Reviewed by Dr Andre Budihardjo, MM and Physician Kong Teck Chuan
How to Start a Vegan Diet the Healthy Way
Published | 8 min read
Letting go of meats and dairy can be challenging. Learn how to smoothly transition into a vegan diet with a good meal planning strategy.
So, you’ve been thinking of transitioning to a plant-based diet and becoming a vegan. Well done! Getting closer to Mother Earth by excluding all animal meat and animal-sourced products from your meals has many benefits. According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vegans are thinner, have lower total and LDL cholesterol, and modestly lower blood pressure when compared to vegetarians. Those following a vegetarian or vegan diet typically have a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
Meanwhile, agriculture produces a lot of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions all over the world. A study by the World Resources Institute gives a telling example: Making just one pound of lamb generates around 30 times more GHGs than a pound of lentils.
Making the switch to a vegan diet might not be easy at first, so we’re here to help. Here you’ll find great tips to create your very own vegan diet plan and more!
Gradually Change Your Eating Habit
Creating a gentle, smooth transition into your vegan diet is crucial to ensuring that this can be a long-term success. Eu Yang Sang’s Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physician Kong Teck Chuan advises beginners to target incremental changes in the initial stages.
“Come up with a plan. Take it step-by-step instead of going to the market and buying everything you see,” physician Kong says. This is especially important if you’ve been eating oily, greasy food all this while.
As you begin your journey as a vegan, you may struggle in dealing with cravings. “So, when we are used to oily, greasy foods, and you switch to this new diet, our body needs time to get used to the change,” physician Kong explains. You need to retrain your brain to have a different response to the foods you usually crave. The adjustment may take a longer time if your previous diet contains lots of animal-derived ingredients.
“Some people may feel tired because they don’t have the number of calories that they’re used to. During that transition period, go slow and get enough rest,” he notes, adding that the digestive system also needs time to adjust to the new way of eating.
The easiest way to start switching to a vegan diet, physician Kong recommends, is to lower – not eliminate – your meat portions while increasing fruits and vegetable servings. Also, you can opt to go vegetarian 2-3 times a week or eat vegetarian meals right until dinner time. You can also switch from a vegetarian to a vegan by progressively cutting out eggs and dairy.
Plan Around What Could Be Missing in a Vegan Diet
Yes, cutting bacon and corndogs out of your meal plan is a must! Aside from your cravings, be mindful of your daily nutrient intake. There are many vital nutrients that you can miss if you only eat certain vegetables or plant-based meals. Protein, calcium, iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids are often cited as the essentials that could be deficient in a vegan diet. One way to keep your body strong is to make sure that you eat a wide variety of plants and vegetables, whole grains, as well as fortified foods and beverages.
Some examples of what you should add to your vegan diet plan are sesame seeds and legumes (for calcium), grapeseed or linseed oil. Additionally, chia seeds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, green leafy vegetables (for omega-3), fortified breakfast cereals for vitamins D and B12 are also excellent sources. A food supplement like chlorella is also a worthwhile addition. It can help to boost your immunity, is high in fiber, and is packed with vitamins and minerals.
We’ll cover iron and protein sources in a bit more detail below.
Adding Iron to Your Vegan Diet
Vegans have consistently lower iron than vegetarians and meat-eaters. Those on a vegan diet need almost double the amount that a meat-eater needs because your body does not easily absorb plant-sourced iron. After considering this, vegan women need 32 mg/day, while vegan men need 14 mg/day. You need iron to help your red blood cells carry oxygen, have healthier skin, hair, and nails, and have better energy and focus. So, to ensure you are not iron deficient, eat plenty of greens, such as spinach, kale, and broccoli. A dietary supplement could be beneficial too.
According to physician Kong, foods like flax and sesame seeds, almonds, and legumes are rich plant-based sources of iron. In the same way, astragalus (huang qi) or Chinese Angelica (dang gui) are iron-rich herbs to nourish your blood and qi (vital life energy).
Adding Protein to Your Diet
Healthy adults need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound every day. Compared to the other vital nutrients, consuming sufficient protein in a vegan diet is relatively easy. In fact, it’s healthier – 100 grams of steak has 23 grams of protein but 2 grams of saturated fat, while a cup of cooked lentils has 18 grams of protein, 15 grams of fiber, and almost no fat.
So, besides lentils, eat plenty of chickpeas, quinoa, and tofu. Plant-based protein powders, made of soy, brown rice, and hemp, can be an option as they include essential vitamins and minerals.
Avoid Over-Processed Foods and Beverages
There’s no denying that going on a vegan diet will mean consuming a certain amount of processed foods and beverages. However, that doesn’t mean buying every single meat substitute, power bar, or plant-based milk available.
Some low-quality vegan products may be just as bad as junk food with high amounts of sugar, sodium, or other nasty additives. Always read the ingredients label before bringing them to the cashier.
Watch Out for Animal-Sourced Ingredients
While reading the ingredients label, also pay close attention to the fine print. Some vegan products may include minimal traces of animal- or even insect-sourced ingredients. Rather than malicious intent, this could be necessary for preserving the shelf life of the products or because the product was manufactured somewhere that also produces animal products. If you’re starting with a vegan diet, perhaps this may not matter that much to you yet; but other vegans may prefer alternative options.
According to physician Kong, “Lack of all animal foods does create a potential risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, so supplementing for this micronutrient may be necessary. In contrast, despite a common misperception, meat consumption is not necessary to obtain a sufficient intake of protein. Although many are concerned that a plant-based diet won’t provide enough protein, this is actually unusual.”
Choose Quality Over Quantity in a Vegan Diet
During the early stages of transitioning to a vegan diet, you may feel hungry more frequently. Instead of eating a mountain of carbs, prepare well-balanced meals with plenty of high-fiber ingredients in appropriate serving sizes to help you feel full and satisfied longer. A small handful of nuts or seeds should do the trick, washed down with a tall glass of water.
Cook at Home More Often
You may be thinking, “All of this is starting to sound expensive!” Although more and more vegan cafes or restaurants are around, preparing your vegan meals will be the more economically sound option. “Yes, it could be cheaper, but only if you know what to buy,” physician Kong says. “However, if it’s for your health, then you’d want to invest a bit more to ensure it’s a safe, high-quality product.”
Lucky for you, there are plenty of vegan recipes that you can try. You can also seek advice from an experienced nutritionist or vegan friend. To help ease your transition to a vegan diet, Si Shen soup with Chinese yam, lotus seed, dried gorgon seed, and poria can help strengthen the spleen, thus helping to improve your appetite and digestion. Another recipe that you can try is Dang Gui Nan Zao nourishing soup. This soup contains Chinese Angelica (dang gui), which helps promote healthy blood flow and increase stamina. If you feel more tired than usual, Ba Zhen soup is also a good option to strengthen and energize the body.
Connect with Your Local Vegan Community
You will have more questions as you progress forward with your vegan diet. There are plenty of resources, community groups, and professional counsel available online for all your questions and concerns about vegan life.
The support, encouragement, and wisdom gained from your new vegan friends will provide even more benefits than what you’re already getting from your plant-based meals. Good ol’ fashioned cookbooks – e.g., “Eat for Life” by Joel Fuhrman, MD or “Becoming Vegan” by Brenda Davis – can also be a great resource of information.
Switching to a vegan diet is a big step in your life. However, it shouldn’t take a toll on your health. Plan your meals carefully and set achievable goals for your overall wellness. You can always follow our tips if you ever feel unsure about your veganism journey. So, for those who want to go vegan slowly but surely, why not start today? Let’s add more fruits and vegetables to our meals for a healthier body!
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- Harvard School of Public Health. The Nutrition Source: Protein. [Accessed 24 October 2021]
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- US National Library of Medicine. 2019. The Role of the Anabolic Properties of Plant- versus Animal-Based Protein Sources in Supporting Muscle Mass Maintenance: A Critical Review.[Accessed 24 October 2021]
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- U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2019. FoodData Central: Beef, short loin, porterhouse steak, separable lean only, trimmed to 1/8″ fat, select, raw. [Accessed 24 October 2021]
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