By Farin Montanez
What does healthy eating look like? Don’t worry. It’s not all kale salads and kombucha.
Populations that eat a whole food, plant-based diet have been shown to live longer, healthier lives. People who switch from a standard American diet to a vegan/plant-based diet have successfully prevented and reversed chronic conditions like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Transitioning to this evidence-based diet doesn’t have to be intimidating.
When people tell me “I’ve never eaten vegan food,” I have to point out that they’ve probably eaten an apple before, and perhaps a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Every Mexican restaurant I’ve ever been to offers a vegan starter as soon as we sit down to eat—chips and salsa.
Vegan food isn’t strange or foreign, it’s just food that doesn’t contain any products derived from animals or their byproducts. This means no meat, no dairy products, no eggs and no gelatin, which is made by prolonged boiling of skin, cartilage and bones from animals.
I’m often asked, “Well what’s left? If I can’t have meat, eggs, milk, cheese, sour cream, ice cream or yogurt, what can I eat?”
There’s such an abundance of vegan food: vegetables, fruit, pasta, bread, beans, tofu, nuts, seeds, lentils and the list goes on.
Instead of focusing on what you “can’t” have or choose not to have, open your eyes to the whole world of food that you might not have experienced yet.
Here are five simple shifts you can try to move toward a healthier diet:
- Try plant-based milks
Studies have linked the consumption of cow’s milk to higher rates of breast, prostate and ovarian cancers, along with worsening of acne and eczema. Personally, my migraines disappeared when I stopped consuming dairy products.
By choosing not to drink cow’s milk (you’re not a cow, after all), you can expand your horizons and try almond milk, hemp milk, oat milk, cashew milk, soy milk, coconut milk, rice milk and more.
If you’re not a milk drinker, but you’re addicted to cheese, give my nacho sauce recipe a try. Visit spiritedvegan.com/nacho-sauce for a cashew-based nacho sauce that tastes way better (and is better for you) than the neon orange cheese-like substance you’ll find on any other nachos.
- Start your day loaded with fruits and vegetables
A green smoothie is an excellent way to get several servings of fruits and vegetables in a quick and easy meal that you can take on-the-go. All it requires is a decent blender and a willingness to try different combinations of ingredients.
The ideal green smoothie will contain two large handfuls of dark, leafy greens (spinach and kale are ideal) plus a cup of frozen fruit, a tablespoon of seeds (hemp, flax and chia pack the most nutritional value), and a cup of water or non-dairy milk.
Here’s a secret: It doesn’t have to be green! Adding fruit like cherries and blueberries will turn a “green smoothie” different shades of purple.
Stocking your freezer doesn’t just mean buying bags of frozen fruits. Freezing fresh fruit is a great way to prevent waste. If you have bananas that have started to brown, peel them, tear them into three or four pieces, and place them in a freezer bag to use in smoothies later. This can be done with any other fruit you haven’t had a chance to eat. Cut it into chunks, remove any pits and/or peels, and freeze them.
- Switch from refined carbohydrates to whole grains
A diet rich in whole grains has been shown to lower the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and some forms of cancer.
Whole grains, which contain the endosperm, germ and bran, pack tons of nutrients and fiber. Refined grains, which retain only the endosperm, have been stripped of their nutrients and fiber.
Do your go-to grain products consist of white bread, pasta and rice? It’s easy to make the switch to more nutrient-dense options. Try a pasta made from legumes or whole wheat. Switch to whole grain bread; a great option is any variety of Dave’s Killer Bread.
There are also so many more grains to experiment with such as quinoa, farro and millet, which can easily be substituted for rice in your favorite meals.
- Replace meat with plant-based proteins and veggies
One of my favorite sayings is, “Anything you can eat, I can make vegan.”
Tacos al pastor? Try substituting canned young green jackfruit for pork. It’ll taste the same, it’ll look the same and it’ll even feel the same, as jackfruit has a pulled-pork consistency.
Burgers? You can make a burger out of any combination of veggies, beans, lentils and grains like rice or quinoa. There are even several varieties of meat-like patties from brands like Gardein and Beyond Meat that are made from soy protein and pea protein. Taste one and you’ll never know that you’re not eating beef. While these products are processed, they contain far less fat—and zero cholesterol—compared to the flesh of a cow.
Marinate mushrooms and sauté them with peppers and onions as a fantastic fajita filling. There are so many easy swaps to make for any dish—just Google “vegan” and then the name of your favorite meal for recipes.
- Drink plenty of water
Our bodies are made up of 50%–65% water, which aids in digestion, absorption, circulation, creation of saliva, transportation of nutrients and maintenance of body temperature. With so much at stake, it’s really important to stay hydrated.
I recommend using a smartphone app to track your water intake. My favorite is Plant Nanny, which can remind you with a notification to drink water throughout the day. As motivation, a virtual plant will grow as you drink (and can wilt and die if you don’t drink enough water).
Just enter your weight and activity level and Plant Nanny will recommend the number of ounces to drink per day. Challenge yourself to drink your day’s worth of water before allowing yourself sips of any other beverage.
Farin Montanez is a certified holistic nutritionist, ultramarathon runner, a mother of two and a military wife. She helps people transition to a plant-based diet through nutrition counseling and through her blog, SpiritedVegan.com. Follow her on Instagram @spiritedvegan.