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How to Transition to a Vegan Diet

August 21, 2015

In this country, we love our meat. Give most of us a hearty Texas rib-eye, a juicy cheeseburger or chicken smothered in sauce and we’ve gone to carnivore heaven.

But even within our meat-loving culture, plant-based diets are becoming more popular. That’s because of their proven health benefits. A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition & Diabetes found that a vegan diet can help treat diabetes. It also may ease nerve pain and potentially reduce the risk of amputation in people with diabetes.

The small pilot study found that 17 people with Type 2 diabetes assigned a vegan diet over 20 weeks lost an average of 14 pounds. Circulation also improved in their feet and they had less nerve pain. Some participants also better regulated their blood sugar, which allowed them to lower their dosage of diabetes medication.

Though we need to do more research to better understand the link between plant-based diets and diabetes, these findings are encouraging because people with Type 2 diabetes are at high risk for diabetic neuropathy, a type of nerve damage caused by poor blood flow and high levels of blood sugar. The condition can lead to infections that may cause amputation.

If you have diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol or heart disease, a plant-based diet may reduce symptoms associated with these conditions—and in some cases reverse them. Any diet that replaces high fat, processed foods with whole grains, fruits and vegetables is good for you, so eating partially vegan even some of the time will have significant health benefits. Here are some tips for how to gradually transition to a more plant-based diet.

Making the Transition to a Vegan Diet

A vegan diet is absent of any animal products, including dairy and eggs. It can seem really restrictive if you’re used to eating meat every day, but there are a lot of substitutions you can slowly make to achieve a more balanced diet.

Change Your Shopping Habits

Start by keeping your pantry and fridge stocked with healthier food items. Replace most (or all) of your processed and prepackaged foods with fresher options. Try fresh apple slices with almond butter, fresh veggies with hummus, or. All of these are delicious and healthy options you can grab if you’re on the go or get a little hungry before lunchtime or dinner.

Take it Slow

Replace one meat-based meal a day with a plant-based one. If you normally eat a sausage or bacon egg breakfast sandwich, switch to a breakfast smoothie made with kale or spinach and berries or other fruit (trust me, it actually tastes good). You can also incorporate avocado, tofu or soy milk. The avocado provides healthy unsaturated fat, and tofu or soy milk provide protein and calcium, which are often nutrients of concern for vegans. If you would rather have a hearty breakfast, make substitutions for lunch or dinner and swap the meat for mushrooms, beans, lentils, eggplant or other vegetables in your soups, stews, rice and pasta dishes.

Focus on What You Can Eat—Not What You Can’t

One of the common complaints I hear about vegan food is that it’s tasteless. But this isn’t really true. There are plenty of tasty vegan foods that you wouldn’t immediately think of as plant-based. Ever tried kale and white bean soup? How about a mushroom and onion flatbread pizza, vegan pad thai or risotto made with summer squash? See, there are countless delicious things you can eat.

Get Support

Talk to your doctor, dietitian or nutritionist before you make the leap to an all plant-based diet. They can guide you and give advice about what to eat to maintain proper nutrition. One of the biggest concerns with a vegan diet is getting enough protein. However, beans, lentils, seeds and nuts are good protein sources. Just add them to your salads and main meals or throw seeds and nuts into the blender with your smoothies to get more protein. Also seek out online communities, recipe groups and clubs that may provide more resources and encouragement for sticking with a plant-based diet.

Eating healthy every day isn’t always easy. We all want to indulge sometimes, but consistency and balance are important when it comes to a balanced diet. You may not be able to eat vegan every single day of the week for the rest of your life, but making small changes will help you slowly transition from meat protein to a more plant-based diet. Even small steps can lead to big results, so there’s no harm in trying.