How to Start Eating a Vegan Diet (And Why You Should)
There are a lot of benefits to eating a vegan diet. When done well, following a vegan diet plan can have positive impacts on your health and the environment.
The typical American diet consisting of copious amounts of meat, eggs, and dairy not only contributes to the leading causes of death in the United States heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes, it contributes to the destruction of our environment and the climate crisis (global warming).
A vegan diet rich in whole plant foods, on the other hand, can help you live a healthier lifestyle and reduce your carbon footprint.
What exactly is a vegan diet?
Simply put, it’s a diet that does not include any animal products, like meat and animal byproducts such as milk and eggs. What foods you choose to include in your vegan diet is up to you. While there is no “right” or “wrong” way to lead a vegan lifestyle, it’s important to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need to be healthy.
Eating only whole, plant based foods is a good way to ensure you’re getting what you need. Plant based diets that include lots of leafy greens, nuts, legumes, and berries are great for heart health, and your health overall.
Cooking colorful, vegetable rich meals is essential for a healthy vegan diet. Ryan Shepard, founder of The Vegan Rhino, which promotes sustainable, healthy cooking that is accessible to anyone, does just that. He transitioned to a vegan lifestyle in 2017, phasing out his non-vegan lifestyle in a matter of two weeks in order to live more sustainably.
As a chef, he now makes it his mission to provide simple, restaurant-quality vegan recipes anyone can make at home. Ryan has been cooking since the age of 5, but his eyes were opened after watching the documentary “What The Health” on Netflix and now maintains his vegan diet for his health, the health of animals, and the health of the environment.
“Since I went vegan, I have noticed an overall improvement in my health, whether it was my skin, gut health, or overall energy,” says Ryan.
Eating a well-balanced vegan diet has a lot of health benefits.
Plant-based foods are packed with vitamins and nutrients that help the body maintain healthy function. Most plant foods also contain fiber, which plays a role in colon and digestive tract health. Many plant foods can also help lower inflammation in the body, which is thought to be the main contributor to the deadly conditions many people suffer from in the US, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure.
Evidence shows that eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits can help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, lower blood pressure, and maintain a healthy digestive tract, eye health, and a healthy weight.
Plant-based diets do provide enough protein, contrary to popular belief.
Misconceptions about whether a vegan diet is healthy or not may stop some people from trying to incorporate even a few vegan dishes into their weekly meals. Myths about how much protein you need to be healthy and where the best sources of protein come from has led to a lot of misinformation and concern about eating solely vegan foods.
“A lot of non-vegans harp on the notion that you need ‘x’ amount of protein, and that is not always the case,” says Ryan. “Protein is found in all sorts of foods that you consume in a vegan lifestyle. To me, the protein question is a myth.”
A lot of these myths are perpetuated by the meat and dairy industry themselves. After all, it’s not in their best interest for people to eat less meat and dairy products. Sophisticated marketing campaigns have led many people to believe that the best sources of protein are found in meat and dairy and that plant-based foods do not offer enough protein to keep you healthy. But that’s simply not the case.
It is true that animal foods offer all the essential amino acids—the building blocks of protein—that your body cannot produce on its own in one serving, and plant foods offer only some of those amino acids in varying combinations depending on the food. This is why it is so important to eat a well-balanced vegan diet.
You can get all the essential amino acids if you eat the right plant-based foods. For example, a bowl of plain rice does not provide all the amino acids you need, but if you add some beans you not only get a delicious meal you get all the essential amino acids.
One nutrient that is missing in a solely vegan diet is vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is essential for making fatty acids, amino acids, and to replicate and repair DNA. It is only found in animal products so you must take vitamin B12 supplements or consume fortified foods to meet the body’s need for this essential nutrient or risk a vitamin B12 deficiency. You can learn more about vitamin B12 and how some scientists believe an evolutionary quirk made it a necessary part of our diet here.
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
To get the benefits of a vegan lifestyle—both health-wise and sustainability wise—swapping even a few meat-based meals for vegan meals can have wondrous effects on your health and the environment.
“I encourage individuals to cook healthier, whether that be plant-based, vegan, or implementing one or two vegan dishes a week,” says Ryan. “I don't want anyone to feel pressured into a vegan lifestyle but am always happy to assist anyone transitioning with any questions they may have.”
Transitioning to an all vegan diet is intimidating to a lot of people, and feels absolutely impossible to others. You don’t have to give up your meat, dairy and eggs entirely. Even swapping an animal-based meal or two every week can have dramatic effects on your health and the health of our globe.
Initiatives like Meatless Monday were designed to give folks a chance to make a difference, opting for vegetarian or vegan meals on Mondays only.
If you’re even a little curious about what a vegan diet could do for you and your health, meander over to The Vegan Rhino for some simple recipe ideas and try one out this week. You may be surprised by how delicious plants can be. Ryan’s favorite is his mushroom risotto.