Thursday, April 9, 2015

Getting Out of the Meatrix...How to Get Started on a Plant-Based Diet - Part II

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In my previous post, I talked about the stages you can expect to go through when starting a plant-based diet. But now we will move forward with some helpful tips on how to get started.

How to Get Started on a Plant-Based Diet:

The Basics
A plant-based diet - to put it simply - involves eating plants. The more natural and intact (whole) the food, the better. That's why I sometimes refer to our diet as a whole foods, plant-based diet. That distinguishes the difference between juicing every meal or taking vegetable supplements (i.e. JuicePlus) versus eating whole, plant foods. But I realize this explanation still begs many questions about what exactly do you eat and don't eat on a plant-based diet. Here's a quick list:

What To Eat:

  • Whole grains (oats, rice, quinoa, corn, wheat, barley,'s a complete list) - FYI, there are a bunch of gluten-free options if you're concerned about that (note that only about 1-2% of the population has Celiac disease, and 6-7% have a gluten sensitivity...all others do not need to listen to the fad-hype of eating gluten-free foods)
  • Starches (potatoes, squashes, corn, peas, etc.)
  • Legumes
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Spices and seasoning (check for meat, dairy, and oil in the ingredients)
  • Nuts, Nut Butters, and Seeds - very high in fat, don't over-indulge!
  • Avocado, Coconut, Olives, Soy, Tofu, Chocolate - very high in fat, don't over-indulge! Yes, they sell dairy-free chocolate, usually dark chocolate. Guittard is our personal favorite.
  • Sweeteners (sugar, pure syrup, honey, agave, stevia) - very concentrated calories with no fiber to fill you up, don't over-indulge!

What NOT to Eat:

Leave a comment if there's a food I've left off that you're not sure which list it belongs in.

The Advanced Course
Something we like to say is "don't major on the minors." What we mean is that if you are looking to improve your health in a dramatic way, you can do so strictly by following a plant-based diet as detailed above.

But, if you want to go the extra mile, and really investigate everything that plays a part in your overall health, then here are some additional things to consider.

This barely qualifies as a "minor" because I believe that everyone would benefit from a little exercise. But it is a fact that you can dramatically improve your health if all you do is eat a plant-based diet -- you will lose weight and decrease your chances of America's top-killing diseases, all without lifting a single dumbbell.

But exercise is wonderfully healthy, so I do recommend making it a habit. When we adopted a plant-based diet, we stopped exercising for about two months while we adjusted to our change in lifestyle. We both lost weight and improved our health. But we wanted to be fit and athletic, not just skinny. So we started incorporating exercise back into our routine.

Also let me point out that if you want strong bones, the only way to achieve that is to 1) Avoid meat and dairy that increase the acid load on your body, which weakens bone health, and 2) Do strength-training exercise.

I've often said a plant-based diet will help you live longer, but exercise will help you enjoy old age once you reach it. Exercise will keep you mobile, strong, and balanced.

If you're looking for a great exercise program, we highly recommend Athlean-X. Ignore his diet and supplement advice, but his exercise program is amazing. It's 5 days per week, and each exercise is usually 30 minutes or less. It's intense and we've seen a lot of benefit from it. Plus every day is unique, so you don't get bored like you might with the P90-X type DVD programs.

Many might be surprised to hear that aluminum has been linked to Alzheimer's disease. It's one of those "minors" that we personally choose to major on, because in our minds, it's not worth the risk. I believe that memories are a huge part of what makes me, well, me. The thought of losing my memories is worse than the prospect of losing a limb, sight, or hearing.

So we choose to avoid aluminum by purchasing aluminum-free products (baking powder, deodorant, toothpaste, etc.), using stainless steel cookware instead of aluminum cookware, and using parchment paper instead of aluminum foil.

At one time we were fearful of getting skin cancer. Everyone's afraid of that, right? That's why everyone believes sunscreen is a must-have. Well, there are also many benefits to some sunlight, so it shouldn't be avoided entirely. So unless we are spending all day in direct sunlight, we choose not to wear sunscreen. Plus we don't like the thought of our skin absorbing all the chemicals that are contained in sunscreen. We enjoy laying out in the sun for about 20-30 minutes every day (or as often as we can).

Vitamins and Supplements
It's a common myth that people should take their vitamins and supplements. But we believe that food is the best way to get the vitamins and nutrients a person needs, not artificial pills. Even pills that say they are natural or food-grade...they're still not the whole food. Plants were perfectly designed to contain a variety of vitamins, nutrients, and phytochemicals. We just have to actually eat them instead of harmful foods. Your body is extremely efficient at extracting exactly the amount of nutrients it needs in a given day from the food you eat. We highly recommend reading T. Colin Campbell's book called Whole. It sheds light on the obsession with micronutrients, and instead suggests that the whole apple is better than the sum of its parts.

The point is that plants provide all the vitamins and nutrients your body needs, so there is no point to taking concentrated supplements. In fact, some studies suggest too much of a good thing (such as Vitamin D supplements) can actually cause harm. It also doesn't help matters that pharmaceutical companies earn billions of dollars selling these products that humans "must have."  We do not take any vitamins or supplements at all.

Beauty Products
Your skin absorbs the things it's exposed to, so the products you apply to your skin do matter. Sure, it's a "minor" thing, but it is one aspect of your overall health that you may be interested in learning about. We prefer to buy organic and plant-based products in order to avoid the harmful chemicals and because we don't want to support cruelty to animals (animal testing). If you're interested in some of the products we buy, feel free to comment, and I'll name specifics.

Making a Lifestyle Change
Here is some additional advice on how to make a plant-based diet part of your lifestyle.

Cooking and Meal Planning
Since you're likely to feel overwhelmed when making a change to a plant-based diet, it's best to start with simple recipes, then gradually work up to more complicated dishes. I will recommend several plant-based cookbooks below, but a great place to start is the Internet. Vegan 8 has several quick and easy-to-make meals. Or keep it as simple as baking a potato and topping it with some salsa and vegetables.

Eventually you will reach a point where you can develop your own recipes or modify previous favorites to a plant-based version. I also like to plan my meals for one week at a time since we don't mind leftovers. Whatever you do, it is important to spend some time planning for your meals so that you aren't caught in a situation where you're hungry and have no healthy options.

Recipe Resources
Here are several plant-based cookbooks I recommend:

And here are several websites with plant-based recipes:

Gidgets and Gadgets
There are many kitchen tools that I consider a necessity. I've categorized them as a must-have or a would-be-nice-to-have. I also included links to cookware and food storage items I like to use.

Must Have:

  • Instant Pot: this is a huge time saver, we've actually considered buying a second one. It cooks dry, unsoaked beans in roughly 30-40 minutes. Also cooks rice in about 20 minutes. We've also used it to steam an entire 5 lb bag of potatoes in about 30 minutes. Because it's an electric pressure cooker, it's also like a crockpot that you can turn on and walk away from. It automatically keeps it warm when the cooking cycle ends. Highly recommended! 
  • Nice Blender or Vitamix: All the Vitamix models are top-notch, we just chose this one because we liked the size of the wider container and wanted the blender to fit under our cabinets.
  • Food processor: we have this one and have been happy with it for 3 years
  • Ginormous colander: I use this very often to wash various produce and drain pasta or beans

Would Be Nice to Have:

  • Food chopper: helpful to chop mushrooms or other things that might get pulverized in a food processor, or if you want to quickly chop something and not have to clean out the food processor parts; we bought a pampered chef one 
  • Garlic press: we use a lot of fresh garlic in various recipes, and I hated having to peel it and then use a food chopper to mince it...this allows you to cut the unpeeled cloves in half and squeeze all the garlicy goodness out quickly; we bought a pampered chef one 
  • Tortilla press: heavy-duty and works great...just have to be careful not to "over squish" the tortillas
  • Steel griddle: this goes on top of our burners and we use it to cook the tortillas, as well as hash brown potatoes, or large quantities of veggies 
  • Apple wedger: we like the pampered chef one that's all metal 
  • Mango splitter: helped us figure out how to cut a mango 
  • Cookbook holder: handy to hold cookbooks upright and protect from splatter 
  • Toaster oven: helpful to toast bread and the like 
  • Wok: for large quantities of stir-fry rice; this one is cast iron, so it has special cleaning and seasoning instructions that involve seasoning with oil before use (but we don't cook with oil)
Cookware and Food Storage Items:

Helpful Tips For...
It can certainly be difficult to transition to a plant-based diet and still participate in family and social gatherings. It's all about making this a part of your lifestyle and making up your mind beforehand about what you are willing and unwilling to eat. Here are some tips for the various social situations you might find yourself in.

Dealing with Family, Friends, and Co-workers

  • Be up front with your dietary choices if someone is making something for you. It's much more respectful to speak up before the person has gone through the effort of cooking, than for you to stay silent and then refuse what's served to you.
  • Offer to bring your own food or a dish to share. If you have open-minded friends, they might be interested in trying the food you eat. Either way, if you bring something, you know you can eat at least one dish.
  • Be respectful of their choice to eat what they want, just like you want to be respected for your choices. You should not try to make others feel guilty for not eating like you. Sure, it's okay to answer their questions, but don't dominate the conversation.
  • If someone is really insistent with their teasing/criticism, politely say that you're just trying to eat in a way that is best for you and your personal health.

Social Outings and Holidays

  • If a group of people are discussing where to eat, speak up with a suggestion that you know has a menu item you can eat.
  • Be sure to ask about ingredients when you can. 
  • Ask to speak to a manager or chef directly because the wait staff is usually not that familiar with what is in the food they serve.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for the chef to make the menu item without oil, dairy, etc. We have often called ahead to Chipotle to ask if they will make a special batch of fajita veggies without oil for us (just cook in water) and they have always obliged.
  • Also don't be afraid to bring your own food into a restaurant if you know they don't have anything to offer you. Or at least you can bring condiments or toppings to add to a plain side dish, like a baked potato.
  • Check the side dishes and ask if they can steam veggies without butter, oil, or spray butter, then order multiple dishes of those items. I've also eaten a garden salad without dressing and just squeezed lemon juice on top for flavor.
  • Don't expect the food you eat at a non-vegan restaurant to be glamorous or super flavorful. Your best tasting dishes will likely be cooked at home.


  • There is ALWAYS a plant-based option, so don't let that be your excuse. It may not be glamorous, but you can surely find something to eat.
  • Pack your own food if you can. Get a cooler that will keep food cool, or book a hotel that has a fridge and microwave (or a full kitchen, like Residence Inn).
  • Even if you're flying, you can still pack some food. I've traveled with dry oats in a container, then use my hotel room's coffee maker to get hot water to stir into the oats container. I also pack dry cinnamon and ground flax seeds to add as flavor. I then ask for bananas from the hotel. Voila, a hearty breakfast.
  • If packing your own food isn't an option, plan ahead before you travel to see if there are any plant-based or vegan restaurants in your destination. If flying, be sure to scope out the food options in the airport ahead of time.
  • If none are available, Whole Foods is my next place to look for because they usually have a large salad bar and prepared foods section with vegan options. They even list the ingredients so you can avoid oil. Otherwise you could consider purchasing microwavable bags of brown rice and veggies, then add some soy sauce as a simple meal.
  • If a grocery store is not an option, there are still regular restaurant and fast-food chains that can provide something for you to eat. Wendy's sells a baked potato with cheddar cheese and broccoli, so I order that and omit the cheese.
  • Making your mind up that you won't cheat even while traveling will make you more determined to find something you can eat. I have traveled a lot, and I have never been without a meal.

When you start a plant-based diet, it's important to connect with others who are doing the same thing, and probably facing the same challenges. There are many Facebook groups (like Forks Over Knives, McDougall friends, etc.) that provide a sense of community. Stay encouraged that even if you don't know anyone else personally who eats like you, there are many people in the world who do. The beauty of social media is that you can easily connect with them and not feel so alone. Stay plant strong!

That concludes my post about how to get started on a plant-based diet. If you have a question that I haven't answered, please feel free to comment and I'll do my best to answer it.

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