As more of us attempt to change from a typical omnivore diet to a vegetarian or vegan way of life, various challenges can come along our journey. One of the main and common ones is the dilemma of how to substitute common animal product or animal product-based food items, for plant-based ones.
I am always grateful to you, the reader, for bringing up important topics that matter to you, as I want Evolving Wellness to be as beneficial to you as possible, so never hesitate to bring up what you would like to know more about.
I am thus very grateful to one of our readers, Monika, who brought up an excellent question and situation in one of her comments on the “The Benefits of being Vegan over Vegetarian” article.
As Monika is considering to progress from a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet to a vegan diet, she brings up an excellent question of how and what to substitute common animal based food items for vegan options. Since I know this is a common struggle for many who are starting out on their vegetarian or vegan journey, I decided therefore to address this topic in an article to help as many other people out there as possible on how to handle these types of substitutions.
To Substitute of Not to Substitute
To answer the question of what to substitute common animal-based products for, with plant-based products, I have to back track a little to give you a better picture of why I am about to say what I will.
To begin with, please understand that I am a strong proponent for the vegan lifestyle for many of the proven health benefits, environmental benefits and humane reasons, which you can read about in the following articles if you are not familiar with them:
However, while I greatly support this dietary lifestyle, I come into this philosophy from number one – a health perspective. Thus, while I hold in very high regard people who are so loving and compassionate for the animals that they refuse to eat them, or partake in any of their abuse, I find it equally important to find that same love and compassion for oneself and thus eat as healthy as possible. Therefore, I will be the first to acknowledge that one can go vegan and totally miss the point, and actually become less healthy than they were before, while they were eating animal products.
Yes, due to the overwhelming evidence from many areas of research, I greatly encourage the removal of animal products from one’s diet, but there is something that I encourage even more than that – taking out processed foods from one’s diet.
Honestly, and I may shock some of you with what I am about to say, but speaking strictly from a health perspective, it is better to continue eating meat (organic) and no processed food, than become vegan and live on processed food. So the ultimate goal for one’s health is to be a healthy vegan or vegetarian – that means eat food that is as natural and wholesome as possible.
Therefore having said all this, I am not a big fan of substituting animal-based foods with plant-based foods.
Many people give up hot dogs and burgers, only to turn to veggie dogs and veggie burgers. Often, unless these are home made, they are full of sodium, preservatives and even artificial flavors, colors, etc. This is just one example of the many health pitfalls we can fall into if we only change our habits by seeking substitutions.
As I already mentioned above, many meat items are substituted for their “veggie-meat” counter parts. So let’s think about it, how do you get plant foods to taste like turkey or chicken? By adding a whole lot of unnatural things to them.
Yes, processed meat, especially deli style cold-cuts are super unhealthy, but processed veggie-meats have their own problems and are thus not suitable to my standards for optimal health.
Will it kill you to eat the odd veggie burger if stuck at a restaurant that has limited veggie choices? Of course not. All I am saying is that this should be an odd case scenario, not a regular thing. Just like we should not be eating meat burgers on a regular basis, we should not be eating veggie burgers on a regular basis.
So for meat, I do not recommend any substitutes. Think about why you went vegetarian or vegan in the first place, do you really want something that reminds you of that item and how unhealthy, or inhumane it was? Hopefully not, but of course the choice is always yours.
If you are concerned about protein, forget about it. The whole hype of protein has most people in today’s modern world eating more than they actually need, leading to more harm than good. As long as you are eating a varied plant diet with beans, nuts and seeds of various varieties regularly, you should be more than fine.
Milk and Dairy Substitutes
The next most popular thing that people look to substitute is milk. Most people easily transition to soy milk, unless they absolutely cannot tolerate the taste of soy or have an allergy to soy. Similarly with ice-cream, many vegan companies today have begun to make soy ice-cream.
However, we have to consider two things here:
Soy milk, soy ice-cream or even tofu is a processed food, and
Soy is not necessarily the optimal health food. (See “Conflicting Health Advice About Soy” for more information.)
Therefore, in searching for a better substitute for milk, or soy milk, I recommend brown rice milk or almond milk. And for those who want to go totally unprocessed, make your own nut milk or fruit milk. All you really need is a blender for this. Banana milk for example, is as easy as placing 1 banana into a blender with enough water to have a watery consistency. If looking for more dairy substitutes, and some great recipes, check out the book “Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living.”
Next, cheese, and let’s be honest this is a huge component in most people’s diets. What most people do not correlate however is that cheese is one of the most problematic dairy items for our health. Aside from the lavishly high saturated fat, cholesterol and even trans fat, cheese usually has the highest casein concentration out of all dairy products. Casein is a protein based compound that seems to be greatly problematic, and tied to various health conditions, including autism. If you want to transition from animal-cheese to veggie-cheese, at your local health food store you should be able to find many varieties. However, read your ingredient labels, many claim to be vegan, when they actually have added casein or other dairy products to them. An amazing cheese can be made with ground cashews and nutritional yeast, check out this recipe for ideas.
Where yogurt is concerned, ask yourself why you are eating yogurt in the first place. I used to love yogurt, until I learned to see it in a new light. Have you ever looked at the typical yogurt ingredients? Do you know how much added sugar there is, as well as artificial colors or flavors in some, not to mention animal-product based gelatins and saturated, sometimes even trans fats? If you are eating yogurt for probiotic reasons, there are better and more sure ways of getting your cultures, like several highly respected supplements. Dannon already got called for their probiotic claims on Activia in a law suit. Ultimately, when we eat natural food, our intestines naturally change their own flora within to help us.
Where sour cream is concerned, amazing sauces can be made on a base of ground cashews….yes, ground cashews!
And finally, what about the cream for the morning coffee? Hmm, okay don’t get me started on the coffee. Coffee is one of the most acidic, and adrenal draining substances – that somehow our society has bought into as the “drink of the morning“. If you are willing to give up dairy, this would be an amazing time to really take your health to a new high and give up your dependency on coffee. The journey with coffee is a downward spiraling one. If you complain about your energy levels today, just wait a few more years and see what the coffee does to them then. Look at your life, your health and your body – how much do you love them all? Do you love them enough to make proper sleep a priority? Consider getting back to normal and leaving coffee behind in the past. I have never started to drink coffee and never will, and wake up each morning with more energy than perhaps a 5 year old. It is amazing what greens will do to you ;)
Finally, one last point on the milk and dairy before we leave this topic, and that is that one of the greatest things holding people back from giving up milk, is the myth that milk and dairy is the ultimate health food for bones. This could not be further from the truth.
Today we know that the calcium from milk is not readily absorbable from the milk by our bodies. We also know that dark, leafy greens are way better sources of calcium. We also know that good bone strength does not revolve around calcium. Drinking milk into adulthood is in fact a recent phenomenon (evolutionarily speaking), heavily industry driven for profit and that the majority of the world is lactose intolerant, non-milk drinking and usually has better bones than those who do drink milk. For more information on how milk can actually be more harmful than helpful, see “Going Behind the Scenes of the Food We are Told to Eat by the News Media” and “You Can Thank High Protein and High Sodium Diets for Your Bone Loss.”
The next animal food that people look to substitute are eggs. To find the right substitute for eggs, or to see if you even need one, you need to ask yourself what do you normally use or want the eggs for. If it is for protein, than no worry again, there are way more and better sources of protein than eggs, including the amazing hemp seeds. If you are not familiar with hemp seeds, check out this article on hemp seeds, to learn just how powerful of a food source they are.
If it is for something like scrambled eggs, then consider scrambled tofu – not the ultimate food as I mentioned above, but could nicely serve as your transition food, till you no longer need the “scrambled” breakfast.
If you are looking for eggs to bake with, although there are various substitutes, like even apple sauce, I would say seriously reconsider baking. Most baked goods are based on refined sugars, fats, white flours and other ingredients which are far from great for our health. Plus, the baked item is heated at such high temperatures in the process of baking, that you can forget about most nutritional value from that item. Trust me, this is coming from someone who used to bake regularly, until my eyes opened up too.
Now, this does not mean you cannot have any sweet treats. It is amazing what you can make with nuts and dates alone! There are so many amazing raw desserts, one only needs to be brave enough to venture out into new territory and then not even the sky is the limit. Check out this amazing raw, (no-cheese) cheesecake dessert.
Ultimately, I find that many people use eggs as a quick, no-brainer meal. However, if we just put a few minutes of thought and creativity to our meal, we can have an amazing meal without eggs, and stop depending on them for our quick-fix meals altogether.
When it comes to fish and other seafood, most people actually don’t think of substituting this when they go veggie, and out of all of the above mentioned, this is perhaps one food that they should seriously consider substituting.
Some seafood is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. We know today that almost all of us in the Western world gets too much omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3 fatty acids. It is hard to depend on the fish for this crucial nutrient, even if you are not a vegan or vegetarian, as the pollution levels from the waters these fish are in, have been proven harmful to us.
Hence for optimal health, one should be making sure to be getting foods like flax seeds, walnuts and hemp seeds on a daily basis. To add to this have your omega-3 blood levels tested annually to see if your body is doing okay with these sources, if not, you may need to add an omega-3 supplement from fish sources, or algae if you are looking for a veggie source.
Some Other Common Substitutes
Cereal - cereal is a processed food, and highly processed at that, with ample amounts of added refined sugars even in the best of them – you can read more here about the myths of cereals. Hence, you won’t need a milk substitute if you reconsider the whole boxed cereal idea. If you want a great breakfast based on real, whole grains, consider going to the source of whole grains that have been unprocessed. Consider grains like those from Bob’s Red Mill, which do not need milk as they are prepared with water. See here for ideas “6 Optimally Healthy Breakfast Grain Options.”
Bread - depending on what bread you buy this can also turn out to be a highly processed food. To contrary belief most breads out there today are actually not baked with eggs and dairy. These were our grandmothers’ famous old recipes. Today’s bread is a whole other story. Having said that, if you look in your grocery store hard enough, you will find at least one or two bread companies that are striving for really high quality breads (and no Dempster’s is not one of them.) Just remember to read your ingredient labels.
Baked Goods – these are not great food choices for our health, whether we are vegan, vegetarian or omnivore. They are loaded with the wrong types of sugars, fats and artificial additives. If you are conscious about your weight and your health, then see through these, and pick healthy desserts like fruits, nuts, and dates.
Beverages - soda, coffee, and most juices are far from healthy, never mind optimally healthy. The number one drink of choice is water! We don’t get enough of it, and nothing, I mean nothing takes the place of good, pure, clean water. Almost every single reaction in your body depends on it and the truth is, most of us are walking around dehydrated. If you seek flavor, squirt a fresh lemon or lime into your water. If you are seeking more variety, consider buying a juicer and enjoy your creative side, juicing any fruit, vegetable, or combo thereof for yourself! If you are stuck on the go, look for Bolthouse or Arthur’s Natural Smoothies.
Snack Bars – sometimes all of us want or need a quick bar when hunger strikes or when on the go. We are not even going to mention chocolate bars for obvious reasons. How about granola bars? Some are not veggie-friendly, but still, that is not a great choice, for reasons you can read here. The best way to go is have on hand always a few raw, fruit and nut bars, such as the Raw, Organic Food Bars, Vega Bars, Weil Bars, or Lara Bars. These are all vegan friendly, and as close to optimally healthy as a packed item can get, not to mention they taste amazing!
What About Eating Out?
Eating out for optimally healthy people is by no understatement one of the hardest things to do. Let’s face it, our society is completely not set up for healthy eating. Junk, yes. Healthy, no.
How about for eating vegan or vegetarian? Well, depending on where you live, this can be harder or easier. Several big cities like Toronto, Los Angeles or New York are quite excellent at leading the way where vegetarian or vegan restaurants are concerned. Most other places however leave one stuck with a regular menu. In such cases there is always the safe choice, a salad where you ask them to hold any animal products and sauces. Sometimes you can get a good veggie sandwich, pizza or pasta dish as well, and of course the odd veggie burger.
Solutions for Optimal Health
So ultimately what I teach people who want to go the vegetarian or vegan way, is actually not to look for substitutes, but adopt a whole new way of looking at food and eating. Consider placing into your shopping basket only products that are natural, wholesome and hopefully organic as well, and from there create new food combinations to nourish your body.
You will be amazed at what you will find! All you need is a little creativity and to break through old models of conditioning of what should be eaten, when and with what.
Knowing this, a lot of people still get a bit fearful of what will they eat? At this point even you reading this may be thinking, it sounds like there is nothing left. However, most of us only feel this way as we have not explored the astounding, and diverse plant kingdom.
There are so many different FRUITS, VEGETABLES, NUTS, SEEDS, BEANS and GRAINS to eat – that to this day (that is over 2 years of being vegetarian/vegan) I rarely eat the exactly same thing twice!
So I leave you on this topic with 3 pieces of advice:
1. Make your own, new traditions when it comes to food, whether it is for the holidays or for any day. See food in a new light – as a substance that nourishes you, builds you, and keeps you healthy, not as something that just fills your stomach or as a substitute or solution for a bad day.
2. When you shop, buy natural, wholesome and organic products. This way you have no choice but to eat natural and healthy, once you get home.
3. Read all your ingredient labels. Get to know your food, not matter what you pick it to be, and see if you feel comfortable consuming the ingredients the package states. Usually you will find yourself reconsidering the item after you read what is in it, seeking a healthier alternative.
Finally, I realize and do respect that all the changes I wrote above may be too overwhelming for some of you to consider all at once, especially depending on what type of dietary lifestyle you have had up to this point. However, please remember and note that you do not need to make any major changes over one night. No one is expecting you to turn around everything, unless of course you are ready to.
Give yourself time – as much time as you need – to educate yourself along the way, and develop a healthy relationship with food, being grateful for the beautiful bounty Mother Earth gives us in peace. However, as you progress on your beautiful wellness journey, keep in mind the ultimate goal for optimal health and longevity is to eat as natural as possible – whether that includes animal products or not.