How to Transition to a Vegan Diet in a Healthy Way

Renée Naturally Qualified Naturopath, Nutritionist & Western Medical Herbalist

So you’ve decided that the grass is greener vegan-side, but where do you start in transitioning to a vegan diet? Forgoing previously loved animal-based foods in the name of health and ethics can be overwhelming and can easily hold back some people from embracing a vegan lifestyle. However, switching to a vegan diet doesn’t have to be hard or immensely daunting. If some simple guidelines are followed, the transition can, in fact, feel quite natural. It’s important to go at your own pace and to decide on a method that works best for you. Following are some suggestions to help structure your transition to veganism, but first, let’s look at what a vegan diet entails.

A strict vegan diet is considered free from all animal products including meat, milk, eggs, yoghurt and cheese. It is also free from foods processed with animal or insect products such as gelatin, rennet and honey. Vegans typically eat a lot of beans, legumes, whole grains, hemp products, coconut based products, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.

Educate yourself
Before you attempt the transition, the first step is to start familiarising yourself with veganism. This can help you to feel prepared and knowledgeable as you begin changing your lifestyle.

  • Research the benefits of a vegan diet and understand the practices behind the production of animal products. 
  • Start reading ingredients lists and familiarise yourself with sneaky animal derived ingredients that show up unexpectedly in unlikely products (ie. gelatin in marshmallows!).
  • Research vegan-friendly cafes and restaurants in your area so you’re not caught short for a quick and easy fast food meal or tasty lunch date with a friend.
  • Watch some vegan documentaries or read some vegan books, magazines, websites and blogs. All these resources can offer invaluable insights and support. Knowledge is power!
  • Preferably consult a dietician, nutritionist or naturopath to help make sure a vegan diet is going to be suitable for you, and if so, provide advice as to how you can best support your body with supplements to avoid possible deficiencies.

Decide on a suitable day to begin

  • Leading up to the date you choose, consume or get rid of all animal products in your fridge or pantry. If you’re starting sooner rather than later, consider donating the food products to the local food shelter or giving away to friends and family.
  • Purchase a vegan cookbook or start following vegan food blogs and get pinning with recipes that appeal!
  • Shop for your new vegan-friendly products at local markets, supermarkets and health food stores.

Learn about adequate protein intake
One of the most important considerations when going vegan is ensuring that you have an adequate protein intake. For someone following a typical Western diet, most of the daily intake of protein would likely be obtained from meat-based dishes such as steak, chicken, burgers, lamb roasts & the like. When animal products are eliminated from the diet, creative food planning and preparation is necessary to consume healthy levels of protein.

Complete proteins are found predominantly in animal products. There are 20 different amino acids that can form a protein, and nine that the body can’t produce on its own. These nine are called essential amino acids. They need to be eaten because we can’t make them ourselves. To be considered “complete,” a protein must contain all nine of these essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts. Incomplete proteins are found mostly in vegetables, beans and nuts. They contain some, but not all of the amino acids. For a vegan diet to contain all of the amino acids, certain foods must be eaten in conjunction with other foods to enjoy a complete protein diet. For example, combine lentils with whole grains such as barley or spelt or brown rice with beans.

Plan and Prepare

  • Consider preparing a meal plan for all main meals and snacks over a fortnight-long period to get you started.
  • Then, plan a dedicated shop with this plan in mind
  • Pre-prepare snacks and meals wherever possible so you’re not tempted by non-vegan foods in moments of hunger.

Add in before cutting out
The next step is one of the most important to take when learning how to transition to a vegan diet. Focus on adding in new foods before cutting out old ones. When you first attempt a vegan diet, rather than add a whole lot of new and often foreign products, it’s best to simply crowd out animal products with tonnes of delicious, filling plant-based whole foods that you are already familiar with.

Eat predominantly whole foods
When going vegan, it’s easy to buy processed alternatives to all of your other-side-of-the-fence past favourite foods, but it can be a detrimental mistake when the goal is to achieve a health-promoting diet. Instead of buying processed ‘meat or cheese replacement’ foods, choose whole foods such as oats, millet, coconut, lentils and nuts as much as possible. Keep your diet balanced by consuming a variety of vegan foods.

Consider Supplementation
In addition to making smart dietary choices, you may also want to consider taking supplements to complement your new diet and as insurance to ensure that you’ve covered the essential bases. The most common vitamin deficiency in vegans is vitamin B12, so a Vitamin B12 supplement can be very beneficial. It also pays to periodically get your iron and vitamin D checked, and take supplements when necessary for optimum energy and health.  Always speak to a qualified health professional to see if you may need a specific supplement before self-prescribing something you may not need.

Take the transition at your own pace
Some people like to go vegetarian for a while before slowly transitioning to a vegan diet. This means cutting out all meat and seafood from the diet, but eggs, dairy, honey and animal derived ingredients like gelatin are still allowed.

Others like to slowly transition all the way from an omnivore diet to a vegan diet. A good way to do this is by eliminating a food group per week, i.e., Eliminate eggs one week, dairy the week after and milk the following. Of course, it is important to simultaneously increase the number of plant-based foods in your diet.

And then there are those who would like to “cut over” and switch to a vegan diet in one go! Some find that an easy way to do this is by swapping out most of your favourite non-vegan foods for pre-made vegan alternatives. Ie. Meat patties for vegan burger patties, cheeses for soy cheese and sausages for tofu sausages. They’re often high in protein and have added vitamins and minerals, but they are processed and are not considered whole foods which are the ideal basis of a vegan diet.  These foods are fine in the transition phase, but once you start to gain confidence with your vegan diet, reduce your consumption of these foods and replace them with whole foods or homemade alternatives.

Deciding to transition to a vegan diet can result in life-changing health benefits and enjoyable new food experiences. However, it does require some thought and planning to ensure you can maintain optimum health while you adjust. Good luck!

It is always advisable to speak to a health professional before making significant changes to your diet. A nutritionist, dietician or naturopath will help you make the best decisions based on your body’s needs.

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