Recently, I’ve gotten a lot of requests for my ‘best advice’ for going vegan. I love this question — not only because I really want to help people, but because it’s not necessarily an easy one to answer. And it always makes me think.
Going vegan, to me, is not just about deciding what we want our health to be like, or going on a crusade to save all the animals and reduce our carbon footprint (all of which are absolutely praiseworthy). The bottom line is that, underneath all of those things, going vegan is about first realizing out what pisses you off about the way things are — and determining how you’re going to impact the future. Is it the fact that the meat industry has used their money to remain a foundation in our national dietary guidelines? Is it how dairy cows are artificially impregnated, only to have their babies taken away shortly after birth, just so humans can consume their milk? Is it how runoff from factory farms is irreversibly damaging aquatic ecosystems and creating dead zones all over the ocean? Is it that we, the consumers, are still facing preventable chronic diseases, despite doing our damnedest to follow the “everything in moderation” rule as we’re taught? Whatever your reason(s), deciding to go vegan is a very personal endeavor. And it can look different for everyone.
I was raised on the Standard American Diet and ate that way for 25 years, even though my relationship with food was imbalanced for years, I never felt quite “right” even though I was generally healthy, and I had an inkling that I was missing something. It wasn’t until I pursued education in public health, and started learning about global issues that I could personally apply to myself – like clean water access, pollution and disease stemming from factory farming, how deforestation impacts habitats, ocean dead zones, and the effects of global warming – that I started to think about how I could utilize my diet (something I have full control over), to make an impact. It was learning even more about these things that first made me angry.
I’d known a handful of vegetarians and vegans throughout my life. At times I thought they were an odd bunch. I never truly understood what their goal was, but then again, I never asked. And to be honest, I tried to separate myself from them because I didn’t get it, and thinking about not eating animals made me annoyed (this is the psychology of carnism- see last week’s blog post for more thoughts on that).
The truth is, it took a lot of reading, trial and error, messing up recipes, finding substitutes for foods that I could tolerate and eventually enjoy, watching graphic (honest) films, and talking to people who ‘got it’ for me to fully make the transition, and make it feasible and sustainable in my own life. And, apply it to my whole family. That was nearly five years ago.
So while I wish I had one simple answer that could help everyone when they ask my ‘best advice’, my initial thought is that you have to first determine what makes you angry.
Once you have this, below are some of my top tips for anyone interested in making the plant-based switch. Build your foundation first. Then take it from there. 🙂
Don’t go cold tofurkey.
Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution, vowing to cut out all sugar or to exercise every day starting January 1 – and then watched your goal fizzle out as you lost motivation? This is actually an important life lesson, as less than 10% of people actually keep their New Year’s resolutions because of this “all or nothing” model we like to burden ourselves with. When we first made the vegan switch, we were a little overzealous. We started cutting things out of our diet before we were really in a place to cut them out. By doing this, ice cream, cheese, and eggs trickled back into our lives. It wasn’t until we were consciously ready to make these changes that they stuck. Give yourself a break – you see your end goal, you know what it looks like, and you will accomplish it. But taking on too much isn’t useful in most any situation, so don’t feel pressured to do a lifestyle 180 in one day. Start by listing out all of the animal foods you regularly eat. Remove one or two items and find suitable replacements. Then re-evaluate and make your next move.
Keep your activist attitude in check.
This one can be excruciatingly hard, especially when just starting out and when you perhaps don’t have all the answers quite yet. But, when someone criticizes your choice to go plant-based, don’t be an angry vegan — you’ll want to punch them in the throat (for the animals), but this is actually the perfect opportunity to meet them where they are and educate them. Think about it, you don’t want someone’s only interactions with vegans to be ones that are hostile, rude, or condescending (even if they are coming across that way to YOU). People often get angry when something makes them internalize things and reflect on their own choices. This is a great time to give someone the opportunity to reflect on their own life by responding intelligently and with compassion – you never know if your positive interaction will be what makes them eventually take the vegan plunge themselves.
Don’t forget about nutrition.
Eating vegan takes a bit more effort than just removing all of the animal products from your life. There is a misconception out there that going vegan is automatically healthier. The truth is, obesity and chronic disease are possible even on a plant-based diet, and it’s important to pay attention to the food choices you are making. As far as the common misconceptions about vegans being protein or calcium deficient – anyone can become deficient in certain nutrients if they don’t put effort into planning well-balanced meals. I mean, Oreos are vegan. That doesn’t mean they’re healthy. It’s important to find plant-based replacements that are going to work for your family AND provide the nutrition you need. To this point, I leave you with two essential words: meal planning.
Never attempt a one-size-fits-all approach.
My personal hero Jen Sincero says, “Comparison is the fastest way to take all the fun out of life.” We’re all human, and we’re all a little different when it comes to taste and texture preferences, cooking methods, time constraints, and unforeseen variables in our day to day. Some of us need to avoid certain ingredients due to allergies. Some of us really hate kale (me). Some of us work full time and can only prepare 20 minute meals during the week. Some of us have two little kids who love pasta, but have to be reconditioned when it comes to anything green. You (and your family) are like no one else, so embrace that when mapping out your plan for success. This sounds pretty basic, but going vegan is not going to be any fun if you’re always just trying to keep up with someone else.
Open yourself up to “making the connection”.
Have you ever met someone who went vegan and then reverted back? Sometimes people will do this because they say being vegan was too complicated, required too much planning, they craved meat, or they became deficient in something. In most cases, the real reason people go vegan and then choose to go back is because they never really made the connection. When I say connection, I mean that light-bulb moment when the reality of what is on your plate, where it came from, and the impact you’re having by eating it, comes to light. This happens differently for everyone. Veganism has its challenges like anything else, but if you’ve really made the connection between these things, those challenges are not going to make you revert back to eating animals. They will, instead, make you more committed to figuring a way past them. To help make the connection, my best advice is to never stop educating yourself about the issues behind your choices. Read books, watch documentaries, and talk to other vegans.
Expose yourself to the information out there, open your mind to new perspectives, and find that spark. Then, use it as fuel to start one of the greatest fires there may ever be in your life.