You’re all pumped up and ready to change your diet but where do you start? Do you have to go all-in, start with dipping your toes or perhaps just change some things for now? Here are the key steps to help you make your plant-based diet a success!
Do you look after what you eat?
Decisions about what you eat are crucial to your health and athletic performance yet we make so many of them unconsciously, out of habit. To decide to change your diet even to a small degree doesn’t mean making new decisions every day; rather, it’s about building new and better habits. They influence your energy levels, how you feel, your immune system, stamina, recovery rates, literally how all your organs work (heart, kidneys, liver, digestive system, even your lungs), and your long-term health as well (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
Of course other lifestyle choices matter too, such as stress, environmental factors and your job but we can address those through yoga, exercise, mindfulness techniques and other adjustments. Yet nothing can make up for a bad diet! The good news is that it’s so easy and affordable to eat well – really well – these days that there’s no doubt you can do it. You can start right now by making your diet more plant-based and you will reap performance and health benefits very quickly.
Do you have to have a 100% plant-based diet? If you feel ready, go for it! If you don’t feel it’s for you right now, it’s ok, just take a few steps – any steps towards a plant-based diet are positive steps and it’s up to you how far you go. Make sure you’re moving forward at a speed that suits you and is sustainable for your routine. These changes will become your new normal in no time – for example changing what you have for breakfast.
1. Start gradually with a plant-based diet
Some people are able to change their lifestyle overnight but attempting that also sets you up for a bigger risk of failure. It’s better to take gradual steps – that way you’ll have time to adapt what you’re eating to suit your needs. Taking things slow also makes you more confident in taking the next steps. As you learn a bit more about plant-based diets, how to shop, and see the health and energy improvements, you’ll be keen to progress further!
Start with replacing one daily meal with a plant-based one or making a couple of days a week plant-based, try switching from dairy to plant-based alternatives or ditching one type of meat at a time (many people do that – red meat usually goes first, then poultry, fish and seafood*). Remember, any new habit takes about three weeks to build – and then it becomes automatic. You may want to move ahead in three-week intervals, giving yourself realistic goals and rewarding your progress.
* Fish, shellfish and other ‘seafood’ are a major source of dangerous environmental pollutants, including pesticides, heavy metals (mercury, lead, cadmium) and other dangerous substances – it’s why pregnant women and small children are warned against their consumption (9, 10, 11, 12, 13).
2. Begin with foods you know and love
Many foods you probably already eat are components of a plant-based diet- fruit, vegetables, bread, peanut butter, baked beans, pasta, lentil soup, breakfast cereal, etc. Other meals you like can most likely be easily adapted by simple swaps – lentils instead of ground beef, plant-based burgers instead of meat burgers, chickpeas/garbanzo instead of chicken in a curry, marinated tofu instead of fish in sushi or instead of meat in a stir-fry, plant-based milks instead of dairy milk, same for ice-cream, yogurt, mayo, protein powders, etc. No need to go for exotic and fancy ingredients, start where you are and see where it takes you!
3. Eat enough
One of the big changes when you go plant-based is that you may have to eat more food – meaning bigger portions. It’s because animal-based foods don’t contain any fiber but usually have more fat, packing more calories iń smaller portions. Plant-based wholefoods naturally contain fiber and are lower in fat (with some exceptions like nuts) so you’ll need to increase your ‘normal’ portions to make sure you eat enough. And there’s a delicious bonus to this – eating plant-based means you can eat more than before and still lose fat! Whoa! What? Yes, it’s true and a well-known effect of plants.
Plant-based diets fuel you with healthy carbs, provide an excellent protein package and small doses of essential fats, all of which contribute to optimizing your metabolism so it works in the best possible way and helps you shed any excess fat you may not need (14). So eat up to stay trim!
4. Give your body time to adapt
The more plants you eat, the better your body will function but it won’t happen overnight. When you eat meat, dairy and eggs, your body is working hard to deal with it all, producing more bile and supporting certain bacteria in the gut that thrive on these foods, producing nasty by-products like TMAO. When you start feeding your body more plants rich in fiber, complex carbs, plant protein and naturally lower in saturated fat, your body goes through a transition period. That means the gut bacteria are changing – meat- and fat-eating toxic bacteria reduce in numbers, while carb- and fibre-munching, plant-protein-thriving bacteria multiply and help you digest plants (15). These bacteria that prosper on plant-based foods are incredibly beneficial to your health, keeping the gut wall strong and healthy, boosting the immune system, lowering levels of inflammation in your body and making you feel good (15).
When you start eating wholegrains, legumes/pulses, fruit and vegetables, and nuts and seeds on a daily basis, these good bacteria start increasing in numbers but if you change your diet suddenly, you may experience a ‘flatulent’ period of perhaps a couple of weeks when your gut bacteria are changing but not fast enough to cope with your new diet. It’s another reason why it’s best to change your diet gradually! As your body adapts, you’ll experience better digestion, more energy and much more pleasant bathroom visits than on a meaty diet. Just be patient and you’ll see for yourself!
5. Be curious
It’s good to start with familiar dishes and ingredients but don’t be afraid to experiment. Try new foods and spices, give tofu a chance (good seasoning performs miracles) and you’ll be surprised how many new flavors and meals you discover. It doesn’t have to be fancy at all, if you have your go-to meals, it’s perfectly fine to just tweak them a little to be healthier! Good old rice and beans or spaghetti Bolognese can be your ideal dinner.
When you’re stuck on ideas, put a few ingredients you already have at home in Google search for recipes and you’ll end up with tons of inspiration. You may also find new tricks, such as adding tahini in sauces for creaminess, blending beans to make a thick sauce for pasta (or anything else), and using chickpea/garbanzo flour to make protein-rich brownies or cookies.
6. Stock up
Always have some back-up foods in your cupboard, freezer or day bag so you’re not caught hungry. It can be simple things like baked beans, nut butters, frozen burritos, peas, big bag of granola, trail mix, protein snack bars, dark chocolate, your favorite treats and whatever tickles your fancy.
7. Don’t worry if you slip up
If you stray from your plan, accidentally or intentionally eat something ‘naughty’, don’t beat yourself up. Just start again the next day! There’s no diet police to catch you and just because you slipped up, it doesn’t mean you can’t jump back on your new diet track. Focus on all the positive steps you’ve made, don’t judge or beat yourself up. It takes time to change habits!
8. Find your new favorites and convenience options
It’s good to have some comfort foods, easy combinations and go-to options in stores. When you go plant-based, you start noticing new options, meals you didn’t see before, discover shortcuts. There’s nothing wrong with buying convenience foods and you can always improve them too – get a frozen pizza base and layer on your favorite veggie toppings, stop for a plant-based sushi bowl and load it up with sesame and pumpkin seeds, supercharge your sandwich with tempeh bacon. Bulletproof on-the-go options usually include falafel wraps, bean burritos, veggie subs or burgers, couscous or quinoa salad pots, tomato and lentil soups, soba noodle pots.
When it comes to treats, a plant-based diet has lots to offer! From almond-based ice cream, through chocolate chip cookies to decadent cakes. You’ll just have to find your new favorite!
9. Eating out and being social
Eating out brings up new decisions and conversations but you may be surprised how quickly times are changing. Many restaurants, bistros and cafes have plant-based options or you can ask for a meal to be tweaked to your needs. Check the menu online before you go but also don’t be afraid to ask, some places even have a separate menu for different diets!
When in doubt, Asian restaurants are a good bet – Chinese, Thai, Indian, Japanese – and so are Mexican ones. Fast food chains are keeping up too, although you may not want to eat there on a daily basis for your health’s sake.
But what about family and friends? Chances are, some of them already have health issues that a plant-based diet may help or they have heard of the heavy impact of animal farming on the planet. Not that you should bring this up immediately when you see them but be positive and if they ask about your food choices, tell them how it makes you feel better, mention some health or performance improvements or talk about plant-based athletes that inspire you. Over time, they will see how well you look and may become more curious, if not willing to try plant-based too!
Take home message
Changing the way you eat may seem daunting and sometimes we don’t know where to start. It’s absolutely normal so don’t doubt yourself and start exactly where you are. No need to go to great lengths, just trust the process and start small until you feel ready to go further. Even small changes can result in tangible improvements in your energy levels, stamina, health and mood. The better you feel, the more motivated you will be to see how much more you can improve, creating positive feedback for yourself and making you more confident. Changing your diet is not about the foods you’re not eating anymore, it’s about a whole new world of food possibilities and exciting options, making you a thriving athlete!