Back in 1994, when my Dad died of a massive heart attack, I went on a quest for a healthier lifestyle. Two years later, when my Mom suffered a massive stroke, my journey became a little more focused. Two years after that, my daughter declared herself vegetarian at the age of three, and I’ve been on this wild and crazy ride ever since.

I grew up on meat and potatoes. My parents are both from the Midwest, and believed in eating by the calendar – Monday was meatloaf day, Tuesday was chicken fried steak day … you get it. The only veggie that landed on the plate next to the meat was usually corn or peas.

Variety was not something I was used to until I went away to college, got married, and began experimenting with what I ate on my own.

Then my Dad, my Mom, and my daughter changed my path forever.

I gave up red meat the year before my daughter was born. Mad cow disease was rising, and I wanted no part of that while trying to get pregnant or carrying a child.

With my daughter declaring herself vegetarian in 1998, I started looking at the food supply. I wanted to ensure her tiny, growing body would get all the nutrients it needed. And if she wasn’t going to eat meat, how could I ensure she got what was necessary to be healthy through puberty?

It took years of investigation and experimentation to figure out the best path for her. And the more I learned, the more I gravitated to a vegetarian diet too. In 2011, I went vegetarian full time. I moved to a vegan diet in 2014.

This journey is not an easy one. It’s one I work at every day.

But I’m reminded of why I do it all the time.

Like a recent report that analyzed fast food offerings in 1986, 1991, and 2016. Portion size, energy, and sodium content all have made detrimental changes over this 30 year span, and today’s fast food isn’t good.

Chemicals do not belong in our food supply. They should not be injected into the seed, nor should the plant be continually sprayed throughout the lifecycle without expecting detrimental results. The courts have now agreed.

And why is food we purchase in America different from what they sell around the world? Why do our foods have loads of ingredients we can’t read or pronounce, yet they’ve banned them in places like the EU? Hint: Big corporation profits and lobbying fit into this picture.

If you’re contemplating a vegetarian, vegan, or plant-based diet for health reasons – and in midlife, I hope you are – here are a few things I wish I’d learned much earlier in the process.

Everyone will want to talk with you about your protein intake

Where do you get your protein?

I had no idea what a hot button this question is. I figured out a number of years ago when I went in to buy a new car. As we were sitting around a table during the signing process, I mentioned to the salesperson I was vegetarian. I’d known this guy all of one hour, and the first thing he said was: Where do you get your protein?

Thanks to the USDA and lobbyists from places like the Beef Council, we’ve all been pounded with the concept of protein. And for most, protein is synonymous with meat. But it simply isn’t true. Plant-based proteins are every bit as powerful as meat proteins. I’m not a dietician, but I will tell you that if you make it your business to eat a complex diet filled with all kinds of healthy foods, you will get enough protein. You can get protein from all kinds of foods:

  • Lentils
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Peanut butter
  • Tahini
  • Pistachios
  • Flax seeds
  • Cashews
  • Oats
  • Tofu
  • Chickpeas
  • Red beans
  • Lima beans
  • Quinoa
  • Spinach
  • Chia seeds

Yep, a lot of different foods.

Have you ever heard of the concept of “complete protein?” Complete proteins contain 20 essential amino acids. The human body already has 11, meaning to keep fully energized, you only need to supplement with the other 9 to ensure a healthy body. Animal products have those 9, which is why they are so frequently referred to. But if you eat a diet rich in a variety of food, getting those 9 from other sources is quite easy.

If getting proteins was hard to do, you’d read about people dying of protein deficiencies all the time. When was the last time you read about that? (You haven’t. But you’re likely to read about obesity and other problems related to consuming too much food.)

And if you think you can’t reach peak performance levels on a vegan diet, think again. In fact, more people are turning vegan than ever before. Millennials are moving in this direction big time. It’s up to us Gen Xers to get on the bandwagon too.

You have to learn to cook

When I was a busy working mom, I thought quick processed foods were the only way to go. I bought boxes to make it easy to add main dishes and sides to our meals. We went out several nights a week.

Now I’m still a busy working mom, albeit in different ways. My daughter’s older, my family dynamics have changed. But that doesn’t mean I have any more time. The difference is in how I prioritize meal preparation.

Years ago, my meals often looked like this:

  • Chicken breast
  • Steamed broccoli
  • A small side salad from a bag
  • Noodles from a box, or bread from a bag

That was my standard, go-to meal. We ate a lot of chicken breast. And the occasional salmon filet because it’s supposed to be good for you.

And OH, was it boring. Same meal. Same taste. Ugh.

One day I was surfing around and found an interesting vegetarian recipe. I tried it. It was great! And it wasn’t that complicated to make.

That led me to my first vegetarian cookbook. And my family loved every meal I made.

Here’s a quick trick I’ve found to try out cookbooks before you buy. When I see or hear about a new vegetarian cookbook, I check it out at my local library. Then I dedicate time in the next couple of weeks to make the recipes. If they’re good and we love them, I buy the ebook so it resides on my Kindle app.

That way, I have my recipes with me wherever I go. On my recent trip to New Zealand, we stayed at Airbnb’s the entire time. At the start of each new location, we’d head to the grocery store and pick up the basics. We’d cook up healthy salads for us to bring with us while we hiked, and cook our own dinners when we returned home from the day. And only occasionally eat out at a restaurant – usually when we were traveling from place to place. Restaurants were the most expensive part of our trip. By cooking in and bringing leftovers with us, we saved enough to easily afford a one month stay. (Think you can’t travel more? Put this one tip into play, and you’ll be surprised at how much you save. And you easily stick with your plant-based diet, without any “surprises” in the meal.)

Want some ideas of cookbooks? Check out my Vegetarian board on Pinterest. Or click over to some of my favorite sites here:

Minimalist Baker

Oh She Glows

Avant Garde Vegan

Food 52 (They aren’t entirely vegetarian, but they have several hundred vegetarian recipes, and the ones I’ve tried are all very good.)

Plan before you go out

The easiest way to fall off your vegetarian diet is to walk out your front door.

A friend will suggest a restaurant – they have nothing you can eat.

You’re out playing, hiking, or having fun with the family, and can’t find a restaurant that suits your needs.

You’re invited to a barbecue and all they serve is meat-based dishes. You feel kind of funny eating just a hot dog bun.

To stick with eating healthy, you’re going to have to get bolder with your search to eat good food.

Honestly, the worst restaurants out there are seafood and steak. If a friend ever suggests one of these two types of restaurants, politely suggest another place. Here in my local area, I know all the restaurants and who can offer me a decent entree. And when I’m setting up a night to eat out with friends, I make sure we head to one of those places.

Your meat eating friends will eat anything. But to ensure you have something good too, just do a little homework and have these names ready for all kinds of situations.

And never forget your smartphone is your friend. We used it just the other day when we headed to the coast for Father’s Day weekend. “Hey, Siri, what’s the best vegetarian restaurant near me?” And up pops a wide array of places that have something good for a vegetarian to eat. I can click, find a menu, read, and choose a restaurant in just a few minutes.

And if you’re invited to a barbecue, check with the host before the day. If they are serving simple dishes like hamburgers and hot dogs, offer to bring your own veggie burger along. Potluck is even better, because you can introduce others at the party to bean salads, plant-based potato salad, or other entree you’ve fallen in love with yourself.

This isn’t disrespectful. I’d argue it’s even more so to show up and not eat anything at all. At least this way you’re prepared and can sit down and be a part of the gang – without having to eat unhealthily like the gang.

You’ll be shocked at what contains animal products

Right now, the concept of plant-based eating is growing in leaps and bounds.

Beyond Meat went IPO earlier this year. And everybody is jumping on the bandwagon and offering this as a menu item. (I’m very happy about this. I think it’s the right thing to do, and it helps more people avoid meat. However, as a long time vegan, I don’t like the taste. It’s too burger-y. 🙂 )

Tyson Foods has also taken notice of this trend, and has announced its own version of plant-based foods. I find their offerings a little devious, however, since they create packaging that screams “made with plants,” but a little more research will show that eggs, chicken, even beef is included in the ingredients. How is that plant-based?

And that’s my point. Just because something says it’s plant based doesn’t make it true. Become an investigator by reading the ingredients. Question your food. When you’re out at a restaurant, ask the server what’s in the food.

You’ll be shocked at what appears in the things you put into your mouth.

Did you know gelatin is made from boiling the bones and hides of animals processed for their meat? So stop eating Jell-O. And avoid any vitamins or medication made with a gelatin capsule – unless it says it’s a vegan product.

Sugar is often bleached with an animal bone char.

And you’ll often have to Google things just to learn the truth. For example, almond cheeses often contain casein, which is a cow’s milk protein. Nope, that won’t do if you’re sticking to a vegan diet.

Your vegetarian (vegan or plant-based) lifestyle is all about you, never them

You’re going to get a lot of crap when you fall down this rabbit hole. A lot of people will take a stand against your new approach to food. You’ll hear all kinds of comments:

  • What about killing the tomato? It screams when you bite it too.
  • Why can’t you just eat normal food like the rest of us?
  • Why are you starving your child?
  • Are you saying I’m bad for eating meat?

Trust me. You’ll hear it all. And a lot of it comes with a high degree of animosity.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain my choice. And I usually say something like this:

“Years ago, my father died of heart disease, and I went on a quest for a healthy lifestyle. I’ve discovered the vegan diet is best, it keeps me as healthy as I choose to be. I’ve learned that a lot of food choices simply aren’t the best for human consumption. I in no way judge anyone for what they eat, but I’m always happy to share what I’ve learned.”

I adjust it, depending on who I’m speaking with. And how much time I have.

By having a comeback ready, it rolls off your tongue, and you don’t give it a lot of thought. Because you will need this – over and over and over again.

This is your choice. Not there’s.

To have your comeback ready means you don’t have to dwell on the negativity. Say it, let it go, move on.

Some you may convince to change their eating habits a bit. And that works.

But this isn’t about them anyway. It’s all about you.

Your choices. Your health. Your goals for a better future.