Second Act

6 Steps to a Vegan Diet

On a recent episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah and 378 of her meat-and-dairy-eating staffers took on the challenge of eating an entirely vegan diet for one week. Most of the group completed the task and stuck to the “rules” -- no meat, dairy or animal byproducts -- and lost a collective 444 pounds in the process. The recap video sums up an overall positive, yet difficult, experience for some of the participants.

You may like the idea of eating leaner and cleaner, but becoming a full-fledged vegan can be daunting. Jesse Miner, a vegan personal chef in San Francisco, offers this approach instead: Take baby steps.

Miner says gradually adopting some healthy vegan habits (rather than clearing out your pantry) can be the best way to improve your diet. His clients, some of whom are in their 40s and 50s, are either trying to maintain their health or switch to healthier diets because of issues such as diabetes and high cholesterol.

Whether you’re looking to overhaul your diet or just tweak it a bit, here are six tips to veganize your life.

1. Don’t Let Low Prices Fool You.

Lots of items in the grocery store can be kind to your wallet, but killer to your body. That’s because many of them are mass-processed and contain unpronounceable ingredients that can be harsh to your system. Miner says you can still keep your costs low if you shop carefully. “The lower you get on the processed food chain, the more affordable your food becomes,” he says. “Buy fresh vegetables and chop them up yourself. Every time someone elects for fresh products over packaged food, it’s going to be cheaper and better for you in the long run.”

2. Go Green.

This is an easy one in terms of being able to find ingredients in your local store and working them into your meals. Adding even just one or two salads (preferably more than that, but you have to start somewhere) to your diet really makes a difference. If you consider salads to be boring bowls of lettuce, check out these tasty salad recipes at the Vegan Coach website. (Here’s a great one for Caesar salad.)

3. Consider Food Textures.

Enjoying food doesn’t just come from the taste. It’s also about texture and consistency. You don’t have to forgo that sense of cheesy gooeyness on pizza or pasta -- vegetarian cheeses provide a similar texture without the milkfat. (For mac & cheese lovers, here’s a vegan version.) Craving meat? Veggie sausages (Miner likes the Tofurky brand) thrown into a favorite tomato sauce and pasta make for a satisfying meal without the saturated fat from beef. You can also replace tender cuts of meat with portabello mushrooms, which are hearty and have a “meaty” texture.

4. Try Some Oft-Forgotten Proteins.

Tofu, chickpeas, lentils, quinoa (a whole grain that’s as easy and quick to make as white rice) and nuts are all good sources of protein. Plus, they’re filling, full of fiber and easily take on other flavors if you add seasoning. Check out this Everyday Dish vegan blog for how-to videos on making your dishes more flavorful.

5. Remember: Brown Rice Isn’t Just For Vegans.

Make the switch from white rice to brown. The consistency is a bit different, but you’ll get a hearty helping of grains to pair with other food on your plate. Plus, the fiber keeps the trains moving on time.

6. Find Better Ways to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth.

For sugary cravings, Miner suggests fruit, dark chocolate (most are vegan), sorbets and nondairy (often soy) ice creams, which can be found in grocery stores. (Here’s a Grist article on some products on the market.)

Miner advises that you give yourself at least a month to adapt to a veganized diet. He says a week (such as Winfrey’s challenge) is not enough time to develop good habits or a routine.

“If you’re used to eating a lot of salt and sugar in your food, your taste buds might struggle a bit,” he says. “Things might not taste as ‘good’ at first, and your system might need to adjust to processing that extra fiber.”

Los Angeles resident Nancy Henriksen is slowly opting for more vegan choices in her diet because of high cholesterol -- mostly due to dairy products. Henriksen’s adjustments include replacing cow’s milk with soy or rice milk in her cereal and substituting butter with a low-cholesterol dairy-free option such as Smart Balance spread. The substitutes may not taste exactly the same, but she welcomes the changes.

“It forces me to think of new ways to fill the void,” says Henriksen, 45. “It just takes time to get used to. If you were raised on [these foods], you wouldn’t think twice about it. Soon, you just end up preferring it.”

Read more: 10 Easy Ways to Sneak Better Nutrition Into Your Life