New year, new diet: vegan?

vegan

New year, new you, right? We've all heard it... after all, what better time to get healthy than the start of a new year?! Les Cler, MD, wanted to get a jump on it, and opted to go vegan back in the fall. We caught up with the chief medical officer and hospitalist at Methodist Dallas Medical Center about the transition and how it's going a few months in.

"Before I started this journey in October, I was a pretty big meat eater- steak, burgers, BBQ- so this was a big change for me," Dr. Cler says. "I would be lying if I didn't say I was a little anxious about removing foods from my diet that gave me such pleasure in life or that I felt were my comfort foods after a long day."

So why make such a big lifestyle change?

"Someone close to me suffered a very serious stroke and I was faced with some tough questions," Dr. Cler says. "Thankfully they made a full recovery, but I was left wondering if my current diet would give me the best long-term outcome."

Now that he's made the shift to a vegan diet, Dr. Cler loves to share his experience and medical insights about the diet. But he's the first to say it's not always easy or perfect and that keeping your sense of humor can help you navigate the vegan path.

Knowledge is key

The single biggest piece of advice from Dr. Cler and veteran vegans alike? Do your homework before you begin. When you remove animal products from your diet, finding new sources for certain vitamins and nutrients is a must. Supplements will also likely play a role in keeping your body healthy, so you'll need to do your research there as well.

Making good vegan food choices is also important- meaning, don't over rely on soy-based products as they are often high in sodium and preservatives and avoid replacing animal products with less nutritionally strong foods such as breads, pastas and packaged foods.

Learn how to read food labels to verify foods are in fact vegan-friendly. Oftentimes ingredients don't appear to be derived from animals, but in fact are. For example, gelatin is made from animal collagen.

Nutrition Quick Tips

  • Vitamin B12 : Only occurs naturally in animal foods, so loading up on different B-12 fortified foods (such as breakfast cereal) as well as a B12 supplement will keep your body's nerve and blood cells healthy.
  • Protein : Protein is considered one of the key building blocks of life. Your body uses it to make enzymes and hormones,and it's a critical component of healthy bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. Once you eliminate animal proteins (think eggs and chicken), you'll need to find new sources such as lentils, beans, soy and quinoa.
  • Iron : The iron found in animal products is easily absorbed by our bodies, but iron derived from a plant-based diet is less readily absorbed. Loading up on good iron sources such as dried raisins, dark, leafy greens, sunflower seeds and legumes can help you keep your iron levels stable.

Transition Strategies

Like many wanting to make the move to a more plant-based diet Dr. Cler first started going vegan one meal at a time, starting with breakfast is a common approach. Dr. Cler- a self-professed cereal lover, started by swapping out cow's milk for unsweetened almond milk.

Taking the next step might be going meatless one or a few days a week. Another approach to consider is slowing removing one animal product from your diet at a time. Remember, there is no "average" time it takes to become a vegan, some do it overnight, others transition over months.

Talk to the pros

As with any major lifestyle change, keeping your doctor in the loop is key. While it may seem unnecessary to mention your new diet if you're feeling great, your doctor can get a fuller picture of your health by doing a simple blood draw to check your nutrient levels.

Figuring out all the different sources of vitamins and minerals you'll need can be daunting, consider enlisting the help of a nutritionist to help you sort through the options.

"Life has become more interesting and intentional since I embraced the vegan diet," Dr. Cler says. "I've be freed from habits I didn't realize were there, gotten to try tons of new foods, talk to new people about this journey, and feel healthier overall because of it."

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