There are many reasons to consider starting a vegan diet, whether for health reasons, ethical or environmental considerations, or all of the above. Most of us would benefit from a more plant-based eating style at least some of the time. Plant-based foods are packed with vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, which is great for your heart health, digestive health, immune health, and maintaining a healthy weight. Following a plant-based diet has been linked with healthier blood pressure and blood sugar levels and a reduced risk of heart health issues.1,2,3
But if you’ve never followed a vegan diet before, it can feel daunting. You’ll be giving up familiar foods and eating more unfamiliar ones. You may be eating differently from your family and friends. Plus, you have to be more conscious about meeting your nutritional needs on a vegan diet. If you’re vegan-curious, but you’re not sure where to start, here are some helpful tips for starting a vegan diet.
1. Prepare Ahead
If you’re used to planning your meals around meat, vegan food prep is going to feel pretty different at first. Give yourself the time and tools you need to figure it out. Do your research on how to prepare balanced and nourishing vegan meals. Look up a few good starter recipes and stock up on ingredients. You may want to start with a simple formula, like wraps or grain bowls. Give yourself more time than usual to cook. Don’t stress yourself out if it takes a little time to get the hang of it.
2. Start Gradually
It takes a variety of plant-based foods to get the right nutritional balance in a vegan diet. This means you are going to be adding new foods to your diet, not just subtracting foods. You can make the transition to veganism easier by starting to add more of these plant-based foods to your diet before you start subtracting the meat and dairy. Get used to eating more legumes, whole grains, vegetables, and soy, and making them the star of the meal. Start leaving the meat out, then the dairy and eggs. Eventually, you won’t miss them.
3. Know Your Plant Proteins
You’ll need to replace the meat and dairy in your diet with other, plant-based sources of protein. Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle, managing your blood sugar, and satisfying your appetite. If you don’t get enough protein you are more likely to feel hungry on your new vegan diet. On the other hand, vegan protein is surprisingly filling and will leave you feeling satisfied. Some of the most popular plant-based proteins include tofu and soy, beans and chickpeas, whole grains like oats and quinoa, and nuts and nut butters. Be sure to vary your protein sources to get the full range of amino acids. Plant protein powders are also a great way to get an instant vegan protein boost.
4. Don’t Rely on Processed Foods
Vegan meat and dairy alternatives like vegan burgers, hot dogs, sausages, cheeses, and ice creams can be a great crutch when you’re missing your favorite old foods. Some of them are also delicious. But these foods may also be highly processed and may include excess sugar, salt, oil, and other not-so-healthy ingredients to improve the taste. In other words, just because a food is vegan, it doesn’t make it healthy. These foods are fine on occasion, of course, just don’t rely too heavily on them.
5. Go For Variety
The best way to cover your nutritional bases on a vegan diet is to eat a variety of plant-based foods. If you get stuck on one grain, one protein, or one favorite vegetable, you’ll not only be limiting yourself to a pretty boring diet, you’ll probably be missing out on important nutrients. Experiment with different beans and lentils. Alternate rice with quinoa, farro, and whole grain pastas. Eat veggies in a rainbow of colors to get a broad spectrum of nutrients and antioxidants. Try different plant-milks such as soymilk, almondmilk, oatmilk, and others. You’ll be developing your palate and discovering new favorites along the way.
6. Keep on Eye on Certain Nutrients
Certain nutrients are harder to get on a vegan diet. Some, like iron and calcium, are plentiful in plant foods, but can be more difficult to absorb in this form, so you have to eat more of these foods to get enough. Others, like vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 EPA/DHA, are near impossible to find in plant-based foods, unless they have been added in. Look for plant milks, cereals, juices, and breads that have been fortified with vitamins and minerals such as B12, iron, calcium, and vitamin D. You may also want to consider taking some vegan supplements. Some of the top supplements for vegans include Vegan B12, Vegan D3, Vegan Iron, and Vegan DHA.
7. Learn to Read Labels
Some foods contain animal products where you might not expect them. Learn to check ingredient labels to avoid common animal-based ingredients like butter, honey, eggs, fish sauce, lactose, gelatin, collagen, and whey protein, as well as less recognized animal products like rennet, casein, and pepsin. You can find complete lists of non-vegan ingredients to be aware of online. You can also keep an eye out for vegan certifications on the label, such as “Certified Vegan” or “suitable for vegans.”
8. Don’t Demand Perfection
Have reasonable expectations for yourself. If this is your first time eating vegan, you may not be prepared for every situation. You may accidentally eat something animal-based, or find yourself in an environment where it’s harder to stick to your diet. Or you may simply be tempted to “cheat” now and then. Don’t be too hard on yourself, just do the best you can. Change is hard, and perfection is the enemy of progress. If you stick with it, eventually your vegan diet will feel so natural, you won’t have to work at it anymore.
1. Yokoyama Y, Nishimura K, Barnard ND, Takegami M, Watanabe M, Sekikawa A, Okamura T, Miyamoto Y. Vegetarian diets and blood pressure: a meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Apr;174(4):577-87. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.14547. PMID: 24566947.
2. McMacken M, Shah S. A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. J Geriatr Cardiol. 2017 May;14(5):342-354. doi: 10.11909/j.issn.1671-5411.2017.05.009. PMID: 28630614; PMCID: PMC5466941.
3. Hyunju Kim, Laura E. Caulfield, Vanessa Garcia‐Larsen, Lyn M. Steffen, Josef Coresh and Casey M. Rebholz. 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. Journal of the American Heart Association, Vol. 8, No. 16, 2019;8:e012865. Originally published7 Aug 2019. https://doi.org/10.1161/JAHA.119.012865