You’ve probably heard over the years about how transitioning towards a plant-based diet is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. But to most meat eaters — especially the “without meat, it’s just not dinner” set — these arguments are still not convincing enough to encourage them to make the switch.

To make the transition from carnivore to herbivore more palatable, best selling author of Expect a Miracle, The One, Quantum Wellness, and The Quantum Wellness Cleanse, and vegan poster woman, who recently spurred Oprah’s staff to undertake a vegan challenge, Kathy Freston offers a “lean into” approach where diners can satisfy their own carnivorous cravings – everything from tender roasted chicken to gooey mozzarella cheese and creamy rocky road ice cream -- with plant-based substitutions.

With a new book, Veganist: Lose Weight, Get Healthy, Change the World, scheduled for release in April, Freston, who herself, was raised on cheese grits, country-fried steak, and milkshakes, spoke to Healthline about her own dietary transformation, why it’s critical that we all follow suit, and how easy it is to swap out our favorite foods with vegan alternatives.

Hi Kathy, how long have you been vegan?

I’ve been vegan for about eight years and before that I was vegetarian. Before that I ate fish. I gave up eating one animal at a time starting with cows and kept leaning and leaning, and soon I was vegan. 

How did you deal with the transition?

Oh, I grew up in the South where I just loved everything — chicken fried steak and barbecue ribs and chocolate milkshakes and everything cheesy. I grew up on the stuff and loved it. Then I started hearing about the benefits of eating plant-based foods and I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to give up all this stuff.’ I decided I was going to start leaning into the direction of health and better eating and so I thought I’ll just give up one animal at a time and make different choices. For instance instead of having a meat burrito, I’ll have a black bean burrito. Instead of having pizza with sausage, I’ll have pizza with non-dairy cheese and veggie sausage. So I just started swapping out the things I love for upgraded plant-based versions. 

Why did you decide to go full-force vegan as opposed to just vegetarian?

I’m all about leaning into it, so once I started leaning, I kept leaning. First I gave up red meat and pork, and then six months later I gave up chicken and my husband was like, ‘What?’ Then I swapped out fish and he was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ But I kept swapping in really good, healthy, fulfilling foods, so my whole family was on board. It was something I just felt so good about. The weight was dropping off, I had more energy, and my skin cleared up, so the benefits were so great that I just continued to move in that direction.

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How would you describe the ‘lean into’ approach?

I’m all about leaning into it and making incremental changes that are practical and doable, so we don’t throw up our arms and say, ‘Ah, I can’t do it.’ Again, I grew up eating everything under the sun that came from an animal, so if you told me 20 years ago to not eat anything from an animal, I’d think, ‘No way.’  So if we lean into it, learn what’s available to us, try new foods, and see that we actually like it and our family likes it… it’s going to be easier to keep going in that direction.

What was the hardest food for you to give up?

The hardest for me was milk because I grew up loving milk, and thought that milk should be in everything: in shakes and on my cereal. So one of the things that I discovered that was just so easy to do was I swapped out milk for non-dairy milk, like almond, coconut, and soy. It was dairy for me that was addictive. Once I discovered the non-dairy alternatives for cheese, sour cream, ice cream, all the things I thought I’d miss, I was happy and fulfilled.

People always say that soy cheese doesn’t melt like regular cheese. Can you disprove that?

My favorite non-dairy cheese is called ‘Daiya’ and it’s made from tapioca and it melts beautifully. I make cheese toast with it, pizza, and I put it over burritos. It’s really, really good.

Why is veganism such an important crusade for you?

We’re at this place where there is so much obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. The conditions in factory farms are abhorrent — there’s so much water pollution and air pollution from these factory farms — so for me, one of the things I can do to be part of the solution is moving away from eating animals and toward a plant-based diet. For me it’s all about progress, not perfection. I think the more we learn and more we feel better about our choices, the more inspired we’ll be to keep moving in this direction.

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What is the greatest challenge that you come up against while spreading the vegan word?

I think the biggest challenge is convincing people that they don’t have to give up their favorite foods, because you know food is all about family and tradition. It’s all about making people feel comfortable and synced up with the people we love. Once people realize that there’s no loss, that there’s only benefit and only promise when you start moving in the direction of only eating these foods, then everything opens up.  Just getting that message across — that there is everything to gain and nothing to lose from eating these foods that are now in supermarkets everywhere.

How do you respond to claims that more processed mock meats are not as healthful as eating organic, natural, whole foods?

I love those high-protein meat alternatives, like the mock chicken or the beefless beef. Look, my family and my husband are not about to sit down to a bowl of beans and brown rice and vegetables. They’re just not going to do it, so when I have the option of making chicken and mashed potatoes and green beans, which they love, but it’s a plant-based version, that’s a real positive. But I’m all about progress and not perfection. So is it ideal to only eat whole foods? Absolutely. We want to move in that direction. We want to keep pushing ourselves forward and gaining new ground. 

Why release a book about veganism now?

It’s really hit a chord because the rate of obesity is at a high. Factory farm videos are so prevalent. People are seeing how meat is being raised and they don’t like it. The younger generation is saying ‘no’ to this kind of treatment of animals and they’re taking charge of their health.  So I think the word ‘vegan’ is electric right now. People want to know more about it. They know it’s healthy. They’re curious about it. They’re moving toward it. It’s all about the benefits from not eating meat — the health, spiritual, and environmental benefits.  

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