Health Nutrition
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Whether it’s vegetarianism, veganism or just Meatless Mondays, there’s been a huge trend toward plant-based eating in recent years. Plus with the revamped Canada’s Food Guide suggesting that Canadians need to eat waaay more plant-based proteins than they do, the whole concept has never been more mainstream.

When you’re switching up your diet, it can be hard to know where to start or if what you’re doing is good for you. It’s not as simple as dropping meat from your diet and hoping for the best. Thankfully, there are tons of experts out there to help you out (and we talked to a few of them).

Olivia Biermann is the vegan YouTuber behind the Liv B channel and she’s just written her first cookbook called Liv B’s Vegan on a Budget full of super simple and suuuper delicious vegan recipes. She, along with registered dietitian Andrea Falcone, helped us put together some simple tips for getting started on a more plant-based nutrition plan.

1. Know your “why”

Andrea says that the most important starting point is figuring out why you’re starting in the first place and making sure it’s something you can commit to permanently — we’re looking for healthy lifestyles, not fad diets.

“There are many reasons people choose to make over their dietary lifestyle to go vegan. Animal rights, inflammation, weight loss, environmental concerns are just a few I’ve heard over the years,” Andrea says. “Make sure you want it for the rest of your life… Know your why and get educated.”

2. Start with your eyes

Obviously as someone with a killer IG account and cookbook, Olivia is partial to this, but we eat with our eyes, don’t we? Olivia suggests checking out cookbooks, blogs and Instagram accounts that showcase plant-based meals that look delicious and make you want to cook them. Seriously, we could stare at vegan tacos and veggie pizza all day!

 

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🍕with my mom. With vegan mushroom sausage and ricotta 🧡🌿

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3. Consider this a “replacement” not a “removal”

“The key to going meatless is not simply removing the meat – it’s replacing it with other delicious plant foods that are satiating and tasty in their own right,” Olivia says.

You’re not subtracting meat from your regular meals – that would leave you undernourished and definitely unsatisfied – you’re replacing it with other just-as-tasty options and trying new meals altogether in the process.

4. Know what you’re replacing

That being said, you need to do a little research to make sure you’re still getting the nutrients you would otherwise be sourcing from animal products.

“If you are going to be cooking the majority of your food from scratch, there is still lots to be aware of, such as missing nutrients that your body may need,” Andrea says. “The biggest concern is understanding iron. Plant-based proteins have a different type of iron compared to meats that is not absorbed as well in our bodies. We also need double the amount of the plant-based iron in order to get the requirements.”

Andrea adds that calcium, B12 and omega-3 fatty acids are other nutrients to be aware of when changing your diet. She suggests sitting down with a dietitian if the research seems too overwhelming.

 

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5. Start with things that seem familiar

Please don’t start by making your own tempeh or something equally complicated – that’s a quick way to turn yourself off trying new things. Start with meals you already cook where meat isn’t the star like stir-fry, pasta, curry or chili.

Olivia suggests her own recipe for “Untraditional Chicken Parmesan” from her book or a good vegan taco (try black bean and corn or squash) as perfect gateway meals to get you started.

 

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6. Keep substitutions simple at first

When you’re starting out, keep simple substitutions in mind for cooking (baking can get tricky because of all the chemistry) and it will barely feel like you’ve made a change.

You can substitute:

  • Almond milk for dairy milk
  • Vegan nut cheeses for dairy cheese
  • Tofu or faux chicken for meat
  • Flaxseed and water for egg in baking

7. Learn how to press tofu

Full disclosure: when I first started using tofu years ago, I thought you were supposed to keep it in the water like cheese in brine. That is NOT the case. Before you use tofu, you need to drain and press it so it’s not a gooey wet mess. Olivia explains how to do it in her book, but there are also a bunch of video tutorials out there. If you gain ONE skill from vegetarian cooking, it should be this.

8. There’s more out there than just tofu

Now that you’ve totally mastered tofu, set it aside and try new things. Olivia likes seitan – a soy-free meat substitute made from the gluten protein in wheat – and there are other options like tempeh, chickpea and black bean tofus and faux meats that you can also play around with.

For certain specific recipes, you might want to Google around for what kind of substitutes work best. For example, if you want veggie pulled-pork, young jackfruit is a common substitute since it has a similar texture to shredded meat.

9. Do some on-site recon

The internet is a never-ending, ever-expanding database of vegetarian/vegan knowledge but sometimes the best place to learn about your options is at the physical grocery store. Olivia suggests staking out the freezer section to see what’s at your disposal.

“Spend some time browsing the freezer section and reading labels,” she suggests. “There are lots of plant-based meat substitutes that look just like meat with a quick glance. There are often faux-meat products in the ‘natural health’ frozen section, but I have found other plant-based options in the regular frozen section as well.”

10. Don’t use almond milk for coffee

Unless you are comfortable (and some people are) with curdled milk-looking chunks in your coffee, we would strongly advise against using almond milk for that purpose. It won’t hurt you, but milks like cashew work much better.

11. Don’t accept bland food. Ever.

Just like you would flavour meat, you need to flavour your meat substitutes. Some vegetarian foods get a bad rap for being “flavourless” but if you don’t season your food, it’s going to be flavourless whether it came from an animal or not! Olivia suggests seasoning you vegetarian meals in the same way you would anything else.

“I like using the same things that you would use for meat [on substitutes], such as poultry seasoning, steak spice, etc.,” Olivia says. “These flavourings are vegan and using them on tofu is a great way to amp up the flavour.”

 

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12. Remember: “vegan” isn’t synonymous with “healthy”

Andrea reminds people that overly processed food is still bad for you (yes, even if it’s vegan!) and it’s more important than ever to read your packaging to know what you’re getting.

“If you are going to opt for the convenient pre-packaged products out there, well, sorry to break it to you, but you’re not doing your body much good,” she says. “Many of them are packed with a ton of preservatives, fillers and additives. Sure they may be vegan or vegetarian, but check what they are.”

13. It’s not all or nothing

Andrea suggests starting with one meatless day a week to “allow your body to start craving these different flavours and profiles.” You can also start cutting out certain foods one ingredient at a time. Andrea points out that in the past, there’s been a dichotomy of “meat vs. plants” for protein but it doesn’t have to be that way – find a healthy balance that works for you.