Overwhelmed by the prospect of going vegan in a very non-vegan world? Even if you know it's the right thing to do, you may be troubled by questions like: Where will I get my protein? Can I afford a vegan diet? How will I live without cheese!? I've been there, and these are my best tips for a smooth and successful transition.
Tip #1: Transition gradually
I know a few people who have gone vegan overnight, but for most it will be much easier to do so in stages; it'll give your tastebuds and your digestive system a chance to adjust. There are a few ways to go about this, but I'd recommend eliminating whichever food group will be easiest for you first. For example, I was pescatarian for a long time before I went vegan. When I decided to take the leap, I gave up dairy first because I was already lactose-intolerant and had been buying almond and soy milk for years. All I had to do was start avoiding dairy and its derivatives used in other products, such as baked goods, sauces and condiments. I gave up eggs next, and seafood – my favorite thing – last. Eliminating in stages was more manageable for me so that I could deal with one craving at a time.
Tip #2: Add veggies before you eliminate anything
The average American only consumes about 15g fiber a day – far below the recommended daily allowance for healthy adults. If you've been eating a standard American diet, your body may need some time to adjust to the higher volume of plant foods. Before making any major substitutions, you might consider taking a month or so to gradually add more fruits, veggies and whole foods to the diet you're currently eating. This will allow your digestive system to adapt to the increased fiber intake. Fiber absorbs a large amount of water, so you'll also want to hydrate more frequently. You may experience some bloating initially, but your body should regulate within a week or so.
Tip #3: Veganize your favorite dishes
Drawing a blank on vegan meal options? Think of your favorite dishes and find ways to veganize those. Here are a few of my favorite childhood dishes and how I make them with plants:
- Tacos/tostadas: Use crumbled tofu, black beans or faux beef crumbles instead of meat. Use vegan cheddar-style shreds (Follow Your Heart makes my favorite) or make vegan nacho cheese sauce – there are so many easy recipes out there!
- Spaghetti bolognese: Sub textured vegetable protein (TVP), lentils or Beyond Meat beefy crumbles for the ground meat. Top with homemade cashew parmesan or Follow Your Heart parmesan shreds.
- Noodle stir fry: Instead of chicken or shrimp, use pan-fried tofu, seitan or tempeh strips. Find a vegan-friendly stir fry sauce (Trader Joe's soyaki is my favorite). Most dry spaghetti noodles are vegan-friendly (but double-check for egg ingredients). Use those or rice noodles.
- Chicken noodle soup: Use white beans, seitan or faux chicken strips (like the ones by Gardein or Beyond Meat). Use chicken-style veggie broth for extra flavor.
Tip #4: Focus on whole foods
"Vegan" doesn't automatically equate to "healthy." I'm all about indulging in some junk food from time to time, but if you want to thrive on a vegan lifestyle long-term, I recommend making whole foods the foundation of your diet. This will help ensure that you're meeting your body's nutritional needs, and it'll keep costs low. It's a misconception that healthy diets must be expensive! My budget-friendly staples are potatoes, whole grains (purchased in bulk), legumes, and fresh or frozen vegetables.
Tip #5: Make sure you're eating enough
Whole plant foods are generally much less calorically-dense than meat, eggs, and dairy. Their high fiber and water content mean you'll feel fuller on fewer calories. It may be useful during your transition to periodically track your calorie and nutrient intake to ensure you're eating enough. Log your meals with a health app like Cronometer, MyFitnessPal or Lifesum (all offer free versions) and make sure that your calorie intake matches what you were eating prior to going vegan. If you're having trouble meeting those numbers, consider including more whole plant fats (from avocados, nuts and seeds) or more legumes and whole grains in proportion to non-starchy vegetables.
Tip #6: Educate yourself
Why are you going vegan? Whatever your reason (be it health, ethics, environment), educate yourself on the matter. Watch documentaries like Earthlings, Forks Over Knives and Cowspiracy. Grab a copy of The China Study or How Not To Die, or watch lectures on YouTube by plant-based doctors like Neal Barnard and Michael Greger. Coming back to your "why" can be helpful when you're dealing with cravings or peer pressure. And the more you arm yourself with information, the easier it will be to answer questions or concerns from friends and family.
Tip #7: Find Inspiration
Feeling stuck in a vegan food rut? I love browsing recipe photos on Pinterest, especially during the holidays. I'll even pin non-vegan recipes that I'm interesting in veganizing. Occasionally I'll treat myself to an issue of Thrive Magazine, which is full of stunning photos, creative recipes, and helpful articles about plant-based living. Here are some of my other favorite resources for plant-based recipes:
Tip #8: Use dairy and meat substitutes to help tackle cravings
If you've grown up eating a standard American diet, your palate will be accustomed to processed meats, cheeses, and other highly-stimulating foods. Whole plant foods may seem bland to you initially, and this may lead to cravings. Eliminating animal products gradually (Tip #1) should help, but you can also explore the many dairy and meat substitutes now on the market. Some of my favorite brands include:
- Beyond Meat, Gardein - for faux chicken and beef
- Tofurky - for sandwich slices
- Field Roast, Follow Your Heart - for nondairy cheese
- Miyoko's Kitchen - for butter
- Silk, Kite Hill - for yogurt
- Ben & Jerry's, Coconut Bliss - for ice cream
These products can be pricey and are not all healthy, so I don't recommend them as the basis of your diet. However, they can be tremendously helpful during a transition, and even now I incorporate them into my cooking a few times a week.
Tip #9: Supplement When Necessary
It's a glaring misconception that calcium, iron and protein are hard to come by on a plant-based diet. If you're consuming sufficient calories and a variety of plant foods, you likely won't encounter any such deficiencies. The one exception is Vitamin B12. Some vegan products (like plant milk and cereal) are fortified with B12, and nutritional yeast is also a good source, but I recommend also periodically supplementing with a sublingual tablet or spray. Consider having a blood panel done a few months into the lifestyle, just for extra insurance.
Tip #10: Be Kind to Yourself
Go at your own pace. Transition as gradually as you need to in order to make the new lifestyle sustainable. If you give in to a craving or accidentally eat something non-vegan, learn from the experience but be gentle with yourself – after all, kindness (for animals, the environment, and your body) lies at the heart of this movement. You have already taken the hardest step: you've made the commitment to challenge the norm, to lead a more compassionate and intentional life. Give yourself credit and celebrate your progress often. In no time at all, you'll hardly remember what it was like before you made the switch!