CLEVELAND, Ohio – You might’ve heard of people going vegan for the month of January, which could seem a little daunting. But with some planning, it can be an exciting endeavor to try new foods and perhaps a foray into a plant-based lifestyle.
“Veganuary” is a UK-based nonprofit that started in 2014 to encourage people to try a vegan or plant-based diet for the month of January. Such diets exclude animal products, including meat, fish, eggs, dairy, whey, honey and gelatin.
According to its website, more than 500,000 people signed Veganuary’s pledge to participate in January 2021 – 40% of whom indicated that they planned to remain vegan afterward.
People opt for a plant-based lifestyle for a variety of ethical reasons, like the harming and killing of animals, the role animal agriculture plays in pandemic outbreaks, the conditions for workers in such industries or the effect on the climate. Or, they may seek to eat a more nutritious diet by decreasing their consumption of animal products, which typically have more calories and saturated fat than whole plant foods – so, a vegan diet could help one achieve a New Year’s resolution of weight loss.
Whatever the motivation, switching from a standard American diet to a vegan one can be difficult in a society where the frequent consumption of animal products is normalized. Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer has compiled 6 transition tips offered by Dr. Natasha Koren, a bariatric medicine specialist with Summa Health, and registered- and licensed-dietician Julia Zumpano with the Cleveland Clinic.
1. Ease into the transition.
You might want to go all-in and immediately go 100% plant-based for the month. While that could be effective in achieving your goals, it could also cause you to crash and burn.
“All-or-nothing is not exactly a good approach for success,” Koren said. “Most people don’t keep a diet for longer than 20 weeks.”
“If it’s something that you may want to instill more than a month, I would suggest going more of a transitional period,” Zumpano said. “I would generally start with one or two meatless meals a week, but if you’re looking to speed up the process, just do it for the month.”
Zumpano also suggested going plant-based Monday through Friday, so you can have flexibility on the weekends – especially since “going fully plant-based can become a social challenge for people, when they’re eating out or gathering at someone else’s home,” she added.
And if there’s a non-vegan food that you feel like you can’t give up, then consider incorporating that into a flexible approach. For instance, if you’ve ever said, “I could go vegan, except for cheese,” then you can eliminate all animal products from your diet except cheese. Don’t get hung up on labeling yourself as a vegan immediately, but rather, take the baby steps that will help you get there.
2. List vegan foods you already like.
“Start with your preferences,” Koren encourages. What are your favorite fruits? Which vegetables do you prefer as a side dish?
As far as your favorite meals that include animal products, can they be “veganized?” Try searching the internet for “easy” or “quick” vegan versions of traditionally animal-based dishes. Also, the availability of vegan alternatives for various meats, milk, butter, cheese and eggs has grown exponentially in recent years, making it easy to swap out ingredients.
Additionally, dozens of popular packaged foods are “accidentally” vegan, including Oreos, Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos, Fritos, a variety of potato chips and most crackers including Ritz, Triscuits and Wheat Thins.
Although, for health reasons, Koren and Zumpano encourage people to limit their intake of processed foods and to instead focus on whole foods.
3. Don’t stress over small amounts.
As you start reading ingredients, you’ll likely be astounded by how common it is for very small amounts of animal products, especially milk or milk powder, to be in foods that you wouldn’t expect – so much so, it has even become a meme among vegans on the internet.
You might discover that some of the foods you have at home, such as your favorite bread, might contain a small amount of milk. Your favorite cereal might be fortified with Vitamin D, which is typically made from lanolin, which comes from sheep’s wool. The jar of peanuts in your pantry might contain gelatin. And you might be troubled to know that most white sugars are typically refined using animal bone char.
Eliminating each and every trace of animal products from your diet can begin to feel overwhelming. But instead of going through the stressful and expensive process of cleaning out all your cupboards and stocking up with certified vegan foods, try shifting your focus. By forgoing meat, fish, milk, dairy products and eggs, you’re doing the majority of the legwork of being vegan. If you stick with a plant-based diet long-term, you can learn about which products have trace ingredients and avoid them, but it’s not something to hyperfocus on in the beginning.
4. Consider nutritional concerns.
Koren and Zumpano each identified several nutrients that can be harder to obtain on a plant-based diet. If you only stick to the diet for a month, Zumpano said, it is unlikely that you’ll develop deficiencies in that time. But if you commit to it long-term, you might want to plan your meals and take supplements to ensure you’re consuming the recommended daily amounts.
“You want to plan a source of plant-based protein at every meal,” Zumpano said. Someone who eats meat could eat one or two larger pieces of meat throughout the day to adequately meet their protein needs. “But when you’re having plant-based protein, you do have to eat a larger volume to get in the amount you need, so it has to be properly spread out throughout the day.”
High-protein vegan foods include beans, legumes, tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk, hemp seeds, chia seeds, nuts, peas, grains, rice and most mock meats.
Since it’s only found in animal products, vegans must consume Vitamin B12 through fortified foods or supplements. Koren says a 500 microgram supplement once a week is usually sufficient. Foods fortified with B12 may include plant milks, cereals and nutritional yeast, which is a “cheesy” powder popular among vegans.
“I encourage [nutritional yeast] as a seasoning for vegans because it’s fortified with other B vitamins – you get more than just the B12 – and it’s a nice cheese alternative,” Zumpano said. “You get other vitamins and minerals from it, and it’s also a source of protein, [and] it’s very low in sodium and fat.”
“I don’t think I would segregate a plant-based diet as being more likely deficient in Vitamin D,” Zumpano said. “I think, in general, the American population is deficient in Vitamin D.”
In addition to getting Vitamin D from direct sunlight – which is not preferred, since sun exposure can lead to skin damage or skin cancer – it is present in fortified plant milks and some wild mushrooms, Koren said.
Many plant milks and some blocks of tofu are fortified with calcium. Tahini is high in calcium, along with some dark leafy greens – but you would have to eat a large volume of them to reach the daily recommendations.
Iron, which Koren said is especially a concern for women, can be found in dried beans, peas, lentils, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds and fortified grains.
Since the iron in plant foods is “non-heme” – as opposed to the heme iron in meat – Koren recommends eating them alongside foods rich in Vitamin C, such as bell peppers or citrus fruits, to increase absorption.
Zinc is found in beans, whole grains, wheat germ and fortified cereals, Zumpano said.
Omega-3 fatty acids, commonly associated with fish, can be found in chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds and walnuts.
While vegans might be concerned about consuming sufficient amounts of the aforementioned nutrients, they might want to be mindful they don’t eat too much fiber. A person on the standard American diet consumes about 10 to 15 grams of fiber per day, which is below the recommended daily amount of 25 to 30 grams. Vegans, on the other hand, average about 46 grams of fiber a day, according to a 2013 study.
“Going from 10 to 40 [grams per day] is a really big change, and you’re going to have a lot of GI (gastrointestinal) effects from that,” Zumpano said. “Some people do great; some people, it does affect their guts significantly. Most people would know their body’s response to things. If you’ve responded to a high-fiber meal in the past pretty aggressively, then you want to be cautious on how you increase your fiber intake.”
During the holidays, people tend to have especially low fiber intake, Zumpano added. So, it might be worth taking a fiber supplement in the days and weeks leading up to transitioning to a plant-based diet at the beginning of the new year. You could also eat mock meats, which are typically lower in fiber than whole protein sources, such as beans.
5. Plan your meals.
The American Dietetic Association states that “appropriately planned” vegan diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate and can provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. But the operative phrase is “appropriately planned.”
It might be helpful to track your meals or calculate their nutritive makeup in advance by using a food-logging website or app, such as Cronometer or MyFitnessPal. Such tools can allow you to gauge whether you’re eating too much or too little of certain foods, and adjust accordingly.
Planning meals in advance can also make eating more convenient, and thus, make it easier to stick to a plant-based lifestyle.
“Frequently, people simply don’t have time to cook every day,” Koren said, recommending that people try batch cooking or meal prepping once a week or every few days.
6. Have fun!
A plant-based diet is inherently restrictive – it excludes entire food groups. But it doesn’t have to feel restrictive. There are certainly fruits, vegetables and other plant foods that you haven’t tried. Your next favorite food might be pasta with nutritional yeast sprinkled on top, buffalo tempeh wings or jackfruit tacos.
There might be new-to-you vegan dishes that would be fun to cook at home, or that you can order from a local restaurant. Cleveland.com has a list of some of Cleveland’s best vegan-friendly restaurants.
“Try to have fun with it, and have a positive attitude,” Zumpano said.