It feels weirdly hypocritical to write about anything ‘plant-based’ for a couple of reasons:
1. As a kid, the closest I came to a vegetable were french fries. Later, as a wannabe bodybuilder in my twenties, I ate more meat in a typical day than Kobayashi. I made butchers wealthy, and buffet owners closed down the prime rib station when I came around.
2. Vegans, like Crossfitters, get a bad rap for trying to convert everyone to their lifestyle. I’d never judge someone for eating meat, I salivate over steak just like most people.
Despite all that, I cut almost all meat out of my diet in 2019. A year and a half into this journey, I wanted to share why I did it, my experiences, and what surprised me. And if you’re going to give a plant-based diet a try, I’ve included some practical tips and plans to succeed.
Why I Went Full Kale (Sort of)
In 2019, I had to slow down from the hectic, deadline-driven corporate world. My solution: a month of farm living in rural Vietnam and Myanmar.
There I witnessed things you just don’t see in the city, like chickens and cows being butched for supper. I’m not naive about how meat gets to our plates, but it was visceral to see it up close every day.
I hadn’t realized the sacrifice that’s made to satisfy my palate. So I asked myself: can I get by without meat? Do I need it to survive? It became a challenge – a test of discipline, which inspired me to give it a shot.
What It Was Like
Shortly before New Year’s, I ate my last chicken breast. I started planning my restrictive diet. My first question was: how can I possibly get enough protein without meat? My solution was to take supplements and eat some responsibility-sourced animal byproducts. On occasion, I eat a small amount of wild-caught seafood, known as a pescatarian diet.
[Quick aside: Some vegans will condemn me for eating animal-based foods at all. Some pose moral ultimatums and demand extreme change. And this is what causes most people to give up on a plant based diet or never try one. If everyone just ate slightly less meat, it would relieve so many of the environmental and social ills that animal agriculture causes.]
Okay, so the change wasn’t as difficult as I expected. It’s not like, say, quitting smoking. The cravings weren’t super intense. I’ve done low carb and low-fat diets that I found much harder to transition to. The hardest aspect was social events; parties, barbeques, picnics, etc. Dining out can be tough, especially when the sole veggie option is a sad salad. Big surprise: social distancing from steak is more challenging when you’re at a steakhouse. But alas, I found solutions (more on that in a moment).
What Happened to My Body
Not a lot! My energy levels and digestion seemed to improve a bit. I did not shrink into a raisin, as some prophesized. My strength went down somewhat, but I chalk that up to a lack of gym equipment due to the quarantine. I run, bike, and swim, and my cardio output didn’t change much. So, claims that cutting meat improves your athleticism seems to be overblown.
Does it make you healthier? It depends. French fries and ice cream are vegetarian, but eating those all day won’t help your physique (trust me, I tried). But substituting meat with healthy vegetables, grains, and legumes likely will. From WebMD:
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an evidence-based review showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of death from ischemic heart disease. Vegetarians appear to have lower low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower rates of hypertension and type 2 diabetes than meat-eaters. Vegetarians also tend to have a lower body mass index, lower overall cancer rates, and lower risk of chronic disease.
The Protein Predicament
You don’t need to revamp your whole diet to go vegetarian. If you’re like me, your biggest concern is getting enough protein. When I lifted weights every day, I aimed for one gram per pound of bodyweight. That’s quite difficult without chicken, pork, and beef, and demanded some thoughtful dieting. Let’s go over some great substitutes and a sample meal plan.
Tofu comes from soybeans and can replace almost any meat. I recommend buying the extra-firm kind, some of which are high in protein. Squeeze out the water, then add them to a stir fry or barbeque. Tempeh is firmer, granier, and nuttier than tofu. It’s easier than tofu because you don’t have to press it. It’s a good substitute for fish. Seitan is made of hydrated gluten (avoid if you have an allergy). It has a dense, chewy texture, tastes like chicken, and can be cooked in many ways.
Several fruits and vegetables substitute well for meat. Jackfruit has a mild taste, a chewy texture, and takes on most flavors and spices. It’s a great stand-in for pulled pork or shredded beef. White sweet potatoes are great in wraps, and cauliflower can be a good substitute for fried finger foods like wings.
Grains and Legumes are also excellent sources of protein—mix quinoa into meatless burger patties. Lentils are great in soups, curries, or salads. Portobello mushrooms are a filling burger substitute.
Some popular commercial meat substitutes are worth mentioning. Beyond and Impossible Foods are plant-based alternatives to ground beef. They taste eerily like and are high in protein with less fat. They also have sausage links and patties. Gardein is a mainstream brand of plant-based foods. They produce everything from chicken tenders, wings, beef tips, meatballs, and more.
Lastly, I use supplements to round out my diet. Protein Shakes are a great way to get an extra 20-30 grams of protein each day. They’re also convenient and inexpensive. I take a Men’s multivitamin to fill in any nutritional gaps and Omega-3 capsules to get more healthy fats.
Quick, Hearty High Protein Meal Plans
There are many great vegetarian recipe books and blogs out there for free, so I won’t try to outdo them here. Instead, I’ll share my sample meal plan and link recipes – just enough to get you started:
- Option 1: Greek Yogurt with Granola and Berries
- Option 2: Whole Wheat Muffin Egg & Cheese Sandwiches
- Option 3: WW Breakfast Burritos
- Option 4: WW Bagel (add Lox if Pescatarian)
- Option 1: Egg Salad Sandwich (Tuna Salad if Pescatarian)
- Option 2: Black-Bean Burgers
- Option 3: Quinoa Salad
- Option 4: Falafel Wraps
- Option 1: WW or High-protein Spaghetti with Impossible Ground
- Option 2: Tofu Stir Fry with Brown Rice (use a store-bought sauce to save time)
- Option 3: Wild Caught Shrimp or Fish Tacos (if Pescatarian)
- Option 4: Jackfruit Sliders
A veggie-first diet can save you money, improve your health, and help the planet. Although it’s easier than ever to switch, it requires lifestyle adjustments. You might need to contact the host of a party to see if there are meatless options. If not, you’ll have to bring your own, or change plans. If you’re traveling, research restaurants that will cater to your dietary preference. Bring protein bars and shakes with you on long trips, where whole foods aren’t available.
Expect that some people won’t get your desire to sacrifice a staple of modern life. Be patient with those that don’t understand your diet or think you’re stubborn. Have your reasons, but don’t thrust them on others. Focus on long term sustainability. If you’re craving steak, have it. Every diet has some concept of a cheat meal. Don’t deprive yourself to the point that discipline feels like a prison. Soon enough, you’ll forget ever missing it.
Photos are Royalty Free from Pexels
Guest Author Bio
Chris is an accomplished sales and business development leader with experience at companies like Microsoft, Salesforce, and Dropbox. He went from being kicked out of high school twice to earning an MBA at UC Berkeley, and from being a pack-a-day smoker and aquaphobe to marathoner and triathlete. He writes about self improvement for knowyourbest.com.