Young African American woman with curly hair and headphones smiles as she eats salad in a plastic to-go container on the terrace of an outdoor cafe on a sunny day. Diet and food for healthy living.

I just finished eating the most tender, flavorful ribeye steak. It was delicious and it’s the last bit of red meat I plan to have for the foreseeable future. 

Maybe you’re like me. I grew up in a household where the meal was always built around the animal protein source. When my father asked what was for dinner, he wasn’t interested in the side dishes. If my mother revealed the sides: greens, beans and rice, cornbread and mac and cheese (which she did, often, for giggles), Dad would wait patiently until she admitted whether chicken (usually), fish, pork beef or lamb had the starring role. 

In my 20s, I was a strict, almost vegan, vegetarian, and obnoxiously evangelical about it until I realized my social life was suffering. For more than 10 years, I enjoyed a wide range of vegetables and whole grains, and learned how to prepare tofu, seitan, tempeh and mushrooms (this was before Beyond and Impossible meat substitutes) to satisfy that savory umami flavor I craved. 

When I got pregnant, I felt something was missing, and thought I found it in a strip steak. Turns out I needed a vitamin B-12 supplement. A few decades and health challenges later, I’m ready to return to a healthier, plant-based lifestyle. So, I turned to an expert.

“I’ve been plant-based for over 30 years, we raised our children that way and our grandchildren are being raised that way, as well,” says Quinnie Cook Richardson, a nutrition consultant, and vegan chef who owns Quinnie’sKitchen, a boutique healthy lifestyle brand in Atlanta. She is also the founding Holistic Program Director of Advanced Clinics for Preventive Medicine. Much of her work revolves around teaching Black women how to heal themselves emotionally and physically through plant-based eating, gentle exercise, and spending time mindfully in nature.  

Cook-Richardson says the transition to a healthier lifestyle can counteract some of the negative effects of race-based health disparities and that the Black community is generally open to making a change, despite having to deal with food deserts. “We have many, many examples of where someone changed their diet and lifestyle habits and things turned around for them. I’m thinking of a client who had type two diabetes. She transitioned to a whole-foods,plant-based diet and was able to get heal her diabetes and high blood pressure, get off her meds, and lost weight as well.”

Plant-based nutrition is enjoying a resurgence and it’s backed by solid science. A quick internet search reveals that the Centers for Disease ControlM.D. Anderson Cancer CenterHarvard University, the National Institutes of Health, and the American Heart Association among many others, all promote the health-enhancing benefits of a plant-forward diet. 

Plant-based eating runs the range from eating mostly fruits, grains and vegetables with an occasional serving of meat, to a near-vegan diet that eliminates all animal-based products including milk, eggs and honey. But it’s only healthy if the plant-based foods you’re eating are mostly unprocessed.

“Oreos are vegan,” points out Atlanta-based photographer and videographer Andrew “Dru” Phillips. Phillips isn’t a bodybuilder; he just works out and looks like one. He also isn’t vegan. “I mostly just eat like one.” He notes that there is such a range of what people consider plant-based but the term vegan is clear. No animal meat or by-products like milk or honey. Some vegans won’t wear leather. 

Fitness athlete and personal trainer Daniel Barnes–along with a wide range of other athletes including Kyrie Irving, Venus and Serena, and Colin Kaepernick, among many others–dispels the myth that protein from meat is required to build strength, speed, and muscle. “For athletes, it comes down to an understanding of what food is for and the impact it has on your body and performance,” Barnes says. He notes that if vegan or plant-based diets didn’t improve or maintain the performance of these elite athletes, they wouldn’t do it. “There’s a lot of science to back up eating this way for athletes and fitness enthusiasts.”

Plant-based diets can transform problem health conditions, yet few doctors prescribe them as a preventative or treatment. Atlanta-based cardiologist Dr. Sheila Robinson says plant-forward diets like the Mediterranean Diet can help address health disparities in the Black community. “Health disparities exist for several reasons, primarily systemic racism and the solutions to those will need to be addressed systemically. But there is a lot that individuals and families can do to drastically reduce the risk of diseases like cancer, diabetes, and especially heart disease, which is still the number one cause of death in this country,” she said. “So much of heart disease is a result of what we’re eating and a plant-based diet, that minimizes or eliminates meat reduces excess cholesterol and saturated fat.”

How hard is it to transition to a plant-based or vegan lifestyle? Cook Richardson says, take it slow. “I am an advocate of people transitioning slowly. I took a year to fully transition, eliminating one meat at a time.” She says a gradual change is the way to make a sustainable change. “I’ve met many people who will do it quickly. And then they end up going back to eating the way they were and worse. Transitioning slowly allows the opportunity to create recipes and discover healthy foods that you enjoy. It helps make the adjustment in your life a lot smoother.”