With all the alternatives on the market, it is easier to be vegan now. However, it can still be challenging to stick with whole-foods plant-based diet habits.
When I first went vegan in 2017, I remember reading all these articles talking about how eating vegan is better for your health, the animals, and the environment. Like many others, I was led to believe the misconception that being vegan is, in fact, a healthy diet by itself.
Yes, it’s better than the standard diet, but a few years later, while interviewing Dr Caldwell Esselstyn, he said that he treats both vegetarians and vegans for heart disease all the time. The reason for this is because many of the vegan foods we eat, including oils, still damage your endothelial lining. And this is one of the things that lead to heart disease.
While I’m not a doctor and can’t talk about the health aspects of it, Esselstyn said this is the reason why he doesn’t use the word vegan in his book. Instead, he tells his patients to follow a diet based on whole-foods plant-based nutrition.
In my personal life, that’s the diet I am choosing to transition to next. Yours may be different based on your doctor’s nutritional advice. For now, I’d like to focus on the habit formation and behavioural changes that will help make any new transition in your life as effortless and easy as possible.
What is the difference between vegan and whole-foods plant-based?
One of the most common reasons for the adoption of a vegan lifestyle is the ethical treatment of animals. At our core, vegans do not consume any products that come from animals whatsoever. This includes meat, dairy, eggs, honey, leather, wool, as well as any other product that originally came from the exploitation of an animal.
From an animal welfare and environmental perspective, this is great. But when it comes to the foods we eat, it opens up the door for us to consume many things that can still be categorised as junk food.
As a vegan, we can eat potato chips, chocolate bars, Oreo cookies, sugar, vegan burgers, processed vegan cheeses, wheat, preservatives, and other things that may not be the best choices for us in the long term.
On a whole-foods plant-based diet, you consume things that generally come from, well, whole foods. These foods are natural, unrefined, and minimally processed. You can eat things such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and root vegetables.
Making the transition easier
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a struggle at first. When I go to the store with all intents on buying brown rice, lentils, fresh chickpeas and carrots, these are easy to throw in the shopping cart. But then I pass the potato chip and plant-based meat section, and those items pile on top of the whole foods in my cart.
If I don’t feel like spending the hours soaking the beans, cooking the rice, etc., it is all too easy to boil some spaghetti and throw on a can of tomato sauce instead of preparing a more nutritious meal.
For many years, I studied the psychology of behavioural change and it worked wonders in my professional life. But now, what I’m starting to learn is that these same habit formation principles can help us with our eating habits as well.
Breakfast: it’s easier to stick with morning habits
The best time to start a new habit is to do it the very first thing in the day.
Habits don’t act independently of one another. Our life is built upon rituals, where one thing you do unconsciously triggers us to go onto the next thing in our routine. Getting up in the morning leads to getting ready for work, brushing your teeth, driving to the office, settling at your desk, and by the time you know it, the chaos of the day seems to pull you along instead of being in control of the actions in your life.
By the time lunch comes around, you look back realising that most of your day has been happening on autopilot.
It is for this very reason that the best way to start shifting to more whole foods is by making it the very first thing you do. When I get out of bed in the morning, one of the very first things I do is cook the oatmeal on the stove, put some frozen berries in a bowl, cut up half a banana, and cover that with flax and chia seeds.
This way, no matter what happens in my day after that, at least I am left with the personal satisfaction that I got to start my day off right. What really helps make this process a daily ritual is to leave the bowl, spoon, pot, and bag of oats on the counter. Not only does this serve as a visual reminder that I should start my day off by eating this, it also removes all the additional steps that would otherwise make it more difficult.
Lunch: prepare your meals in advance
Another biological trait we have is to follow the path of least resistance. In the caveman days, this was the difference between walking half a kilometre around the mountain to the stream for water and spending three hours climbing up and down the mountain and through an alligator-infested swamp to get a drink.
As a biological survival mechanism, we want to conserve energy as much as humanly possible. This translates to the amount of energy you would put into preparing lunch in the morning versus driving through the fast-food counter at lunch.
As you’ve learned in the last section, the key here is to remove any and all hard work and make your healthier lunch decision as effortless as possible.
One of the best ways to do this is to begin cooking your meals in bulk. Every Sunday night, you can cook up a pot of quinoa, beans, roast vegetables, and sweet potatoes to prepare your meals for the week.
Line them up in reusable containers in the fridge and then you can easily grab them and heat them up for the lunches ahead.
Dinner: surround yourself with positive peer pressure
We all give in to peer pressure. We want to assimilate into the people around us. Unconsciously, this is a survival mechanism that kept us alive. Back in the tribal days of our evolution, if you assimilated to the norms of the village you were in, you would have access to all the resources that provided you safety. Fire, water, shelter, food, and protection.
If you didn’t fit in and were banished from the tribe, you would be stuck in the wilderness trying to survive on your own. In many cases, you would eventually die.
It is for this reason that we unconsciously take on many of the character traits and habits of the people around us. If you surround yourself with vegans who go out to eat fast food and fries every day for dinner, you’ll probably struggle with your willpower and do the same.
But when you surround yourself with more people who are eating more whole plant-based foods, then you’ll begin to notice that it’s easier to take on these habits yourself. In fact, one of the main reasons I became vegan without even trying was because I went to vegan potluck dinners every week and spent most of my free time with vegan friends for my social life. I unconsciously became like them and I’m still vegan, three-and-a-half years later.
Of course, if you are committed, willpower can be enough. But if you eat meals with friends or family, what can you do to get them aboard the bandwagon as well?
Snacks: remove the temptations from your surroundings
During our evolution, our bodies craved salty, fatty, and sugary foods because we wanted to store up our energy reserves. The main reason for this is because we never knew where our next meal would come from. Nowadays, food companies know this and purposely manufacture the foods to keep people addicted. It doesn’t matter if you know there is a supermarket full of foods down the street.
As a perfect example, when I visit my parents for the holidays, they respect my vegan lifestyle and fill the fridge with vegan foods before I get there. But in the pantry there are all sorts of junk foods. Large bags of potato chips, containers of salted peanuts, and an endless supply of vegan burgers, cheeses, and other processed fake meats.
No matter how hard I try to battle this with willpower, my taste buds always kick in and I wind up gaining a lot of weight every time I go there for a few weeks. To help with the cravings at my house, I kept some healthier replacement foods that hit the taste buds. Instead of the fatty flavor of oil soaked chips, I kept some cashews and walnuts that I could snack on instead. It gives me that fatty flavour I like.
Another thing is to build up metaphorical mountains between yourself and the foods you don’t want to be eating. Make it as difficult as possible to have access to this food. One company puts a timer on containers so they are closed for 12 hours out of the day.
For myself, I had a strict rule of only keeping healthier options inside of my house. If I wanted to splurge on some chips for example, I would have to drive all the way to the store. Many times I was too lazy and ate a bowl of brown rice and lentils instead.
In general, you want to make it as easy as possible to consume better foods and place as many friction points between yourself in the bad ones, even if it means having to drive all the way to the supermarket to get that one food you love.
It doesn’t have to be overwhelming
I’m not a doctor or nutritionist. I’m simply a vegan trying to eat less processed foods and more whole-foods plant-based. One of the reasons many people give up on this shift is because they might read conflicting information and become overwhelmed with the decisions of what you can and cannot eat.
To simplify my approach, I follow the recipe section of the Forks Over Knives website. Based on the film that helps direct many of us into better eating, I use this as a starting point to make planning my meals as easy and straightforward as possible. I’ll occasionally splurge on a more processed vegan burger or bag of chips, but the more I find myself working these meals into my day, the better I feel.
In the end, when it comes to health and wellness, this is something that I suggest talking to your doctor about. We all have different needs in our life based on our age, weight, gender, and medical history.
So whatever approach they suggest for you, it’s these behavioural and habitual changes that can make this transition simple in your life. Start the day off right, prepare your lunches in advance, surround yourself with people who already have these positive habits themselves, and cut down on junk food with healthier replacements for snacks on hand instead.
Once you find out what is right for you, this will hopefully help you stick with it.