Ellen DeGeneres, Ian Somerhalder, Natalie Portman, Jared Leto, and Ariana Grande are all diehard vegans. And you know what? We think they may be onto something. According to the American Dietetic Association, a vegan diet reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension and even cancer. In addition to preventing chronic diseases and conditions, you can save more than 100 animals a year from slaughter and significantly reduce your carbon footprint just by switching to a vegan diet. Going vegan, which means excluding all animal products from your diet, can be life-changing provided that you know what you’re doing. If not, don’t panic, because we’ve brought in some expert help to guide us on plant-based eating. Susan Tucker, a holistic nutritionist and founder of Green Beat Life, is here to answer all the questions you’ve ever wanted to ask about going vegan. From understanding vegetables to cooking vegan meals on a budget to making flavors work, you can find out everything you need to know about veganism right here.
When and why did you turn vegan?
I turned vegan about 3 years ago. For me it was a natural and easy transition because I was a vegetarian most of my life, since 15 or so. When I decided to go vegan, it was during a time when I had some digestive discomfort and I decided to try it. I had never been dairy-free. It was an instant hit with my system! As I have learned more about the environmental impact of animal food production, this has also become an important element in my choice to be vegan.
What benefits have you noticed since adopting a vegan diet?
I have more energy and focus. My digestion is better. And I have a lot more variety in my diet.
Which vegan food makes you feel most alive and energetic?
Greens – lots and lots of greens! I try to have something green in almost every meal. Nutritionally, greens are high in calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, and vitamins A, C, E and K. They are loaded with fiber, chlorophyll and many other micronutrients and phytochemicals. Quite a powerhouse! Dark leafy greens are kings among the greens. They have so many benefits, including improved liver, gall bladder and kidney function, improved circulation, and strengthening the immune system.
What problems do you hear the most when it comes to people turning vegan?
I hear ‘what vegetables should I eat’ or ‘I don’t know many vegetables’ or ‘I don’t know how to prepare vegetables’ quite often. My advice is to get involved and get interested. Go out to a market and explore. Sometimes I see kids at the Farmer’s Market with their class and these worksheets, and they are discovering what’s out there. They get really excited! Also, invest in a good vegan cook book or seek the support of a nutrition counselor who can help you plan some meals that include veggies and to understand the value of plant-based meals.
Do you have any hacks for cooking vegan meal plans on a budget?
- Plan. Making a shopping list before going to the grocery store has proven to save money. It also supports us to not give in to unplanned eating and those not-so-wise food choices.
- Buy in bulk. The bulk food section of a grocery store is a wonderful way to save. In essence, you are buying as much or as little as you want without paying for the packaging. Whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, honey, dried fruit, and a variety of whole grain flours are commonly available to buy in bulk, and are great choices for any healthy kitchen.
- Shop for fresh produce often. Fresh produce will be the food item that you need to shop for most often, 2-4 times a week. If you buy too much at once, it will often go bad before you can use it, and that is food and money wasted.
Do you have any advice for adding flavors to vegan dishes?
The same principles of spices and condiments that apply to other diets easily apply to a vegan diet as well. A vegan diet isn’t about plain or bland food at all. You are still making marinades, sauces and dressings, still roasting, broiling, baking, stir-frying, sautéing, etc. for vegan meals, so whatever flavors you like are wonderful additions to vegan recipes.
Which flavors really work?
Lemon and garlic is staple flavoring for me. I also love combining tahini and tamari for dressings. Ginger-miso is also a great combination for sauces, marinades or stir-fry. I love chipotle in just about anything! I add it to tofu scramble, a barbeque sauce, soups, sauces and dressings. I love that smoky flavor.
Is it just a myth that a vegan diet clears your skin or is it for real?
It is true, that skin can be a key indicator of our digestion and how we eat. Most people on a vegan diet are consuming a lot of fresh, whole foods and reducing their intake of processed foods. This can certainly give the skin a glow! Keeping food choices whole and clean and the diet will have a great effect on digestion, and this will over time be reflected in one’s entire system, inside and out. Processed foods cause inflammation in the system and often this shows up in our complexion.
What mistakes do you see time and time again when people go vegan?
One common mistake is thinking that we need to replace everything that we were previously eating with a vegan version of that same food, e.g. cheeses, burgers, hotdogs, deli meats, bacon, etc. There are many vegan products on the market now, some of them very tasty that do just this. The mistake is that these are processed foods, and although they can certainly be eaten on occasion, as a vegan you don’t want your whole diet to be based on this way of thinking or eating. There is such a thing as the ‘junk food vegan.’ Another misconception and vegans are always asked about this, is protein. There is a worry that as a vegan one is not getting enough protein. A new vegan can easily stock up on protein bars and protein powders, also processed foods, but with proper understanding and planning, they can easily get the adequate daily protein amounts from whole food sources.
Could you share your top vegan tips?
- Be a discoverer. Rather than thinking about the vegan diet as what you can’t eat and then feeling deprived because you have to cut out foods, think of it as what you can eat.You will discover a whole new world of food choices, and will certainly be enjoying foods you may not have thought to include in your meals, or perhaps always wanted to, but did not even consider until now.
- Understand you are getting the nutrition you need. You may be worried that once you leave animal foods behind, you’ll be depriving your body of well-needed everyday nutrients. Truly, you will be well provided for within a vegan diet. Variety is key to keeping the macro (protein, fat, carbohydrates) and micro (minerals, vitamins, antioxidants) nutrients in check. If you have concerns, discuss with your health practitioner. Vitamin B12 supplementation is the most common for the vegan.
- Keep it real. As with any diet, optimal health comes from eating whole foods, rather than filling up with the processed foods. Vegan does not automatically mean healthy!
You can find lots of great vegan recipes here.