A classmate in graduate school recently wrote me an email after she found out that I was a long-time vegetarian and health advocate, looking for some advice about how what to eat as a vegetarian. She had recently given up meat and dairy and was also looking to cut out wheat and sugar.
For everyone, this decision is personal, but in my opinion it is a fantastic choice to make that first step. If you are a person who enjoys meat and believe you need to keep it in your diet, it would be best to look for organic meat and stick to lean protein sources such as chicken and turkey. If you are looking to make that initial jump into vegetarianism, or want to become dairy-free, though, then my advice to her might help you as well. And, even if you are a meat-eater, you might find something in this advice that you enjoy as well.
Quoting my classmate: "I live in Seattle and just gave up meat and dairy; I don't drink or do caffeine but am struggling to rid myself of wheat and sugar. Any ideas for what I can eat alternatively and where to find it?"
My theory is always that you have to listen to your body. So, since you have given up dairy, your body might go through a lot of changes and will probably say "thank you." Dairy can be very clogging for the system (ie:acne) and can cause a lot of bloat and indigestion. That being said, some people cannot live without it--they love cheese and are not willing to part. I believe, like in macrobiotics, that life is all about balance. If eating cheese is so important and it is not affecting you in a serious way, go for it. How this applies to you is if you have gone months without dairy and all of the sudden you crave it, eat it!
Avoiding dairy is actually not as hard as most people think, but you have to get used to it. Luckily it's the best time to give dairy up because there are so many alternatives available. Currently you have your choice of soy milk, rice milk, oat milk, almond milk, hemp milk, coconut milk, and the list goes on! I love them all but my favorites are soy, rice, vanilla almond, and coconut. It is best to experience with different brands and flavors until you find the one you want to stick with. In terms of yogurt, there are a variety of brands including Whole Soy and CO., Silk, Stonyfield, and Wildwood. My favorites are Whole Soy and co. and Stonyfield.
As for ice cream alternatives, they are amazing! The best alternatives out right now in my opinion are hemp ice cream (limited availability, but when you find it, buy it!), Rice Divine rice ice cream (best flavors are mudd pie and peanut butter chocolate), and Turtle Island brands (especially the coconut milk varieties).
For meat substitutes, again this is something you will have to try as you go and figure out what you like best. My advice, though, would be to stay away from frozen veggie burgers because they are made with processed protein and if you get in the habit of eating them, it's hard to stop. If you do have access to a Trader Joe's, I really love their veggie Italian sausages. They are amazing!
I would invest in a couple of simple cookbooks that appeal to you and start to experiment. Giving up sugar and wheat is very hard and I would take it one step at a time. Luckily there are so many gluten and wheat-free items available now, but again don't do too much at once. As for sugar replacements, maple syrup is wonderful, but my favorite it agave. Put it on oatmeal, in plain soy yogurt...anywhere! And, it is low-glycemic (good for diabetics or those watching their sugar intake).
The best places to shop are Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and often non-specialty markets have a health large health section so try that as well. Whole Foods is definitely expensive so go there to look for deals. Also, definitely try Amy's frozen dinners if you want something quick, easy, and healthy. It will say on the front of the package if it's non-dairy and they make so many great products.