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My husband and I have been quasi-vegetarians for the past four years. We don’t eat chicken or red meat (including pork) but we do consume eggs, dairy and fish. We’ve had many conversations about the possibility of going full vegan but there was always something prohibiting us from taking the 100-percent animal-free plunge. Then my husband Andy (a marathon runner) read a book about a vegan ultra-marathoner and his mind was set. For Andy, it was now vegan — or bust.
His inspiration and gradual transformation to the sole plant world has inspired me to do some serious soul searching on the reasons why many of my chicken — and beef-free patients have not been able to achieve their vegan dreams. What holds each and every one of us back differs but throughout my years as a dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic, I do see some common themes (and excuses) on why going vegan is, according to my patients, “simply not worth the effort,” “crazy,” “impossible” or “something I don’t have the willpower to do.”
Fact is, people do it every day, and guess what, the ones that do, they may live longerand have less disease than the ones who don’t. New evidence shows that a vegan diet may even help in decreasing neuropathy pain in diabetics.
If you do vegan the right way there may be no good reason not to do it. Here are five things that may be holding you back — and practical tips to overcome them.
1. Cheese: Perhaps the number one reason why my patients don’t go vegan is because they don’t think they can give up cheese. Cheese does taste great after all, and it’s included in some serious favorite foods (pizza, sandwiches, burritos, nachos), but giving up cheese is actually easier than you think — it all boils down to what I call “taste bud training.”
Our brains work against us when it comes to food and addictions, making us crave certain foods (often high in sugar and fat) over others (like broccoli and Brussels sprouts). In order to get around this, you need to start weaning off the foods that make you stray from any resemblance of veganism. My most successful patients have started by avoidance of cheese purchases at the grocery store on the theory that if it’s not in the house, it won’t be a temptation.
After several weeks of simply avoiding cheese in the home, they found it easier to avoid it outside of the home as well (such as on a sandwich or a pizza). After a few months, many of my patients didn’t even think about it anymore. They had, in fact, trained their taste buds to simply not prefer it. Everyone has one food that they swear they could never give up but the truth is, you can change any habit.
The key is to take it slow, to replace one habit for another (when you crave cheese, have a spoonful of natural almond butter instead for example) , and be repetitive in your behavior (such as, don’t eat cheese at home, and then stop eating cheese at restaurants as well). Each day will be easier than the last until one day, you have made no effort at all, it just happens — you don’t want it. There is also research that shows that actually making a plan (in this case, to be vegan) and subsequently carrying out that plan can lead to success as well. Be courageous enough to train your taste buds and know that you are not the only person in the world to eliminate something you once loved.
2. Society: Let’s face it — the meat houses of the world far outnumber the vegan restaurants. Even restaurants that do make an effort to provide vegan entrees differ in their variety. Restaurants can range from having full vegan menus to having a “veggie” plate option (that’s literally what they are — a plate of vegetables, with nothing on them). Here’s how to get around this. First, seek out restaurants most likely to offer vegetarian dishes. Indian restaurants will offer the most variety while Japanese, Chinese and Thai will offer great solutions as well. Then it’s just a matter of substitutions.
For example, you can substitute any meat dish for tofu, tempeh or beans, or you can eliminate the main protein source all together and choose dishes that focus on whole grains and vegetables. Worried that your sauce may not be animal-free friendly? Make your own and bring it with you or ask for simple sauces that are void of dairy cream. Many of the chefs who I have worked in the Midwest with tell me they love the challenge of a vegan request from a customer. That means, don’t be afraid to at least ask if you don’t see.
Finally, you can find fabulous resource lists that provide vegan-friendly restaurants and even fast-food eatery options as well. If you’re concerned about a dinner party or planned event where you have less control over food options, you can always bring your own dish (think hummus and brown rice crackers, a beautiful platter of vegetables or a bean salad) as a gift for the host (that really is a meal for you of course).
3. Your friends and family: Perhaps the biggest social hurdle to becoming vegan is the reaction you may elicit from your friends and family. A vegan lifestyle may seem downright “weird” to those around you who would never consider it in their own diet, making you “weird” as well. Don’t let this stand in your way. If your mom reminds you every chance she gets that “animals were put on this earth for us to eat them” or your friend tells you that “you’re missing out on key nutrients” remember that these comments probably have more to do with their misunderstanding of the diet that a genuine care for your health. Choosing to go vegan can sometimes go well beyond the nutritional benefits.
Many of my patients have gone vegan to reduce environmental impact or simply because they love animals. Determine your motivation for going vegan and, if you’re comfortable, shares these personal goals with your family. You may be surprised how much you actually impact their diet over time. Finally, get comfortable with the fact that people will joke about your diet, talk about your diet in excess, criticize your diet and ask you questions about your diet. Remember that what you choose to eat is your business, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.
4.Your love of cookies, ice cream and chocolate: Let’s start with a fact — cookies, ice cream and chocolate (with less than 70-percent cocoa content) are generally not good for you, vegan or non-vegan, due to their massive amount of sugar. That means no matter what your diet looks like, these things should be consumed infrequently. If you do plan to dabble in dessert though, there are several vegan options for individuals to choose from. Several new ice cream varieties made from either coconut or almonds dominate the vegan frozen aisle treats, and they’re good!
For chocolate substitutions, look for products made with carob, a plant (specifically a legume) that comes from a tree and lacks the dairy component that is added to cocoa during processing. It tastes similar to chocolate and works well in most recipes calling for chocolate. You can also try chocolate chips made with non-dairy cocoa butter and chocolate liquor as another chocolate alternative. If you really want to improve your health, remember the best desserts have never had an ounce of animal product in them — they’re called fruit and they come in a variety of different flavors.
5. Your fear of soy: The final reason most of my patients avoid going full vegan is because they have a dire fear of soy and assume that if you’re vegan, you must eat lots and lots of soy. There are two myths to dispel here: first, that soy is “bad” for you and second, that going vegan will turn you into an edamame pod. Let’s start with the first.
Soy, as it’s consumed in the Japanese culture in its whole form is actually very good for you. Soy consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, lowering blood pressure, and protection from recurrence of certain cancers.
Second, vegan diets don’t have to be chock full of soy. In fact, vegans can get protein from a variety of other plant-based foods including nuts, nut butters and seeds, beans and lentils, and whole grains such as quinoa, in addition to soy sources such as tofu, tempeh or edamame. Even endurance athletes have thrived on vegan diets.
If you’ve made the choice (or goal) of going completely meat-free, don’t allow your surroundings and your own fears to stop you. Hopefully, these tips can be one step towards helping you achieve the changes in your diet that are important to you.
Follow Kristin Kirkpatrick, M.S., R.D., L.D. on Twitter:www.twitter.com/KRISTINKIRKPAT