Don't let our country's apparent passion for bacon, burgers, and wings fool you: More people in the U.S. are going plant-based than ever before. According to a 2020 study, the number of Americans following plant-based diets is 9.7 million, representing an increase of 9.4 million over the last 15 years. (And, in news that will shock few of us, the most consistently vegan U.S. state is Oregon; I love you, Portland, never change.) But not all of those people identify specifically as vegan or vegetarian. So what does "going plant-based" mean, exactly? Just that lots of us are consciously swapping cow milk for oat, and old-school burgers for Impossible ones, be it for health, environmental, or animal-welfare reasons. If you want to make similar alterations to your diet, you might be wondering how to incorporate all that avocado mayonnaise and nut butter into your new, less-beefy routine. We checked in with Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, to help us pave a path to a more plant-based life.
What should I consider before going plant-based?
First, Feller recommends that you think about your end goal: "Anyone who's making a dietary shift should know their 'why,'" she says. "What's inspiring that change? It's a good thing to be aware of, and that allows you to go into this transition safely, with your eyes as open as possible."
How do I get enough protein?
Though there's a lot of concern about being protein-deficient after cutting out meat, it's typically unwarranted. As long as you're consuming a wide array of plant foods, you'll be consuming protein. "I think that people equate protein with animal proteins," says Feller. "But plants do contain proteins. If you're eating a varied diet—some nuts, rice, leafy greens, beans—you'll meet your protein needs across the day. Plus, combining foods—like mixing greens with a source of vitamin C, or putting together a grain and a legume—also makes their nutrients more bioavailable and gives you a fuller amino-acid profile." Feller says that can happen over the course of a day: You don't have to sit and combine all these elements into one (super healthy) meal. And as a hot tip, Feller says that some ancient grains, like fonio, are complete proteins on their own: No mixing required.
But Feller does note that a major diet change can present a challenge when it comes to taking in certain nutrients. "What I worry about more are deficiencies in omega-3 essential fatty acids, iron, calcium, vitamin D, and B12," she says. "But you can get some of those nutrients from other sources, like seeds, or leafy greens, or kelp, which I'm obsessed with these days. It's about eating across a spectrum."
But what if I'm anemic? Or slightly anemic?
The issue of low iron levels really depends on your personal medical situation, according to Feller. "It's important to have a good understanding of your baseline iron status and your needs," she says. "I like to have a patient's blood work before I start with them: I always say, 'You may be cute on the outside, but we have to know what's happening internally.'"
If your blood work indicates that you're a low-iron individual, Feller says there's ways to address that without immediately ordering a steak. "Some people who start with a lower iron status may want to think about eating more iron-rich plant foods in combinations like I suggested," she says. "Or eat more of the fortified, grain-based products that have iron added to them." You may need to take an iron supplement; in that case, Feller suggests you find one that's "highly bioavailable and non-constipating," but cautions that whatever option you choose "should be under the direction of your dietician and primary care provider."
Oreos and Fritos are vegan—should I just have those for dinner?
NOT so fast, buddy. "Theoretically, you can absolutely be vegan and eat potato chips all the time," says Feller. "And while potato chips aren't 'bad,' they're not going to give you as much nutrition as if you sat down to lentils, rice, and bok choy. Now, of course, we don't just eat to be healthy: We eat for pleasure and community and companionship and all that stuff. But we also hope to get some benefits from the foods we eat, and we want to have a pattern of eating that allows us to reap those benefits. Listen, I'm a huge supporter of vegetables. But if you're going vegetarian, vegan, or just more plant-based, plants should be at the center of what you're consuming, in their whole and minimally processed form."
Do I need to ease into things, or can I just change everything all at once?
As to whether you should take things slow, Feller says that's more of a behavioral question. "It depends on your personality," she says. "Some people who are accustomed to having animal proteins at every single meal like to just cut it all out at once, and some people like to be more gradual. Knowing what you're comfortable with is more important than focusing on the dietary shift itself. But you should prepare for the shift, because to eat more plants, you need to have access to them, and have more of them in your home." And yes, says Feller, it's OK to buy some simple stuff you can throw in the microwave in a pinch. "A little easy vegan food in the fridge is fine—sometimes you want a pre-made veggie burger."
What should I be prepared for with my new plant-based diet?
People making big nutritional changes often notice changes in their...gastrointestinal system. That's perfectly normal, says Feller. "People who start eating a lot less meat will say, 'I'm not constipated anymore!' And that's a very good situation. Ideally, we're all supposed to poop every day—daily bowel movements are part of clearing out our system and when we're backed up, it doesn't feel good and it's also not great for our bodies."
Ultimately, says Feller, your choice to opt for seitan over sausage shouldn't be viewed as an all-or-nothing proposition. "If you decide not to go fully plant-based, it doesn't mean you're not still making a good choice for your health," says Feller. "By simply adding more plants to your day-to-day diet, you will get some benefits."