Ready to make the switch? Consider these six smart strategies for finding fulfillment—and better health—with vegan cooking.
1. Focus on the good stuff Like many people considering a vegan diet, at first I thought it was all about eliminating forbidden foods I love. Goodbye, eggs. Farewell, fish. Instead, focus on getting more of the really good stuff—lots of yummy plants. Think of this as a “whole foods, plant-based diet.” (That is Campbell’s preferred terminology.) Forget the intricacies of the USDA’s Food Pyramid, and sub in the simple four squares of PCRM’s Power Plate: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans/legumes. Build your diet on a broad range of these foods, and you’ll get a complete complement of proteins (along with ample fiber, heart-healthy fats and a myriad of phytonutrients).
2. Think outside the box You’d be surprised at what foods are vegan—Oreos, Tater-Tots, Fritos, to name a few. “When they go vegan, a lot of people go for those processed vegan products,” says Isa Chandra Moskowitz, co-author of Veganomicon (Da Capo Press) among other vegan cookbooks. As with any packaged food, scan the list of ingredients—if it has hydrogenated fat or a laundry list of unfamiliar chemicals, put it back. That’s not to say packaged foods are entirely off the menu; on the contrary, they’re a blessing when you’re über-busy or craving a vegan version of, say, a burger, sausage or cheese.
3. Expand your horizons Vegan chefs like Moskowitz often look to Asian, Mediterranean, Latin and African fare for inspiration. These cuisines have a long history of focusing on plant foods, and offer interesting techniques and bold flavors to make the most of them.
4. Bring on the umami The so-called “fifth taste,” umami is a hearty, savory quality that makes food taste deeply satisfying. It’s abundant in animal-based foods like meat and cheese, but many plant foods boast umami satisfaction, including mushrooms, soy sauce, miso and cooked tomatoes. Cooking techniques such as roasting vegetables or toasting nuts and spices can also boost a food’s umami factor.
5. Be willing to experiment For many, going vegan is an adventure in discovering new foods. A walk through a Saturday morning farmers market may reveal many more varieties of squash than you’d ever imagined; the beans and legumes section at a health food store might make your head spin. Try these foods on for size—commit to one or two new foods a week, and you’ll be surprised how your tastes will change. “It opens up your culinary world,” says Moskowitz. “I think it changes your palate, so it becomes more nuanced.” For guidance, you can use the Web, of course, or find a good book to fall back on. Moskowitz’s own Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook (Marlowe & Company) is a great resource to learn more about smart substitutions for vegan dishes. Craving a meatless spin on downhome grub? Try Bryant Terry’s Vegan Soul Kitchen (Da Capo Press). Actress Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet (Rodale Books) offers easy strategies and recipes for wannabe vegans.
6. Take it slow You might be fired up about going vegan, but remember that you don’t have to do it overnight—it may take time to let go of favorite foods and learn to embrace new ones. “It’s a learning process,” says Moskowitz. “It may take six months, or a year or five years to go completely vegan.” Even if you just go vegan a few days a week, or commit to making one or two meals a day vegan, you’re still helping your health, the planet and the animals. As for me, I’m not quite ready to commit to a life without omelets, pound cake and Parmigiano-Reggiano. But I’ve learned that I can do with a lot less of the stuff. I’ve made Meatless Mondays sacrosanct in our house. It’s a start.
Supplement smartly Those on a vegan diet should take care to get enough B12, a key nutrient that supports blood and nervous system function. “It’s only found in measurable amounts in animal products, fortified foods and supplements,” says Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D., nutritional adviser to the Vegetarian Resource Group. Everyone needs more vitamin D—a nutrient for everything from bone and heart health to immune function and more. Although your body produces its own vitamin D with sun exposure, many of us don’t get enough sun either because we live in locales without adequate sun year-round and/or sunscreen inhibits vitamin D-producing UV rays. Mangels suggests that vegans should include vitamin D-fortified foods, such as soymilk, and take a supplement with plant-derived D2 (as opposed to animal-derived D3).