Veganism is more popular today than ever before (particularly as elite athletes like tennis ace Venus Williams and ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek prove that fueling fitness through plant-based foods can powerfully benefit performance levels). But if you’ve been a lifelong meat-eater, going vegan can be insanely intimidating.
Most vegan-curious athletes have good intentions, but get a little lost when it comes down to execution. Specifically, it can get confusing ensuring that you get enough protein, fats, and essential nutrients without the help of animal products.
“To live as a vegan in a non-vegan world takes both courage and curiosity,” Dominika Piasecka of the Vegan Society says. “But taking it slow, asking for help, and planning ahead all make the transition easier.
So, if you want to know how to go vegan but aren’t sure where to start, read on for some expert advice on how to switch — and STICK — to an animal-free meal plan.
How to Successfully Switch to a Vegan Meal Plan as an Athlete
1. Make Small Changes
There’s no right or wrong way to go vegan, Piasecka says. However, she does note that while some people manage to go vegan overnight, for others it’s not that simple.
“Keep your end goal in mind, but go at your own pace,” she advises. “Making small changes to your everyday meals is one of the easiest ways to increase the amount of plant-based foods in your meal plan.”
2. Try New Things
Don’t just clear the meat from your plate when making animal-free meals. Instead, use your veganism as a reason to test-drive new dishes.
“Treat your taste buds to new foods and flavors,” Piasecka suggests. “Leaving your food comfort zone will take you on a voyage of discovery of new cuisines. There are thousands of vegan recipes out there, from every corner of the globe.”
3. Relax With the Protein
Would-be vegans often worry about their protein intake.
“It’s a common myth among both consumers and health professionals that protein needs are difficult to meet on a plant-based diet,” Kate Marsh, Australian-based dietitian and author, says.
However, in a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, Marsh points out that strict protein-combining is not necessary at every meal because “the human body maintains a pool of amino acids that can be used to complement dietary protein.”
Add to that the fact that plant foods such as legumes, soy, nuts, seeds, and even grains and vegetables all contain some protein, and you can rest assured that you’ve got your intake covered.
4. Combine Your Foods Mindfully
Next to possible protein problems, many new vegans believe they’ll have to cram in the carbs to feel satiated after eating. However, that definitely won't be the case if you do it right.
“Mindfully combining your food choices can lead to greater satiety for longer periods,” Ayelet Mintz, vegan nutritionist and clinical herbalist, says.
Mintz suggests becoming familiar with plant-based fats for that post-meal feeling of fullness.
“For example, rather than eating a carb and/or protein-heavy meal alone, throw in some avocado, hemp hearts, or tahini," she says. "Fat causes food to metabolize at a slower and more stable pace, so it will leave you feeling fuller for longer.”
5. Embrace the Dynamic Duo of Vitamin C and Iron
Mintz, who works with clients online to help them transition from an animal-based to a plant-based meal plan, also highlights the importance of iron intake. While dietary iron comes in two forms — heme and non-heme — vegan diets only include the less easily-absorbable non-heme iron. However, Mintz advises that this can be overcome by combining iron intake with vitamin C, which enhances the absorption rate of iron.
“The next time you cook yourself a bowl of iron-rich lentils, add a drizzle of tahini on your salad, and squeeze some lemon on top of that, too," she suggests. "Mindfully pairing these two nutrients together optimizes your iron absorption, which is exactly what we want!”
6. Ask for Help
“Remember that going vegan is a learning curve,” Piasecka says.
It can take days, weeks, and even months to figure out which vegan foods are available to you and how to cook them. So, seek help where you can, she suggests.
Read up on facts, find new recipes, and don’t stress along the way.
“As long as you eat a wide variety of tasty plant foods, planning a healthy meal plan that incorporates all of the vitamins and nutrients you need will turn out to be a breeze,” Piasecka assures.