Plant-based diets are trendier than ever! Six to eight million Americans are now vegetarian, according to Harvard Women's Health Watch. And millions more are looking for ways to adopt a more healthy, humane, and environmentally-friendly lifestyle.
That's great news because, in addition to the well-documented health benefits of eating plant-based foods, a recent study by Oxford University found that the diets of meat-eaters result in twice as many greenhouse gas emissions as those of vegans!
But many of us don’t feel ready to switch to a strictly vegetarian or vegan diet. That’s understandable. I grew up eating meat and feeling guilty about supporting cruelty to animals, humans, and the earth; but I didn’t think I could ever give up the delicious bacon, burgers, and chicken I was deeply accustomed to enjoying.
A few years ago, I discovered that the secret to making any kind of dietary change is focusing less on what you WON’T eat, and more on what you WILL eat. Whether your goal is to eat fewer animal products, fewer carbs, less sugar, or whatever, you’re more likely to be successful if you think about substitution, rather than elimination. I sought out vegetarian recipes and taught myself to cook plant-based meals while still eating meat when I wanted to. The “overlap period” lasted several months. Pretty soon, I simply didn’t need meat anymore because I ate plenty of other things that were equally as satisfying and delicious. The transition was seamless.
So instead of thinking about how much or what types of meat to cut out, start by adding more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to your current diet. Veggie omelets with bell peppers, mushrooms, and spinach or oatmeal with fruit and nuts make for protein-packed breakfasts that can be prepped the night before.
Get creative with endless variations of soups, salads, lentils, and grain bowls for lunch. (Feel free to toss grilled chicken or fish on top!) Sandwiches are a good option if you use whole-grain (not just whole-wheat) bread, and mashed avocado makes a lovely substitute for mayo.
Build dinners around rice or quinoa, beans, and veggies that can be combined into bowls, burritos, chili, stir-fry, or pasta. (Quinoa is a plant-based grain that is prepared just like rice and contains all nine essential amino acids). Tofu and ground turkey are excellent substitutes for ground beef. Saute portobello mushroom caps in balsamic vinegar to replace your beef burger (but keep all your toppings) or slice them up to make vegetarian Philly cheesesteaks. Throw in the right spices, and your plant-based meals can be hearty, filling, and bursting with flavor. I'm a strong believer that eating healthy (and responsibly) doesn't require going hungry or broke.
The more colorful, the better!
Americans eat significantly more meat than necessary — the notion of meat as the meal's centerpiece and veggies on the side is backward. Ancient human civilizations consumed mostly plants (whatever they could farm or forage). Meat was scarce because they had to hunt it themselves with spears or bows and arrows (Imagine eating meat only when your husband could catch you a rabbit or spear a buffalo! Most of us would be doomed).
The Mediterranean diet is a perfect example of eating mostly plant-based meals with a few meat items thrown in here and there. Some people include meat in just one meal per day, or just one day a week. Some people have Meatless Mondays or Fish Fridays. The point is, you don’t have to perfectly adhere to a 100 percent plant-based diet in order to make a difference. Every little bit counts! Once you've mastered a few plant-based recipes for each meal of the day, you won't feel deprived, and you won't feel bad about the occasional indulgence. Remember to watch your portion sizes - too much of anything will weigh you down. And again, don’t wait until you’re ready to cut out meat altogether before incorporating plant-based meals into your routine. Start today!
My philosophy in a nutshell:
Just eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Indulge guilt-free.