Diving in: a Cardiologist’s Transition to a Vegan Diet

jeffrey-sobleBy Jeffrey Soble, MD

Nearly two years ago, I decided to follow a vegan diet, or an almost vegan diet, anyway. As I tell my patients, the decision to embrace a plant-based diet is a very personal one. People choose it for a variety of reasons, and it’s just one of several ways to eat more healthfully. Just look at your priorities and do what’s right for you.

For me, a plant-based diet made sense. Here, I share how I made the transition and why.

Health, environment, animal welfare

Several factors in my life converged to convince me to go vegan.

Certainly, there were health reasons: I have a family history of heart disease, and my father died of a heart attack. Heart medications didn’t agree with me, so I took a more serious look at my diet. That thinking coincided with my evolving views of animal rights and a growing desire to do good things to help the planet. I had already started driving less and riding my bike more for health and environmental reasons. Helping to reduce our dependency on the meat industry seemed like another way to be a good world citizen: It can help conserve land, water and energy resources as well as prevent pollution.

Cold turkey

To be successful in implementing the diet change, I personally found it easiest to give up animal products all at once. From my experience as a cardiologist for almost 30 years, I know that making incremental changes — like gradually quitting cigarettes — is difficult. So I went cold turkey. I had spent my entire life saying I would improve my diet, this time I just did it. Radical change, for me, was simpler. It made my decision-making about what foods to eat a no-brainer.

Keeping things simple works for me and describes my overall approach to my diet. That’s why I’m now 98 percent vegan. I’m not one to read every ingredient on every label; if an animal product slips in somewhere, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. On special occasions, like my son’s recent wedding, I’ll allow myself a little ice cream. And every once in a while, I’ll enjoy sushi. For me, it doesn’t need to be all or nothing. By not depriving myself, I’m mostly successful. And I feel good about that.

Inconvenience: It has its benefits

Like any diet, a vegan diet can be challenging. Yes, more and more restaurants offer up vegan options, but going out now requires a little more research ahead of time. Family gatherings mean a fair amount of planning because my wife still enjoys meat and my adult son is gluten-free. Ingredients matter, and dishes must meet other requirements than just tasting good.

When it’s just me and my wife, though, it’s not hard, because we can make our own choices and fend for ourselves. She eats her food, and I eat mine. She likes to call it our meat divorce, and we make it work.

Reorienting yourself regarding what you like and don’t like also takes some adjustment. It can be fun experimenting with new foods and different combinations. But the truth is, being a vegan is not a convenient choice. You must put time and effort into it. It’s such a different mindset from how I grew up eating, when meals always came from a box, can or the frozen foods section.

My children, though, inspire me. As young adults, they are part of a movement that addresses global concerns by making personal choices that have an impact. For them, convenience is far less important than their priorities: taking care of the environment, enjoying good health and ensuring animal welfare.

Building inconvenience into your life can be a positive step, but it’s a hard step to take. We work so hard on being more efficient, yet a lot of times you are better off taking the longer, more complicated path. Hopping in a car may be an easy way to get to work, but riding my bike or walking to the CTA station is so much better for my health. In fact, my more active lifestyle plus my new diet have helped me control my weight, which I’ve struggled with for years. While it’s harder to find a quinoa burger than a Big Mac, I know it’s a better choice for me.

Jeffrey Soble, MD, is a cardiologist with Rush University Medical Center.

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