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Overhauling your diet can be daunting and there's bound to be some blunders along the way. It can be easy to make a mistake you may not even realizing you're making. If you are new to a plant-based, vegan diet, or you are considering making the switch, follow this guide so you can avoid the many pitfalls that can happen if you're not properly prepared.
Let's get right into it!
1. Not eating enough calories
This one is so important because it seems to be a recurring theme among those that end up not staying plant-based. The issue can lie in the fact that people tend to eat the same portion sizes as before, whereas now that same portion of food contains less calories. This can happen when we switch from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to a plant-based diet because we're removing high calorie foods like processed meats and cheeses.
When we under eat, we risk nutrient deficiencies, fatigue and brain fog.
Adding in higher calorie plant foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, and dried fruit can help if you find yourself struggling to get in enough calories for your activity level.
2. Relying on meat and cheese substitutes
Mock meats and cheeses are convenient, especially when transitioning, but they're not necessarily the best choice for a balanced diet. They tend to be highly processed, containing lots of added fats and sugars. I consider them more of the treat, but not something I have on a daily or even weekly basis. They can also be the culprits of many bloating complaints on a plant-based diet. Not to mention, relying on these at every meal can throw you into the opposite spectrum of risking weight gain. Which brings me to my next point...
3. Thinking anything labeled "vegan" is healthy
Similar to how things labeled "gluten-free" aren't necessarily healthier, neither are things labeled "vegan". Vegan junk food is still junk food. Many people choose to switch to a plant-based diet for the health benefits - it's the only diet proven to prevent and reverse heart disease - but it's not just a plant-based diet that's healthier, it's a whole food plant-based diet. This means centering your diet around mostly whole, unprocessed foods. Better to eat more food that doesn't come with a nutrition label in the first place.
4. Not eating enough whole foods
You knew this was coming right? Animal products are often fortified with vitamins and minerals because they lack them naturally, but when we focus our diets on whole plant foods, we automatically increase our intake of many of these essential nutrients. This will help us to avoid nutrient deficiencies and boost our immune systems which rely on many of these nutrients. Some easy ways to increase our consumption of whole foods are: avoiding overly processed snack foods by opting for things like fruits with nut butters or hummus and veggies instead; and swapping refined grains like white bread, white rice, white pasta, for whole grain bread, brown rice, and whole grain pasta.
5. Not eating enough variety
We are creatures of habit but the more variety of plant foods we consume, the better our gut health will be. Our microbiome flourishes on fiber and according to Gastroenterologist Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, diversity of plants in the diet is the greatest predictor of gut health. Not to mention this increases the likelihood of consuming a more balanced diet, and limits the possibility of nutrient deficiencies. If you find yourself making the same meals week after week, try incorporating a new recipe once a week. Switch up your snacks every so often. For example, if you typically have an apple with some almonds, swap the apple for a peach or pear. Make a conscious effort to switch it up.
6. Not taking a B12 Supplement
Did you know that 40% of the U.S. population is deficient in B12? It's also recommended that adults over the age of 50 supplement with vitamin B12 regardless of diet due to the declining ability to absorb it from food. Some plant foods are fortified with it like plant milks and nutritional yeast, but it's not very reliable to get it solely from fortified foods. The most reliable source is from a supplement. For a full guide on B12 and supplementation, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of everything you need to know about B12.
7. Not having a daily Omega-3 source
Without getting too science-y, Omega-3's are essential fatty acids that come in 3 forms: ALA, EPA, and DHA. The latter two are mostly found in animal foods, while ALA can be found in plant foods. The good news is ALA can be converted to EPA and DHA. The bad news is the conversion rate is very low. However, there are many factors that can impact this conversion such as if your ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is too high, the conversion is less. Avoiding most vegetable oils (a little bit of olive oil or canola oil is okay) which tend to contain a lot of Omega-6 can help.
Additionally, upping your intake of ALA-rich foods increases the conversion. Aim for at least 2 servings a day of either flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, or walnuts. A serving is equal to 1 tablespoon of seeds, or a small handful (30g) of walnuts.
Lastly, an algae derived supplement may also be beneficial, especially if you have higher needs such as during pregnancy, lactation, or have a condition that reduces your absorption. Choose an algae supplement of 200-300mg of EPA and DHA. Here is the one we recommend.
8. Failing to plan ahead for social events and being too hard on ourselves
The plant-based diet does not have to be all or nothing - progress over perfection is our mantra. But I see time and time again people beating themselves up for slipping up after a social event and wanting to give up right then and there. If you really can't find anything plant-based when away from home, don't stress about it. Enjoy your time out and get right back on track when you get home.
Some things that may help when you're out are: looking up restaurants ahead of time on Happy Cow, checking the menu before you go so you're prepared, calling ahead to see if the restaurant can accommodate you, and ordering sides to make a meal. This way you're prepared and can manage your expectations of how it will go. Better to know ahead of time you'll be disappointed with the menu selection than have it be a surprise, right? Jokes aside, being prepared takes the pressure off and makes plant-based eating much more enjoyable.
9. Spending too much money and deciding it's too expensive to continue
If you've made it this far and you now know that processed vegan foods and mock meats and cheeses are not the healthiest for you, then you may have noticed that they can also be pretty expensive. It probably comes as no surprise as most packaged foods come with a premium.
If you take the advice of this article and focus on whole foods, you should notice a pleasant decline in that grocery bill. This is because many whole plant foods like grains, potatoes, and beans are some of the cheapest foods per calorie around the world. And don't forget the canned goods and freezer section. You don't have to buy fresh organic produce to reap the benefits of a plant-based diet. Canned or frozen fruits and vegetables have an almost identical nutritional profile to fresh but with less cost.
10. Underestimating the importance of meal planning & prepping
Meal planning is so beneficial at any time but especially during the transitioning phase. It will save you a lot of stress and anxiety when you're short on time. Oh and it saves you money. When everything on your grocery list has a purpose it equates to less impulse buys and less food waste.
Meal prepping is equally important because it requires only one chunk of time usually at the beginning of the week to prep several meals or staple ingredients so you can avoid cooking every night. Imagine coming home from work after a long day and having healthy, plant-based meals already waiting for you in the refrigerator. When we have something ready within arm's reach it makes it SO much easier and we're less likely to throw in the towel. It's also generally healthier to prepare food at home since we can control exactly what's going in to it.
In our Meal Planner we provide hassle-free meal planning tools to make planning out your week a breeze. It's perfect for anyone just starting out and needing more guidance, or anyone looking to make their meal prep experience even more organized.
We provide everything from the recipes, automated grocery lists, even pre-made plans for you choose from, to the calories and macro information for every recipe. You can even track your daily calories!
If you avoid these mistakes, you will be well on your way to a healthy and sustainable plant-based diet. The key takeaway here is making it sustainable. Ensure that you're getting a variety of nutrients. Make it practical by meal planning, prepping and being prepared. And make it affordable by cooking at home and choosing mostly whole foods.
If you have additional questions about any of these, drop them in the comments below. Don't forget to share this article with someone who needs it.