Plant-based or vegan eating has caught on in a huge way in recent years, and with popular restaurant chains like the Slutty Vegan in Atlanta and Natural Blend in Brooklyn, along with vegan food brands like Golde and Partake Foods, it’s easier than ever to make this lifestyle change—should you wish.
With the holiday season behind us and a brand-new year ahead, maybe you’re thinking of making the diet switch. If so, you probably have questions. Shenarri Freeman, executive chef of Cadence; Kanchan Koya, author of Spice Spice Baby: 100 Recipes with Healing Spices for Your Family Table; and Daudi “Da Vegan Guru” McLean, restaurateur, celebrity chef and motivational speaker, offer insightful tips and first-hand perspective on starting a plant-based journey.
How would you describe your vegan/plant-based journey and how has it changed your life?
Shenarri Freeman: This journey has been an eye-opener. I’m blessed and grateful for all of the knowledge I’ve attained over the years and fortunate to be able to share my journey with others and educate people. Outside of the diet and what I decide to put in and on my body, I’ve learned more than I could ever imagine about myself, discipline, holistic health and how the world around me functions.
Kanchan Koya: I grew up an omnivore who ate a fair amount of vegetables, but it was only when I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan that I changed my diet’s emphasis to plants (accented with animal products) and, consequently, my life and health were transformed. In his iconic book, Michael Pollan sums up his recommendations for a healthy dietary pattern in this famous quote: “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Plants are where the health-enhancing magic lies and as I have emphasized them as the star ingredients in my life, my gut health, energy and vitality have skyrocketed.
Daudi McLean: I lost 115 pounds when I changed from a “DIE-T” to a “LIVE-IT!” That’s how it’s all “VEE-GAN”! I stopped putting food that was dead into my body and started eating plant-based life. Since becoming vegan, I’ve maintained great energy, youthfulness, optimum health—and I create the most delicious vegan food for the true meat lover.
What are the top three benefits of being vegan/plant-based that you’ve experienced?
Freeman: Being introduced to more natural remedies and holistic health—not being dependent on modern Western medical practices. Eating with intention. Discipline.
Koya: Improved microbiome and gut health. Enhanced energy and mental clarity. Effortless weight maintenance. Youthful skin and overall health.
McLean: I lost over 100 pounds becoming vegan in less than a year and without missing a meal. Second, I have been in great health for nearly 30 years. A common cold can’t catch me! Lastly, I just turned 57 years old and I really feel brand new.
What area of your life has been transformed most significantly with your transition to plant-based eating?
Freeman: I think this transformation has had the biggest effect on me spiritually. I feel more in tune with a lot of things. I am able to have more control over myself, my mind and my body. These things are aligned with the foods that help energize my body. “Third eye open” is a phrase commonly used, but I am able to pick up on energies, frequencies, and how to navigate them a bit better. Learning how to eat for nutrition versus taste has also played a major role in this empowerment.
Koya: My plant-centered diet bestows me with the energy and vitality to show up and do the work I know I am here to do: to help people feel their best in body, mind and spirit so they too can fully realize their life’s and soul’s purpose.
McLean: I was way overweight, unfilled in my professional life, lived in the concrete jungle of New York and had not seen a mountain or been on a beach in my life. I moved to Los Angeles, California, where I was spiritually transformed by walking in the mountains in nature and meditating on the ocean on the beach. What got me to that point was a Dr. Sebi pamphlet that told me what and what NOT to eat. So I went up into the mountain metaphorically, like Moses did, every day for 11.5 months to meditate, give thanks and pray. When I came down from that mountain, I was transformed. Becoming vegan has absolutely renewed every aspect of my life and has given me a motivational platform to help others be aware of healthy alternative eating plans.
What is one myth or misconception that you’ve encountered along your vegan/plant-based food journey that you’d like to dispel?
Freeman: That vegan food is boring. I think this is one of the most detrimental statements one could say about vegan and plant-based foods. It creates a stereotype and is very off-putting of the actual offerings available. My food is a prime example. I take familiar flavors, textures, and cooking techniques and create pure magic. I encourage people to try different cuisines—Ethiopian, Indian, Thai, Mexican, etc. Give yourself a chance to experience different regional vegetables, cooking techniques, spices + seasonings before pulling the plug on vegan food. Have an open mind!
Koya: The biggest myth about being plant-centered is concerns about protein, but there is literally not a single scientific study that suggests that this is a problem. If you are eating a moderately diverse set of plant-based foods and meeting your caloric needs, you are meeting your protein needs adequately.
McLean: That vegan food is bland, sawdust, birdseed, grass… I’m a flavor-cologist and I dispel that myth! And that vegans are weak and fragile… I’m a “Guru Gorilla!”
For anyone wanting to begin on their own vegan/plant-based journey, what advice would you offer them?
Freeman: I always tell people to find purpose before commitment. What is your purpose of transitioning to this diet? Health reasons, environmental, curiosity, animal rights, etc.—just find purpose. It will make the journey a bit easier and more rewarding. A diet shouldn’t be a punishment. It should be fulfilling and intentional. Start there.
Koya: You don’t have to be 100% plant-based to enjoy the benefits of a plant-centered diet. Even a 90% plant-based approach will give you oodles of benefits and allow you some flexibility, which makes the plant-centered way of eating more sustainable in the long run. Aim for progress, not perfection. Start with just one plant-based meal a day and build from there.
McLean: My advice would be to purchase my new book (coming Spring 2022). Also, drink plenty of alkaline water. The water will help clear your palate and curb your appetite. I also recommend doing a fast or a cleanse, juicing or eating raw for a few days. Then try plant-based foods that you know you like—burgers, fries, guacamole, rice, beans, etc.—if you are not able to go “cold tofu” and quit meat right away. Just don’t be too daring because there is some crappy tasteless vegan food out there. Stick to what you like! Your taste buds are brand new every two weeks, so plant-based food is just going to get better and better.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.