What switching to plant-based meals taught me

May 12, 2018 | By | More

pea shoot saladI like lofty goals. For a long time, one of those lofty goals was switching to plant-based meals. I am not vegan, but I just wanted to eat like one more often.

Since the new year, I gave it a shot, and I’ve been eating 100% plant-based foods for nearly every meal. Vegan eating has always been appealing to me for animal welfare reasons. I was a vegetarian in college, but I had strayed from that over the years to enjoy pastured meats occasionally.

The cruelty of dairy

Skipping meat is no challenge for me, but the problem was always dairy. I completely love it, and I believed it wasn’t as cruel as meat because the animals weren’t killed in the process. Then, I learned it would be kinder if they actually were. Commercial dairy is a grossly inhumane industry – and yes even on small, organic farms – for reasons you can research on your own.

Further, male calves are a useless byproduct in dairy production and they become veal calves. I have never in my life eaten veal because of the cruelty, and I could simply no longer ignore its connection to dairy. Once I made this connection in my mind, I knew I had to try cutting dairy out of my life.

What was it like to eat plant-based meals?

It was great! I’ve always cooked with a great variety of flavors and whole food ingredients, and my vegan meals are no different. I love all vegetables, nuts and seeds and these became the cornerstone of my meals. I didn’t miss meat at all, nor did I miss cheese – well mostly. Pizza remains the only thing that is just a total bummer when you don’t use dairy cheese. And we used to make pizza a lot in our house. I cheated a few times this winter and had our traditional pizza.

best vegan cheeses

Fancy plant-based cheese

I’ve significantly expanded our food repertoire. I’m learning how to make so many new things, and it’s been a fun adventure in the kitchen. I make fresh, homemade almond milk, chia seed breakfast pudding, green smoothies with hemp protein, beer-braised tempeh tacos, homemade seitan cutlets with mustard sauce, roasted vegetables sprinkled with nutritional yeast, smooth cashew cream, curries, soups, and vegan desserts.

Lessons from my switch to plant-based foods

  1. There are lots of unhealthy vegan food products. Vegan doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. Some vegan products are full of garbage ingredients I didn’t eat before this experiment, and I still won’t eat them now. I won’t touch vegan cheese and margarine that contain palm and canola oils. I won’t eat meat substitutes like the popular Beyond Meat because they are no better than other processed foods that line supermarket shelves with processed soy, preservatives and artificial colors.
  2. Vitamin B12 deficiency is a risk. The only source of this important nutrient is animal products, and so unless they supplement, many vegans have a deficiency. I’ve been taking a spray B12 supplement daily that was recommended by the wellness specialist at my local co-op.
  3. There are some amazing, clean vegan products. I’ve already told you about the amazing dairy-free cashew cheeses I’ve discovered. They have only a handful of clean ingredients and satisfy my cheese cravings. I have also found a fabulous dairy-free butter that tastes like the best traditional cultured butter I’ve eaten. It is coconut oil based and contains no palm or canola oil. It’s great slathered on my homemade sourdough bread and perfect as a baking ingredient.
  4. Homemade is still best. Since I started cooking in my 20s, I have focused on making everything I can from scratch using ingredients I recognize. I do cooking the hard way. My vegan cooking is the same, and that helps me avoid unhealthy processed foods.
  5. Dairy-free milk is delicious. I order almonds directly from a California farmer because that’s the only way you can get truly raw, unpasteurized almonds grown the US, and I use them to make fresh almond milk myself. I also make cashew milk which is creamier and heavier than almond milk, and I enjoy full-fat coconut milk, too. All of these alternatives to dairy milk are delicious and satisfying. I used to drink hot chocolate in the winter, and now I sip this delicious golden milk before bed.
  6. I am hungry more often. Switching to plant-based meals means you’ll probably eat fewer calories without even trying. Plants just aren’t as calorie-dense as meat, eggs and cheese. My meals feel lighter, and I rarely feel unpleasantly full. I snack more often on fruit, vegan cheese and crackers or a handful of pistachios.
  7. My health has improved. When I went for my yearly physical recently, I requested an updated blood lipid panel. My cholesterol levels, while always a little high in total, had never caused my doctor concern partly because I don’t have other heart disease risk factors and my “good” cholesterol has always been through the roof. Imagine my surprise when my new numbers showed a dramatic improvement: 62 points down on total cholesterol, 46 points down on “bad” cholesterol and 52 points down on triglycerides. I have read all sorts of conflicting information about the connection (or lack of) between cholesterol and risk of heart disease. However, I sure feel better knowing my numbers are now nowhere near the high end. I attribute this change to eating nearly no animal products, slightly dialing back my alcohol consumption and treating desserts like they should be treated – as an occasional indulgence.
  8. Restaurants aren’t on board. Besides pizza, the next biggest challenge is trying to find vegan meals in restaurants. We are lucky in Philadelphia to have some vegan restaurants that are among the best anywhere, ranging from takeout falafel to fine dining. But mostly, eating in restaurants is hard if you want a plant-based meal. Even if it looks safe on the menu, chances are good the dish contains butter. And forget desserts. While making vegan desserts at home is easy, most restaurants have no options for plant-based eaters.

If you want to try it…

  1. chia seed pudding

    Chia seed pudding with my favorite toppings

    Get a good vegan cookbook for inspiration. Switching to plant-based meals is a major change, but it shouldn’t feel like a drag. The best plant-based meals aren’t simply meat-free versions of your favorite foods. Instead, these foods should be enjoyable in their own right. You’ll learn to taste vegetables, nuts and seeds for what they really are and your preferences will likely change as your cravings do.

  2. Stock your pantry. Getting your pantry in order can be a significant upfront investment. Although I have a well-stocked pantry, I was missing vegan staples such as nutritional yeast, raw cashews, hemp seeds, chia seeds, vital wheat gluten, some Asian condiments and alternative flours like chickpea and almond.
  3. Go easy on yourself. Making the switch to plant-based meals was fairly easy for me for two reasons: I do not have strong cravings for meat, and I naturally like vegetables, nuts and seeds. If you are a meat lover or don’t really like vegetables, making the switch is going to be more difficult for you. Same goes if you’re not excited about trying new foods that seem a little unusual. If you’re interested in eating plant-based foods, examine the reasons why and remember those reasons every time you choose what to eat. Don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect. Even if you can incorporate more plants into your diet, the health of your body and our planet will still benefit.

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Category: Enviable Ideas, General, Home and Garden, Stories

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  1. Pat Barker says:

    Great article you’re going to make me change my ways… Thank you

  2. Alli says:

    So very interesting! I love reading your articles. Like you, I could go without meat, but the cheese is for sure a challenge. Cheers to you and your Vegan adventures 😉

    • Brande says:

      Yes, I remember that you are not a big meat eater. It seemed daunting before, but I can honestly say, I do not miss the cheese except for pizza. And, what it’s doing for my health is good reinforcement, too. If you come visit, I’ll make you some delicious vegan meals!

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