Veganism was once pigeonholed as a radical diet embraced by activists who swore off any food that came from an animal: steak, chicken, veal, eggs, milk, ice cream. But today, veganism (and, more broadly, plant-based diets) have gone mainstream, thanks in part to their heart-health benefits. Heck, even McDonald’s-loving Bill Clinton has turned vegan.
At age 41, Elizabeth Barnidge made the switch to a plant-based diet. The health-conscious mother of four, who had completed marathons, triathlons, and an Ironman, was surprised to discover she had high LDL cholesterol after a routine checkup. After discussing her options with her doctor, she decided to make conscious changes to her diet, and, if after three months her cholesterol numbers hadn’t budged, they’d talk about prescription medicine. “I’d read about the benefits of plant-based diets, so I thought I would give that a try,” she says.
The term “plant-based diet” covers a broad umbrella in the nutrition world, the core principle being a diet rich in vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, and seeds. At the strictest end of the spectrum is veganism, which omits all animal products from your diet. Vegetarians do not eat meat but generally allow dairy and eggs, while pescatarians broaden their menu to include seafood. Lastly, is the modern incarnation known as the flexitarian, a person who largely follows a vegetarian diet, but allows meat from time to time.
Early studies have shown that following a plant-based diet has tremendous health benefits, says Kristopher Young, DO, FACC, director of the Chest Pain Center at Capital Health. “The benefits of a plant-based diet include weight loss, reduced blood pressure, and reduced blood sugar in patients with diabetes. Additionally, there is a reduced risk of developing heart disease, heart attack, and certain cancers.” He adds that some studies have shown that following a plant-based diet can actually lead to a reduction or regression of blockages in their heart arteries.
Barnidge decided to follow a vegan diet and began eliminating dairy and meat from her meals and beefing them up with whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, and soymilk. For breakfast, she swapped hard-boiled eggs for oatmeal and enjoyed a large salad with walnuts for dinner. Veganism also opened her to new tastes and flavors. “I discovered new foods like kale,” she says, “and I actually prefer my lattés with soy milk now.”
At the end of her three-month trial, she returned to her doctor for a follow-up blood test. The results were impressive: Her total cholesterol dropped from 260 to 190. Barnidge has decided to stick with her vegan experiment and checks in with her doctor routinely to confirm that her cholesterol numbers remain low. She also admits to falling off the veggie wagon from time to time: “I did eat fish while I was in Hawaii, because, well, it was Hawaii. How can you say no to fresh seafood!” she says. “When I fall off, I just get back on. It’s not like I’m cheating because I don’t consider it a diet. It’s a lifestyle.”
Interested in adopting a plant-based diet? Here are four steps to get you started on your path to black bean burgers:
Do your research | It’s easier to revise your eating habits if you’re armed with a little knowledge—learn the foods you should avoid and which ones you should eat. If you’re omitting animal protein, you’ll want to increase the amount of plant-based proteins or your plate, such as quinoa, beans and lentils, tofu, and nuts.
Plan your meals | It’s easy to say you’ll eat healthier when you have a full stomach. The bigger challenge arrives when you’re hungry—grabbing a slice of pepperoni pizza will probably win out over chopping up veggies for a salad when your stomach is growling. Stock up on healthy foods like nuts, fruits, and vegetables, as well as a couple of quick-and-easy, pop-in-the-microwave meals like veggie burgers, to eat in a pinch. Also make a meal plan for the week, only buying what’s on your list when you go to the grocery store.
Start small | If the thought of going vegan or vegetarian makes you hyperventilate, aim for one meal at a time. Instead of jumping into the deep end, make breakfast your meat- and dairy-free meal for the day and attempt to eat healthier for lunch and dinner. Once you’re comfortable with that, incorporate nutrition changes into lunch and then dinner.
Give yourself a break | If you fall off the wagon and eat a cheese omelet, a BLT, or a porterhouse steak, don’t beat yourself up. Small indulgences are ok every now and again, especially for special events like birthdays, holidays and other celebrations. Simply pick up where you left off with the next meal or the next day.