Eating a Plant-Based Diet for Beginners (and Curious Omnivores) – Part 1

Plant-Based Diet for beginnersThis is the first installment in our five-part series on eating a plant-based diet. Be sure to check out parts twothreefour and five as well.

More and more of our readers have been asking us what eating a plant-based diet entails. While we try our best not to be militant when talking about our food choices, we love it when people express an interest in moving away from meat, eggs and dairy. So, it gives us a ridiculous amount of pleasure to present: Eating a Plant-Based Diet for Beginners (and Curious Omnivores). Enjoy! 🙂

Couple of notes before we dive in. When I set out to tackle the topic I had no idea it would unravel into something in excess of 4000 words (in blogosphere terms that’s like the extended version of War and Peace).  I’ve therefore decided to break it up into installments (probably four five) to avoid the risk of information overwhelm. Plus, it’ll give you guys the opportunity to weigh in with questions and observations along the way. (Because, collaboration.)

Our Plant-Based Story

Plant-Based Diet for Beginners We weren’t always the picture of glowing, outdoorsy good health (we used sit in bars and drink tequila)

Meat and dairy played a big part in both of our lives as kids and continued to do so well into adulthood. It was only in our very early thirties that Sporty and I finally decided to stop eating red meat.

I don’t know what exactly prompted the decision, although I do have a very clear memory of biting into a frankfurter and suddenly wondering what it was made of. Maybe that’s what sparked the change, I’m not sure.

I mean, it’s not like health was even a consideration back then. We smoked, drank large quantities of alcohol and ate a seriously unbalanced diet that favoured sugar, white bread and German sausages.

Our first real foray into a healthier way of eating was after I discovered Dr Andrew Weil’s book, 8 Weeks to Optimum Health (thanks Oprah!). The book proved to be a lot like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland.

Dr Weil was merely the jumping off point however; since then we’ve read and watched countless movies and books on the subject of health and wellness. We’ve tried all sorts of diet plans, from the protein-obsessed gym bunny diet to going completely raw.

We also swung back and forth between eating animal products and eschewing them and then eating them again. Finally, about five years ago we made the decision to go 100% vegan.


A Disclaimer (of Sorts)

Plant-Based Diet for Beginners Just because you read it on the interwebs, doesn’t mean it’s true

We’re not doctors or dieticians or experts on nutrition (if we’re experts at anything, it’s coffee and chocolate). What follows is just our thoughts on a way of eating that has served our health and our bank account well.

If you’re keen to follow us down this path (yay, please do!), then you can inform yourself by reading the books and blogs, watching the movies and listening to the podcasts that we’ll share with you in the final instalment of this epic series.

Swapping to a plant-based diet isn’t rocket science. You eat more fruit and vegetables and less animal products, until eventually you’re eating only plant-based food.

Normally, when suggesting someone adopts a new lifestyle habit, it’s recommended that they consult their physician first. If the lifestyle habit in question is, say, hiking the Appalachian Trail in your eighties or swimming the English Channel when you’re in your seventies, by all means, go get a physical.

But seriously, you don’t need your doctor’s permission to eat more carrots and less rump steak. Besides, you only have to watch a movie like What the Health to see that the medical profession may not always have your best interests at heart.

Western medicine certainly has its place. You can drink all the kale juice you like, it’s not going to reattach that severed finger or set that broken leg. I just think we need to start taking a more active role in our healthcare instead of leaving it to someone else. One of the best ways to do that is by learning how to listen  to our bodies.

That way, when something does go awry we’ll be better equipped to figure out the best way to solve the problem. And that includes knowing if it even needs input from a medical specialist at all.

Right, enough with the boring stuff, if you’ve got half a brain (you’re reading this blog, of course you do) you’ll know to take whatever we say with a pinch of sustainably sourced Himalayan salt. Let’s move on.

What Even is a Plant-Based Diet?

Plant-Based Diet for Beginners You may think it’s all about rabbit food, but there’s more to a plant-based diet than meets the eye

Let’s start by looking at what exactly a plant-based diet is. For many, it may seem obvious. But then, on the other end of the spectrum, we still have people asking if we eat fish or eggs. So let’s go ahead and clear that up once and for all.

What a Plant-Based Diet Includes

A plant-based diet includes anything that —as the name implies— comes from a plant e.g. vegetables, fruit, legumes (beans, lentils, split peas, chickpeas, etc.) and grains (rice, quinoa, barley, oats, etc.).

What a Plant-Based Diet Excludes

It excludes anything that is derived from an animal e.g. meat (beef, pork, chicken, fish, seafood), eggs and dairy (cheese, yoghurt, milk, ice-cream, cream). Sporty and I also exclude honey from our diet, however, not all plant-based advocates do.

Please consider signing Greenpeace’s Save the Bees petition.  You can also read this article by to find out what’s wrong with eating honey. Although, that will likely raise the question: Isn’t sustainably sourced honey okay? For Sporty and I, it’s still taking from another creature. You’ll need to decide for yourself.

The Wild Cards

Plant-Based Diet for beginners You can always tell by how fakey pants something looks if it contains dodgy ingredients

It’s a little bit trickier than that, however, as there are some wild cards (e.g. sugar) that technically should be considered plant-based, but due to the way they’re produced, aren’t always.

By making it a habit to read the label on the back of a product and familiarising yourself with the terms, you’ll soon learn what is vegan and what isn’t.

For example, you may think wine gums are vegan (they’re just sweets, right?), but they contain gelatine. A lot of candy also contains shellac (a resin secreted by the female lac bug) and carmine (a pigment produced from some scale insects). Check out this list for more hidden animal products.

Learning how to read nutrition labels is useful for more than just spotting non-vegan ingredients however. It also helps you understand other crucial information, such as the amount of sugar, fiber, etc. lurking in the snack you’re about to ingest.

That’s in for this instalment. Next week we’ll look at whether a plant-based diet is healthy and if you’ll lose weight on it. We’ll also address the question of protein. Prepare yourselves, it’s gonna be a humdinger.

[Tweet ““Compassion is the best side effect of being vegan.” —Anonymous”]

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  1. Thanks! Gonna be interesting…. I did try going vegan a while back. The only thing I found I really missed however was eggs. They are just about completely free range in the UK nowadays so I don’t feel too bad about eating them (are you going to tell me why I should feel bad about eating them?!). I looked into the honey question and felt that if I bought honey from a local producer, not one of the “big boy” companies it was probably OK. I have since slipped a bit (eat fish, and sometimes chicken) but some things stuck – not eating dairy for example. Although it is incredibly irritating how often cheese is added to things, and we do like to go out to eat! I am not keen on cheese and could drop it with pleasure but restaurants make it difficult. Also, your eyes start aching after a while with all the scanning of backs of packaging to see what dodgy items are included! Must get back on the bus about this though… I look forward to the rest of the blogs.

    1. Hi Susan

      First, good on you for at least trying. Kudos! It can be tricky, especially in the beginning, but it does get easier. To answer your question, yes I will be weighing in on the whole ‘free range and organic’ industry.

      Cheers, Ang 🙂

      PS Let me know if you have specific questions along the way. I’m happy to address them if I can!

  2. I made the switch from vegetarian to vegan just over a month ago now (after watching Earthlings and reading some eye-opening articles in a Vegan magazine) and in some ways it’s been tough (like running all over Stellenbosch to find a coffee shop with soy milk) but overall I feel much better for it. I find reading lables is actually great because I now put thought into everything which I put into my body, which I never did before. I have also taken up running which everyone said I would struggle to do with no meat protein but so far has been fine. I must say, the thing I love the most is feeling like part of a supportive community…blogs like yours make me feel like I’m not the freak that some people / waiters / colleagues would like to make me think I am! Thank you for the great posts – keep them coming!

    1. Hi Tania

      Well done on your transition to the green side! We’re all weird here and happy to have you join us! Thanks for reaching out, it’s good to hear that stuff we write and share is helping people. If you ever come into Cape Town please get in touch, we’d love to take you for an almond milk flat white. 🙂

  3. I have RA and I’m desperate to eliminate inflammation. I find when I eat “clean and healthy”, I feel SO much better. I found a plant based protein powder for my smoothie. What are other sources of protein?

    1. Hi Rebecca

      Ugh, sorry to hear you have RA! Eating clean and healthy will definitely help! We still have another three posts to come in the series and the final one is a list of resources (books, movies, etc.), which I think you’ll find useful. I have inflammation issues with my knees and came across a natural remedy that really helped. Check out this blog post to find out more about it.

      We’ll also go more in-depth into what we eat in the next post, but for now I’ll say this on the subject of protein. Sporty and I don’t concern ourselves too much with our protein intake, rather we focus on eating lots of fresh produce, particularly dark, leafy greens. We also add hemp powder to our smoothies and we eat a fair amount of beans and rice, quinoa and tempeh. Although the latter not as often. Hope that helps! 🙂

  4. I love the way this article was written! I’m coming up on a year of eating a plant-based diet and have never felt better in my life. Watched “What the Health” and it was another great documentary explaining how our government is not out for our best interests.
    I also like the term Plant Based over Vegan.

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Dallas

      Thanks you so much for taking the time to tell us you enjoyed the post. Hearing from readers never fails to make us smile! What the Health was amazing, right!? We loved it! Well done on your plant-based-versary, that’s a milestone worth celebrating for sure. Please let us know if there’s anything specific you might like to see in future blog posts, we’ll do our best to help if we can. 🙂

  5. With either plant based, vegan or vegetarian can you eat eggs? I feel like its what I’ll miss the most. What resources or places for recipies do you all use?

    1. Hi Bianca

      Vegetarians do eat eggs and dairy, however vegans (plant-based) do not. The easiest way to know if something is vegan is to ask yourself where it came from. If it came from a plant it’s vegan. In terms of recipe inspiration, we love Minimalist Baker (she very occasionally uses eggs, but will always offer a vegan alternative) and Oh She Glows. Forks Over Knives also has some good stuff, as do The Happy Pear twins.

      Hope that helps! Also, try making scrambled tofu. If you’re missing an egg breakfast, it’s a super yummy alternative. 🙂

  6. Pingback: How To Stay Healthy On A Vegan Diet | Good Cookery
  7. Besides going vegan/vegetarian or not, everyone has to reduce animal protein consumption for our well-being. Even you are a diehard carnivore, human body is not designed to accommodate one pound of meat and dairy everyday.

    I grew up in Japan, known for longevity, its governmental guidelines on daily protein intake, either animal or plant, is roughly the size of your hand.

    I’m 60 years old and so far have had no food related health problems entire my life thanks to mostly plant based diet.

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