The Vegan Starter Kit

Everything You Need to Know About Plant-Based Eating


By Neal D Barnard, MD, MD, FACC

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Leading medical authority Neal Barnard, MD, FACC, shows you how to put the power of a vegan diet to work with an easy, step-by-step approach.

Many are looking to adopt a more healthful diet but may have questions, like: How do I plan a vegan meal? Is protein an issue? How do I make it work if I don’t cook? Which are the best choices at restaurants?

In The Vegan Starter Kit Dr. Neal Barnard, perhaps the world’s most respected authority on vegan diets, answers your questions and gives you everything you need to put vegan power to work. You’ll learn how to ensure complete nutrition, and get quick-reference charts for calcium sources, tips for modifying your favorite recipes, and examples of quick and easy meals. Everything you need for permanent weight control and dramatically better health is presented.

The Vegan Starter Kit also includes information on healthy eating in childhood, pregnancy, and other stages of life, and a complete set of basic meals, holiday feasts, snacks, among many other features.


A Note to the Reader

THIS BOOK WILL INTRODUCE YOU TO THE POWER OF VEGAN FOODS. It’s easy to put that power to work, and the payoff is huge, as you will soon see! Even so, let me mention two important points:

If you have a health condition or use medications, see your health care provider. Often, people need less medication when they improve their diets. This is common for people who have diabetes or high blood pressure, for example. Sometimes, they can discontinue their drugs altogether. But do not change your medications on your own. Work with your health care provider to reduce or discontinue your medicines if and when the time is right.

Get complete nutrition. Plant-based foods are the most nutritious foods there are. Even so, you will want to ensure that you get complete nutrition. To do that, include a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes in your routine, and I would suggest a special focus on green leafy vegetables. And be sure to have a reliable source of vitamin B12 daily, such as a simple B12 supplement. Vitamin B12 is essential for healthy nerves and healthy blood. You will find more details in Chapter 5.


MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ARE LOOKING AT VEGAN CHOICES. Some aim to lose weight, improve their health, or boost their athletic ability. Others are motivated by compassion for animals or concern for the environment. Many are intrigued by the cool new vegan products at supermarkets, health food stores, restaurants, and fast-food spots.

Whether you want to just test out vegan eating for a week or two or plan to stick with it permanently, you no doubt have questions: How do I plan a meal? Am I getting complete nutrition? How do I cook when I’m pressed for time (without spending a fortune at the health food store)? How do I find good meals on the road? Do I need supplements?

This book will answer those questions and many more and will show you how to begin. It was inspired by a magazine-style booklet called the Vegetarian Starter Kit, first published by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in the 1990s. That guide proved extraordinarily popular. Stacks of them quickly vanished from doctors’ waiting rooms, convention booths, and health fairs, scooped up by people who were attracted by plant-based eating and were delighted to find a reliable guide to get them started. The format was quickly copied by many other organizations. This book retains the simplicity of the magazine-style booklet but adds lots of practical details to make going vegan easy and fun. It is called a “kit” because it has everything you need to get started, including thorough answers to common questions, details on ensuring complete nutrition during childhood, pregnancy, and other stages of life, and quick-reference charts, as well as a complete starter set of easy and delicious recipes and tips for modifying recipes of your own, among many other features.

Uh-oh, you may be thinking. “Do I have to learn to cook?” The answer is no. A vegan diet will improve your health, but it won’t change your personality. If you are too impatient to cook now, that’s not likely to change. So we’ll include plenty of tips for keeping things simple. That said, there are advantages to being able to decide what goes into the foods you’re eating, so do have a look at the recipes.

This guide has everything you need to jump into a healthful vegan diet (and we’ll use “plant-based” as a synonym for it). You will learn how to maximize the benefits for specific health conditions and how to make it work on the job and when you travel. We’ll also tackle some common bumps in the road and common myths.

As you will see, a vegan diet is the easiest and healthiest way to lose weight and keep it off for good. And for people with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or diabetes, it is a powerful way to turn these conditions around. It can help you reverse heart disease, reduce your cancer risk, and cut your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Soon you’ll find that going vegan is easy and is very powerful for your health. It is also an adventure. Rather than being the extreme end of a diet exploration, going vegan will feel like a healthy new beginning. Once you’ve gotten the animal products off your plate, you’ll want to explore many more things. There are wonderful cuisines from around the world, endless new foods to try, innovative websites, and lots of books, movies, and recipes to share. Along with them come more and more health benefits.

Please share the information you find here with anyone and everyone you know. You’ll love it, and they will, too!


The Best Decision I Ever Made

THERE ARE ENORMOUS HEALTH ADVANTAGES TO GOING VEGAN. For starters, it makes it easy to lose weight without cutting calories or going hungry. Whether you would like to lose twenty pounds or two hundred, this is the easiest way to drop that weight and to keep it off for good. Plant-based eating brings many other welcome changes, too!

Heart disease reverses. In 1990, Dean Ornish, MD, of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and the University of California, San Francisco, showed that a vegetarian diet, along with other lifestyle changes, reversed heart disease in 82 percent of research subjects in one year, without medications or surgery.

Cholesterol levels improve. A vegan diet is the most powerful eating plan for cutting cholesterol. Unlike a Mediterranean diet, a low-carbohydrate diet, or any other diet approach, a vegan diet eliminates all the cholesterol and animal fat from foods, and it includes specific cholesterol-lowering nutrients. More on this in Chapter 4.

High blood pressure improves. A detailed review published by the American Medical Association showed that plant-based eating effectively reduces blood pressure, both because it avoids the blood-pressure-raising effect of animal products and because it takes advantage of special blood-pressure-lowering nutrients found in plants.

Diabetes gets better and sometimes goes away altogether. In 2003, the National Institutes of Health funded our research team at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to do a head-to-head test of a low-fat vegan diet versus a conventional “diabetes diet” that relied on cutting calories and limiting carbohydrates for people with type 2 diabetes. Every week, the research participants came to our office to learn about healthful foods, to sit in on cooking demonstrations, and to discuss their successes and challenges. And as the weeks went by, remarkable things happened. Weight loss began immediately and effortlessly. Without counting calories or limiting portions, our participants started to trim away pounds. Blood sugars that had been stuck in the danger zone began to fall, as did cholesterol levels and blood pressure. And many participants were able to reduce their medicines or stop them completely. Compared with a conventional “diabetes diet,” the vegan diet turned out to be three times more powerful at controlling blood sugar and even improved long-standing problems, such as painful diabetic nerve symptoms.

Painful conditions, such as arthritis, migraines, and menstrual cramps, often diminish or simply go away. The menu adjustment you are making removes animal-derived products that can inflame joints and trigger migraines, and also brings hormones into a healthier balance.

Cancer risk falls, and people previously diagnosed with cancer are better able to keep their cancer at bay. This appears to be especially true of digestive cancers, such as colorectal cancer, and hormonal cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer. Overall, people following plant-based diets cut their cancer risk as much as 40 percent.

Alzheimer’s disease is less likely to strike, according to the best evidence we have. The disease is much more common among people eating more saturated fat—that is, the “bad” fat found in dairy products and meat—while people following plant-based diets appear to be better able to preserve their memory and cognitive abilities as the years go by.

As these conditions improve, you may find that you need less medication or none at all. Less medicine means fewer side effects and less expense. And it means you are getting at the cause of these problems, not just treating them with a pharmaceutical Band-Aid.

For people trying to knock off some weight, or who have been in and out of doctors’ offices and are taking a seemingly endless list of medicines, or who just want to start down a better path, a menu change is welcome relief. It gives you power you didn’t know you could have.

Everyone’s Talking About It

When Bill Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres, and a steady stream of other celebrities began to embrace vegan or nearly vegan diets, it was clear that plant-based eating had reached prime time. The US government officially recognized the health value of vegan diets in the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, as did the American Medical Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and countless health experts. The United Nations weighed in on the power of plant-based eating for the environment. People concerned about animals, of course, have been going vegan for many years.

The latest wave is in the world of sports. Elite runners, including Carl Lewis, Scott Jurek, Brendan Brazier, Rich Roll, and Fiona Oakes, started the trend, using vegan diets to boost blood flow and oxygenation of their muscles for better endurance and to take advantage of a vegan diet’s anti-inflammatory effect to speed their post-workout recovery. When tennis star Venus Williams was diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome, an autoimmune condition, a vegan diet helped her defeat the condition and get back into winning form. Her sister Serena followed her dietary lead. Basketball and football players are using the power of plants to replace flab with muscle, boost their performance, and extend their careers. In 2017, racing champion Lewis Hamilton went vegan before winning his fourth Formula One World Drivers’ Championship, saying he felt “the best I have ever felt in my life, in my thirty-two years.” Olympic snowboarding medalist Hannah Teter said that a plant-based diet brought her performance to “a whole other level.” Tia Blanco won the Open Women’s World Surfing Championship two years in a row after ditching meat and dairy.

And It Gets Better

A vegan diet is great, not just for health, but also for animals. Currently, Americans eat about a million animals every hour, and their lives on the way to slaughter are enough to make anyone wince. A vegan diet is a big vote for compassion.

It is also a vote for the environment. There are currently nearly 100 million cattle in the United States alone, and each one is as big as a sofa. They are continually belching methane—a potent greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere. And fattening them up—along with pigs and chickens—requires an enormous amount of feed grain, which means huge quantities of water, fertilizer, and pesticides that despoil our rivers and streams. A plant-based diet means much less impact on the environment.

It is also great for your loved ones. One of the kindest things you can do is to help them improve their eating habits; you may even save their lives. If you have children, a vegan diet will protect their health, teach them important values, and preserve the Earth they will one day inherit. And when you follow a healthful diet yourself, you are helping to ensure that you will be there for them when they need you.

Okay, but how about taste? You’ll soon discover that your new array of healthful foods turns out to be the best you’ve ever had. When I was growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, our eating habits were nothing to brag about. Our daily fare was roast beef, potatoes, and an obligatory vegetable. Sometimes a chicken leg might end up on the plate, and a salad might raise its head now and again. But I never heard anyone say they just adored Fargo-style cuisine. “Wow, let’s launch a restaurant of all the Fargo favorites!” It was food; that was all.

After moving to Washington, DC, I had the chance to discover the culinary treasures of other lands, many of them drawing their ingredients from healthful plant-based staples. Italian restaurants featured piping-hot bowls of minestrone or lentil soup, followed by angel hair pasta topped with arrabbiata sauce with garlic-roasted asparagus or sautéed spinach on the side. Mexican restaurants served spicy bean burritos, veggie fajitas, and fresh guacamole. Japanese restaurants offered miso soup, exotic salads, and vegan sushi rolls made of cucumber and avocado. Szechuan and Hunan restaurants cooked up every possible dish made from vegetables, tofu, and rice, all delicately spiced. Other restaurants were inspired by the traditions of France, Spain, India, Greece, Cuba, Lebanon, Vietnam, Thailand, Ethiopia, and many other lands. All of them are able to turn simple vegetables, fruits, beans, and grains into delicacies. In comparison to these delights, my North Dakota beef and potatoes seemed a bit pedestrian.

So, going vegan really is the best decision you could ever make. For your heart, your waistline, your overall health, the animals, the Earth, and your loved ones. It is just what the doctor ordered. So jump in and see what the power of healthy eating can do for you.


It’s Really That Easy!

GOING VEGAN IS EASY. IT’S EASIER THAN GOING LOW-CARB or gluten-free. And it’s much easier than quitting smoking or breaking other habits. Because you can eat as much as you want. You are never counting calories or carb grams. Yes, a vegan diet does mean skipping animal products—meat, dairy products, and eggs—but there are plenty of great things to take their place.

There are really only two “rules”:

1. Build your meals from plant-based foods, especially vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils).

2. Ensure complete nutrition with a supplement of vitamin B12.

That’s it. Those are the “rules.” Let’s take a closer look.

The first “rule” guides you to replace animal products with the four healthful food groups that are nutrition powerhouses: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. These are your palette. In the same way that a master painter combines simple colors to create a masterpiece, our simple four food groups combine to make delicious meals that bring you the best possible health. Let’s look at each food group.

Vegetables. Everyone knows that vegetables are loaded with vitamins and minerals. But that’s just for starters. They are also surprisingly high in protein. Take broccoli. It’s about one-third protein, as a percentage of its calories. Spinach is about 50 percent protein. The amount varies from one vegetable to another, but you get the idea. Bison, horses, elephants, giraffes, and many other animals build their massive musculature entirely from plants.

Instead of making vegetables a mere side dish, put them front and center. And why not have two at a meal, say, a green vegetable and an orange vegetable, like broccoli and sweet potatoes, or spinach and carrots?

Fruits. Fruits are loaded with vitamins, of course. But they are also rich in fiber to tame your appetite, and their natural sugars are surprisingly easy on your blood sugar.

Whole grains. Rice, oats, wheat, corn, quinoa, and the full range of other grains bring you healthful complex carbohydrates for energy and a significant amount of protein. And each grain has a natural fiber coating. Although food manufacturers often remove it to turn brown rice into white rice and whole-grain bread into white bread, you are better off leaving the fiber in place. Not only are grains more flavorful in their original package but fiber is a cancer fighter and keeps your digestion running smoothly.

Legumes. Beans, peas, and lentils bring you protein, iron, calcium, fiber, and healthful complex carbohydrates for energy.

On your plate, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains turn into a breakfast of blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins, a breakfast scramble, or veggie sausage. For lunch they transform into split pea soup with a hummus sandwich, hearty chili, or a veggie stir-fry. For dinner these simple food groups make a savory stew, shepherd’s pie, veggie sushi, vegetable pizza, a tasty curry, or thousands of other delicious possibilities.

The second “rule” is to ensure complete nutrition with a supplement of vitamin B12. We’ll cover this in more detail in Chapter 5. For now, it’s important to know that you need B12 for healthy nerves and healthy blood, and that it is not made by either animals or plants. It is made by bacteria. So the bacteria in a cow’s gut make some B12 that ends up in meat and milk. On a vegan diet you’ll need to get B12 either as a supplement (available in all drugstores and natural food stores) or from fortified foods (e.g., B 12-fortified soy milk).


  • Dr. Barnard makes a compelling case as to why all of us should "test drive" a vegan diet. His guidebook is straightforward and simple to easy to digest as a plant-based lifestyle. All in all, a delicious read.

    Meredith Vieira, Journalist and Television Personality
  • "We've known Neal Barnard for years as a leader in the plant-based revolution. His new book makes it so easy to start your plant-based journey that we're recommending the Vegan Starter Kit to everyone we meet who's 'vegan curious' or just interested in good health, better energy levels, and a longer, more vibrant life."—Suzy Amis Cameron and James Cameron

On Sale
Dec 24, 2018
Page Count
176 pages

Neal D Barnard, MD, MD, FACC

About the Author

Dr. Neal D. Barnard, MD, FACC, is a faculty member of the George Washington University School of Medicine and President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Dr. Barnard is editor-in-chief of the Nutrition Guide for Clinicians, a nutrition textbook given to all second year medical students in the U.S. He is also editor of Good Medicine, a magazine with a circulation of 150,000. He is the New York Times bestselling author of Dr. Neal Barnard's Program for Reversing Diabetes, The Get Healthy Go Vegan Cookbook, Power Foods for the Brain, The 21-Day Weight-Loss Kickstart, and most recently Your Body in Balance, among many others.

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