By now, most of my readers know that I've been eating a whole food plant-based diet for almost a decade now. My oldest daughter started the transition at age 3 and my youngest at age 1. Although I now advocate for a vegan lifestyle, health was the initial and main reason that motivated this transition, not the planet, not the animals. If you've read my first couple of blog posts, you might remember me mentioning my challenges with asthma, eczema, urticaria, dyspepsia and heart burn, as well as the medical condition that finally tipped the balance for me, "cholinergic angioedema", an allergic condition that put me in a hospital and scared the hell out of me.
Witnessing my daughters suffer from these same conditions is what convinced me that I had no choice but to change. I thought I was eating a healthy diet, but after scouring the medical and nutrition literature, I noticed a common and recurring theme. This "dietary pattern" claimed to be the evidence-based way to achieve optimal health. At that point, even with a PhD in medicine, I still fell victim to some of the typical stereotypes associated with vegan or vegetarian diets. I pictured frail and weak hippies with flowers in their hair and wondered how they had managed to escape the grips of the chronic diseases that keep my medical practice so busy. Then I learned how a plant-based diet focused more on what people ate, instead of the things they avoid, like veganism and vegetarianism. For some people, preventing animal cruelty is what fueled their transition, and a balanced and nutritionally adequate diet maybe wasn't their main focus. In these circumstances, issues with some nutrients of concern may arise if careful consideration isn't given to ensuring nutritional adequacy.
But I was an athlete. I couldn't afford to lose muscle mass or to risk compromising athletic performance when I've dedicated most of my life to sports. My goal was to become healthier, faster and stronger, not nutrient deficient, so I put a lot of time and effort into looking at the common myths associated with a vegetarian, vegan or plant-based diet. I quickly found out that with proper planning, a plant-based diet could easily provide proper protein requirements. Then I learned how plant-based protein is a much healthier source of protein than animal protein. I saw how replacing calories from animal protein with plant protein sources could even improve inflammatory and metabolic parameters. I learned that B12 is actually made by bacteria in the soil and not by animals. I discovered how our addiction to cleanliness and sterility helps us avoid stomach flues, but removes the bacteria and B12 we used to get from the soil. I saw that there was no shame in taking a B12 supplement or seeking out fortified foods. I learned that iron deficiency is super common regardless of your dietary pattern and that very simple steps can be taken to prevent anemia and depleted iron stores.
Without getting lost in the details, here are the practical tips and tricks that I used to help my family transition towards more plants. After 2 years, everything on our plates was plants. If you'd like to dive deeper in the science behind nutritional adequacy and the foods associated with specific nutrients of concern, please check out my website, plantbaseddrjules.com. The information there is free, with free resources you can download.
Transitioning Can Be Fun And Simple
After a decade of plant-based meals and raising 2 kids fully plant-based, I've had my fair share of trials and errors. As a medical doctor, it was a priority of mine to eat plant-based for for health, and I was highly motivated to transition my whole family in a safe, practical and responsible way.
Nutritional science is a complex field of study. Macros, micros, ratios and RDA's can make your head spin, and translating this information into practical terms is no easy task. How do you ensure nutritional adequacy for your kids, when they won't eat their broccoli? In the next section, I'll describe how I borrowed and personalized tips and tricks from the pros, including Neil Barnard, Micheal Greger as well as Canadian pioneers, like Brenda Davis and Pamela Fergusson, to make my family's plant-based diet not only nutritionally adequate, but fun and delicious!
I spent the first year of my journey getting educated. Pubmed, podcasts, books, YouTube. I read about the pioneers of the plant-based movement and the science backing it up. I learned about macros and micros and why a plant-based diet was a healthy dietary pattern. After months of learning, I was confident that it was the right thing to do and I was motivated to do it the right way. You can find all of the resources and books, podcasts and YouTubers that fueled my journey here!
Planning ahead is very important when an entire family goes plant-based. We started by making a grocery list of items in each plant-based food group and made sure we were constantly stocked with healthy staple foods, like tofu, soy milk, nuts and seeds as well sweet potatoes. We started slow, but introduced new foods regularly, often by coating them with our homemade tasty plant-based sauces, like our homemade cashew cheese sauce. You can find my favorite recipes and download my free plant-based recipe eBook here!
The plant-based transition changed my life. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, but that doesn't mean it was without its challenges. The cool part is that after months of reading and researching, I could already anticipate the challenges that would come my way and I already had a good idea on how I would manage them. My goal is to help you predict what your personal or social barriers will be, and when you hit that plateau, hopefully you'll know exactly how to break through.
My first challenge was wanting everything to happen too fast. If you remember reading the first part of this section, it took me 18 months to make the full transition. I was also scared of having to spend hours on cooking and meal prep. This is how I figured it out:
Learn to make smoothies, where a ton of nutrition can be hidden in a smoothie filled with fruits you love.
Get well acquainted with stir-frys, and replace the meat with legumes, like beans, chickpeas, lentils or with tofu.
Always have frozen fruits or veggies ready to go in the freezer.
Keep some spare cans of beans, chickpeas, lentils or canned veggies. They're much cheaper than meat and last longer. Rinse and drain them to remove excess sodium.
Look online for quick and easy recipes. If it's too complicated, it creates friction between you and the behavior and is less likely to be sustainable.
Have a few "go-to" meals that you can prepare quickly when needed.
Consider overnight oats.
Consider purchasing an air-fryer, food processor, or pressure cooker if you plan on batch cooking or want to experiment with more complicated recipes.
Smoothie bowls are family favorites.
When food-prepping, make more and freeze for later.
You can download my favorite recipes in my free recipe book here!
The other challenges were related to impacts on our social lives and restaurant outings. We managed this by:
Checking restaurant menus beforehand for vegan or plant-based options.
Not being extremist will be quite useful in the beginning. Try to eat as many plant-based meals as is practical.
Emailing the kitchen and requesting vegan options, or inquiring about the possibility of veganizing their current meal options.
Eating a small meal before going out in case there aren't any plant-based options.
On trips, we always bring a cooler with spare food, hoping we don't need it!
Japanese and Thai restaurants tend to have the most plant-based options.
We tend to invite friends over as to expose them to new vegan food.
We love barbecue season, and we don't miss out by using meat alternatives like those from a Canadian company called Very Good Butchers. Check out their super tasty and minimally processed plant-based meats here!
So although the transition isn't seamless, it's important to anticipate where the difficulties will be. Planning ahead might avoid frustrations and most importantly, will avoid burdening your social circle. Remember that even if you're convinced that this transition is the one for you, that doesn't mean your friends are ready. Don't be preachy. Be respectful of others that have not yet been convinced, or aren't confident that they could make the change. I too ate meat for over 30 years and would have not appreciated anyone making me feel guilty about it.
We quickly became kitchen savvy and started experimenting more with recipes. Soon enough, we began making vegan versions of foods we already ate, like Shepherd's Pie with lentils instead of meat. We used plant milks instead of dairy, and bought vegan cheeses or made our own and added legumes to nachos instead of meat. Before we knew it, the whole family was eating a completely plant-based diet. My transition guide and vegan substitute recommendations can be found here!
Hiding In Plain Sight!
In our home, we eat smoothie popsicles and we hide seeds and vegetables in them! We puree cauliflower and mix it in our potatoes, for more nutrient diversity. We sprinkle nutritional yeast on everything, and hemp seeds in soups or on random meals. We sprinkle chia seeds on waffles with at least 3 different types of fruit. We sweeten them with date sugar or date syrup that we make at home. Basically, we hide as many nutrients as we can in the foods we already love. When we started mixing green peas with edamame, the kids never batted an eye!
We never make just a cup of rice. If we are cooking brown rice, or quinoa, then we are making a ton of it! If we are making a chickpea curry, then we are making 20 servings! By batch cooking our meals, we always have plenty to freeze and use as a convenient on-the-go snack. While we are at it, we will always maximize nutrient content by mixing a ton of other plants in with it. If we are making brown rice, we usually make quinoa simultaneously, and add some mixed frozen vegetables. Then, we mix all of these ingredients together in a potpourri of plant-based goodness. We'll top it of with nuts, seeds, nutritional yeast or whatever herbs and spices we are in the mood for. This way, we have a meal that can sometimes contain over 10-15 different types of ingredients, all whole unprocessed foods! This boosts nutrition and ensures a wide variety of amino-acids, a good mix of different types of microbiome feeding fiber, a variety of healthy fats as well as a good mix of complex carbs with varying glycemic indices.
How do you explain nutrient diversity to a kid? With colors! Teach your kids the meaning of being healthy. Teach them that the vitamins are the colors of your food. Show them how to pick the brightest colors and the darkest greens. We have a simple rule that was implemented almost 10 years ago: aim for 4-5 different colors on your plate at every meal, and have a minimum of 3, and make sure to count them with your kids! My daughters now keep us accountable and point out the colors or lack thereof if needed. Now, when they prepare their own snacks, they instinctively share a bell pepper and a banana, or cucumbers and cantaloupe as a means to maximize the variety of nutrients in their snack. They fully understand how the colors on their plates or snacks are associated with health.
Keep It Convenient And Simple
For sustainability's sake, a new habit needs to cause as little friction with our lifestyle as possible. We keep tons of frozen veggies and fruits, and we make sure to always have long lasting fruits like apples available. We decided to use a multivitamin as an insurance policy to guarantee adequate nutrient intakes for our kids. Although we have calculated that they most likely are getting adequate omega fatty acids in their diet, we still supplement with an algae based direct source, as well as use B12 fortified foods, and calcium fortified orange juice on occasions. We use iodized salt in order to maximize iodine availability and sometimes sprinkle small quantities of kelp powder as well. In order to keep things as practical as possible, our kids are permitted to eat whatever they want when they're at a birthday party or at a friend's house. When they're back at home, they eat like us. At 7 and 9 years old during the writing of this article, they do realize that we eat differently than most people around us. In fact, not only do they understand and accept this, they're actually pretty darn proud of it.
My Plant-Based Prescription
In order to maintain nutritional adequacy on a plant-based diet, one must invest some time and effort to do it correctly. I'm here to guide you through it so you don't have to worry. Learning new information by reading books and learning from the pros is as important as learning new cooking skills and techniques in the kitchen. Treat your kitchen like a science lab and experiment! Ask your kids to measure ingredients, to make a mess and to learn with you. Ask your spouse or loved ones to join in when batch cooking. Once a few of the basic principles of plant-based eating are learned, it becomes very easy to sustain and a lot more fun and tasty! Find your reason to transition, and whether it's for your health or the health of your kids, for the planet, or for the animals, all reasons are great and welcomed. Take your time and don't let perfect get in the way of being good or better.
Are there any challenges that you're anticipating during your transition? How do you think you'll manage to get through these obstacles? Do you have any tips or tricks that would help the rest of the plant-based community? Please let me know in the comments section, and thanks in advance for engaging with my content!
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior.
Thanks so much for reading!
Plant-Based Dr. Jules 💚🌱