So you’ve decided to give the whole foods plant based way of eating a try. Great job! Speaking from experience, in 1 week you’ll feel the benefits to your energy level, you’ll have normal bowel movements (perhaps for the first time in your life?), and you will feel noticeably GOOD. In 2 weeks you’ll have found favorite recipes and food prep will be easier. By 3 weeks you won’t even miss your previous “favorite” foods such as meat dishes, dairy, oils, or heavily processed foods. Your taste sensitivity will change dramatically. I experienced the new nirvana of lemon zest and juice, and by 3 weeks I could not believe the waxy mouthfeel that a drizzle of olive oil added (or should I say, “subtracted”) from a dish. Here are my top tips for your first 3 weeks of plant-based eating:
1. Lean in: Cut out Meat, then Processed Food, then Dairy
It might seem overwhelming to go “cold turkey” into a plant-based way of eating. I recommend “leaning in” to the change. Chances are you have already cut out or dramatically reduced one or more of the foods that you won’t be eating. On my family’s journey we had begun to be vegetarian by reducing meat over the course of many years. Then we began to reduce processed foods like artificial sweeteners and protein isolates. When both of those categories were removed from our menus we were left only with dairy.
2. Take the Small Financial Hit: Don’t be Attached to the Leftover Food
During our transition to a plant based diet by week three we had successfully abandoned all meat, processed foods, and most dairy, but we still had a couple of cartons of whole milk in the fridge. I was using it for my morning coffee a little at a time, and it was going slowly. I didn’t want to “waste” the milk or the money I had spent on it. Finally I realized that I liked the way I was starting to feel on a whole plant based diet, and that bit of dairy was standing in the way of me and full commitment to this way of eating. I bought some oil-free soy milk, chucked the cow’s milk and didn’t look back. Anyway they say “it’s no use crying over spilled milk” so no tears were shed. 🙂
3. Seek out Rich or Intense Flavors: Tofu and Vinegar
My husband and I both experienced a flavor revelation after a week of eating a whole foods plant-based diet. It’s no exaggeration to say that we were stunned by the delicious, crisp, and intense flavor of fresh whole foods. I remember preparing a simple salad with raw kale leaves, lemon zest and juice, and an avocado driven into the leaves with my hands. As I was making this simplest of meals I thought, “there is no way this will be good. No dressing? Nothing on the salad?” It was amazing. (Please try this recipe in your first week. Just like mine, your jaw will be on the floor!)
However, truth be told, hubby and I missed the quality of food that I would call “richness.” The fat content of the standard American omnivore diet is between 30-40%, even if red meat is cut out. The fat content of a typical whole foods plant-based diet is 7-13%. So it’s understandable why we missed the rich flavors and textures: gravy, creaminess, umami. I recommend choosing recipes in your first week that are “hot and heavy” such as plant-based macaroni and faux-cheese, pasta with “alfredo” sauce, plant-based apple smoked baked beans. It was also helpful during the transition phase to have bean and rice salads with intense vinegar flavor (such as black bean mango salad). These are filling, delicious, and satisfied our desire for “fat-like” and more intense flavors. I also recommend the use of small amount of tahini, peanut butter, almond butter, and avocado during the first three weeks. Nuts are calorie-dense plant food and there is some debate as to their use in a whole foods plant-based diet, but we found them to be very helpful in satisfying our desire for “richness” in recipes.
4. Center your Meals Around Starch: Potatoes, Beans, Corn, Whole Wheat
If you don’t do this, you WILL be hungry! Green leafy salads and dishes are great additions to a starch-based meal, but they simply do not have enough calories to keep you running. The amount of calories to run your basic bodily functions will not be met by cucumbers, lettuce, broccoli, kale, and radishes. We always have a batch of roasted seasoned potatoes or sweet potato fries ready to go in the refrigerator because they are easy to make and easy to eat on the go as snacks between meals, or even as a quick lunch. We eat whole grains like oatmeal, bulgur, or even quinoa for breakfast every day. We eat dishes like bean stew, bean burritos, whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce, mashed potatoes, and lentil dal with rice for dinner. These are the traditional comfort foods of many cultures for a reason; they are filling and naturally delicious (without the addition of animal fat).
5. Do Go All the Way
Sometimes I hear people say, “well, I’m convinced this plant-based way of eating is the healthiest and best diet. I’ll cut way back on [meat, dairy, oil, processed food] and eat them only in moderation.” This is certainly a step in the right direction! I think everyone who transitions to a whole foods plant-based diet finds themselves at this stage at one point. I recommend thinking of it as a waypoint on your journey though, not as an end. I’m convinced that “in moderation” is what we tell ourselves when we are doing something we know we should not be doing. Eating sugary dessert? It’s ok because it’s “in moderation.” The problem with moderation is that our perception of it is different than the reality. For example, everyone knows that the holiday season brings cookies, cakes, and treats. We consider it normal and “ok” to gain a few pounds over the holidays due to overeating and eating too many of these treats. After all, it’s the holidays, it’s not like we indulge all year ’round. Or do we? Let’s see how many excuses we can count: there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas day, at least one friend’s party for each as well as our own family gatherings. A New
Year’s Eve celebration, and what about birthdays? Then there are what I call “warm weather” celebrations: spring picnics, summer BBQs, not to mention the family gatherings for Independence Day, and anniversary celebrations. Then there are the “reward” days where we have a treat because we worked so hard during the week or because we have stuck to our “healthy” eating plan so faithfully. What about Sunday family gatherings that happen “just because”? What about impulsive Saturday night pizza and takeout orders? Is all of this “in moderation”?
My recommendation is to simplify your life. Celebrate with whole, plant-based recipes. Allow yourself to exit the guilt game that is implicit when we enjoy unhealthy food “in moderation.” Personally I have experienced a lightness of spirit because of a whole foods plant-based diet.
6. Research for Yourself
During our first 3 weeks on a plant-based diet my husband and I did research on the why and how of plant-based eating. This is not only informative, but incredibly encouraging and uplifting. Search the web for whole food Vegan recipes. Get on Facebook and Pinterest for delicious ideas. Check out the “Forks Over Knives” companion book and cookbook (my favorite) and “The Starch Solution” by Dr. John McDougall. Our favorite entertainment for those first 3 weeks was (believe it or not) lectures and short videos on YouTube about plant-based eating. I highly recommend searching YouTube for Dr. John McDougall lectures, Dr. Esselstyn talks, the “Forks Over Knives” extended interviews, and Jeff Novik presentations. Most of these speakers are funny as well as smart. Being well-informed also gives us a sense of community and belonging with others who follow a whole foods plant-based diet. If you haven’t already, I invite you to “like” the Whole New World Facebook page as well.
7. Why it was Easy: Change in Life Breeds Change in Life
There’s no doubt that transitioning to a whole foods plant-based diet can be a major life change. And we all know that change is never easy, even when it’s a small change, even when it’s a good, healthy, or life-saving change. I believe that change in life breeds change in life. That is, when something major happens in life it creates a fertile ground for other positive change to take place. Our
first baby girl was born in November of 2012. By January 2013 our family was eating a 100% whole foods plant-based diet, one that I estimate less than 0.5% of Americans follow (since it is Vegan with the additional quality of being “whole”). Our new baby was a motivation to change our diet. In part because we want to be healthy and energetic for her as she grows up and we want to set a good example of healthy eating, but also because her entrance into the world rocked our standard routine. No aspect of our life from before she was born remains unchanged now that she’s here. Her birth was a major change in our life and I feel it made us more open to other changes. If you are considering making the switch to a 100% whole foods plant-based diet, my advice is to capitalize on a change that may be happening in your life. Planning a major move? Job change? Adding a family member? Going away to school? Are you going to do a deep spring cleaning? Capitalize on your willingness to make a change in your life. When your mind is open to change in one aspect of life it will likely be open to other changes and make your transition easier.
Good luck on your continuing journey! I’d love to hear YOUR top tips for starting a whole foods plant-based lifestyle in the comments below.