Limit eating animals. Along with cutting out diary, not eating meat is going to be the hardest part of this process because you've been eating it your entire life. You parents and our society told you that you have to eat meat and dairy to be healthy and "get all of your nutrients." The truth is, you can get all of these nutrients from plants. Usually you think of a meal as the protein or meat the main event of the meal with sides of vegetables and starches. You have to rethink the way you look at meals and put much more emphasis on the plants. Preparing plant-based meals is going to be new to you so you should look up recipes online or buy cookbooks (I listed some websites and cookbooks below). A good way to start is to eat one vegan meal a day (like lunch) or a couple vegan meals a week, and gradually increase the number of vegan meals until you're only eating meat once a week or less. To make your meals more filling, use things like beans, brown rice, quinoa, and sweet potatoes. And, contrary to popular belief, plants have protein! Remember how Popeye ate spinach to gain strength? Gorillas, chimps, and our other monkey ancestors are mainly vegetarian and they have plenty of muscle. I'm able to get stronger and faster in my training on a plant-based diet. Plus, animal protein will increase your bad cholesterol and your risk factor for certain diseases like heart disease and cancer.
6. Add plants! All of the above steps say "limit" or "cut out" so you may be thinking, what am I supposed to eat? You have to add more vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and (healthy) grains to your diet. Have you every walked through the veggie section? There are tons of fruits and vegetables to choose from! Don't be afraid to try new things and revisit some vegetables that you thought you hated.
The process to drastically changing your diet is going to be hard. Your body is going to feel weird through the changes, you will feel hungry, and you will get push back from your family and friends and maybe even your doctor. You will have to fight urges when your friends eat pizza and you will cave in sometimes. I still struggle with all of this which is why I allow myself to eat a cheat meal with fish or eggs or sugar once every 1-2 weeks or so. Here are some more tips
Keep a journal of what you eat. This helps you look back and see that you're not actually eating as healthy as you thought you were.
Think of this as a healthy lifestyle and not a diet where you're limiting yourself. Say things like "I don't eat that" instead of "I can't eat that." You can eat whatever you want, but you choose to eat healthier.
You're going to come across a lot of ingredients that you haven't heard of before. They are available at natural food stores, the natural section of your grocery store, and online. I'm going to write another post about some of the essentials that I have in my kitchen.
Buy cookbooks and look up healthy vegan recipes online because you're going to want to make meals by replacing real meat with fake meat found in the frozen isle. I only eat "mock meats" (like frozen veggie burgers) occasionally. They should not be the cornerstone of your diet. The recipe list on my blog is growing and I also post recipes on Pinterest .
Be active! Run, walk, lift weights, play sports, I don't care what you do just don't sit all day. Signing up for races is what helps me stay in shape. It give me a fitness goal to work towards. CrossFit class is also a social thing for me. Find out what motivates you to stay active.
A food processor and mini-blender make it easier to make a lot of vegan recipes. I use the blender and take it to-go for my morning smoothie and the food processor to make my own veggie burgers, for example.
Your initial investment for changing your diet is going to cost some money with buying utensils or things you don't have in your pantry. Over time, a plant-based diet is cheaper than one with meat and dairy. It becomes more expensive if you buy things like vegan cheese or meat substitutes. However, you can look at it as saving a lot of money over time if you consider the medical costs you could have from preventable diseases like diabetes and heart disease.
Get a physical (with blood work) after you've been eating plant-based for a while and see how much things like your cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure have changed since your last physical.
Resources The best way to solidify your goals to be more healthy is to do the research yourself. Here are some things that I've watched and read that have really helped me
Forks over Knives is an excellent documentary on why you should eat a plant-based diet (its available instantly on Netflix). The book The China Study is quoted in the documentary and has much more technical detail.
If you're going to buy just one book, you need to read The Engine 2 Diet . It's also quoted in Forks over Knives but formulates the information into a diet. The website also has a lot of information, including recipes and a 28-day program.
Not all vegan recipes online are healthy. Happy Herbivore is a great cookbook with easy recipes. The website also has recipes and meal plans.
If you're a recreational athlete like me, then I highly suggest reading Thrive and checking out the Vega website for great products (that I use) and another 30-day program.