Between 2014 and 2017, the number of US consumers identifying as vegan grew by six-fold. Over the past year, sales of plant-based alternatives to animal-based foods grew 17%, while overall food sales in the US grew by only 2%. Over the past year as a vegan, I’ve seen brands like Morningstar Farms and Hellmann’s that served only animal-based foods began releasing vegan products that taste actually pretty good. Just recently, Burger King partnered with Impossible Foods to provide plant-based burgers.
A lot of people, including myself and the CEO of LinkedIn, are having trouble telling Impossible patties and animal meat patties apart. The plant-based industry is growing faster than ever, but there are still some hesitations, misconceptions, and unknowns that may be holding some people back from making the shift. I do not believe in vegangelism, or guilting people into become vegan, but I do believe in shedding light for those who may be curious.
A brief distinction between “vegan” and “plant-based” foods
I see “veganism” as a political statement, while “plant-based” describes a diet. A vegan adopts a lifestyle that is completely animal-product-free, including foods, clothes, and even recycling practices. A person with a plant-based diet would have foods that do not include chemicals and preservatives that are not derived from plants.
For example, an Oreo can be vegan, but it is not plant-based because of its non-plant-based chemicals. Someone who has adopted only a plant-based diet may not necessarily stay away from animal leather jackets, for example, while vegans would.
What I’ve learned, though, is that they are usually interchangeable. Both vegans and individuals who adopt a plant-based diet typically start with food and work their way through other aspects of their lives to shape a lifestyle free of animal products.
1. Why I turned vegan
I turned vegan mainly because I had been experiencing digestion issues and acid reflux for a very long time. At one point I felt like my stomach was carrying a 10-pound rock, and no matter how much water I was drinking or exercise I was doing, I could not sleep comfortably. I also had a lot of “food guilt” and “food hangovers,” where I felt so full and bloated for hours, sometimes until the next day, even though I had a small portion of food.
I decided to try out a plant-based diet for a week and see what would happen. The reflux and the “rock” went away pretty quickly, and I no longer felt anxious about eating. I saw myself eating until I was satisfied, not until I felt uncomfortable. And I began to feel like I appreciated food more, where I was no longer craving highly stimulating and highly processed foods that were salty, oily, and sugary.
Most importantly, as I began to have a better relationship with food, I saw my mental health improving significantly.
2. Why veganism may be good for you and the world
First, a plant-based diet makes you healthier both in the mind and the body. Consumption of whole foods has been shown to decrease likelihood of depression, and a self-proclaimed “happiest man in the world” Matthieu Ricard says that veganism is key to his happiness.
In his book “How to Not Die,” Dr. Michael Greger cites numerous studies where food was shown to affect our health than other factors like the environment, our genes, and exercise. In one study, adolescents living in areas where more starchy foods like grains, vegetables, and nuts, were significantly less likely to exhibit chronic symptoms of asthmatic symptoms even though both adolescents lived in a similarly situated area with comparable pollution levels.
Dr. Greger also reveals that in countries like Uganda where diets are primarily plant-based, researchers saw extraordinarily low rates of heart disease: out of 1,400 bodies that were autopsied, only one body had suffered from a heart attack. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Missouri, out of 632 people autopsied, there had been 136 heart attacks.
While I may not go as far to agree with Dr. Greger in saying that “heart disease may be a choice,” there may be truth in the phrase, “food is medicine.”
Second, a plant-based diet support environmental sustainability and curb global hunger. According to the Vegan Calculator, one month of veganism can help avoid the death of 33 animals, the use of 33,000 gallons of water, destruction of 900 square feet of forest, the creation of an extra 600 pounds of CO2 gas, and make available 1,200 pounds of grain. While the numbers may not be completely accurate, the reason these numbers are so high is that 70% of grain grown in the US feeds livestock, and globally, 83% of farmland is used to raise animals. Further, it takes longer to raise animals and takes more energy to ship and package meats, making plant-based proteins take 8 times less energy than it takes to produce animal proteins.
Because of this, adopting a plant-based diet can help curb global hunger by diverting these resources to raise crops that would feed underserved populations.
How to start (it’s easier than you might think)
According to Dr. Neal Barnard, another leading expert on plant-based diets, says in his book “The Vegan Starter Kit” that there are only two rules:
(1) build your meals from plant-based foods, especially vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), and
(2) ensure complete nutrition with a supplement of vitamin B12. When you are transitioning from an omnivorous diet, all you need to do is to swap out animal-based foods with plant-based foods as follows, for example:
- Replace meat with beans, tempeh, firm tofu, and commercial veggie patties.
- Replace dairy with plant-based milk or vegan cheese.
- Replace eggs with silken tofu, mashed banana, or chia/flax seeds soaked in water
- Replace animal fat with canola oil, olive oil, or avocado.
For lawyers, you may not have too much time to cook. In that case, there are plenty of recipes and resources online where you need only 10 minutes to whip up a meal, such as The Minimalist Baker (free) or The LiveKindly Meal Planner (paid). When you visit restaurants, you can always ask for meat-free, dairy-free, and seafood-free options or ask specific questions like, “Can this be made without meat, eggs, milk, fish sauce, or oyster sauce?” When you are traveling, always carry dried foods or PB&J for hunger that creeps up like an emergency.
Always remember, nobody is pushing you to make the change, and any change can be difficult at first. But if you are exploring a plant-based diet to have more energy and love what you eat, it will not disappoint. The key is to remember that it won’t be perfect all the time, and there are always resources out there to help you.