So, you've decided to go vegan...
Congratulations! You've made a great decision for your overall health, the welfare of animals, the environment, and believe it or not, your own billfold! Or, you're still considering it, which is great too! But, how in the world does one begin to change every eating habit they've ever developed, since the day they started eating baby food?
There are two schools of thought on this; either quit cold turkey (cold tofu? LOL), or gradually make the shift. People who are particularly empathetic will usually see one animal cruelty documentary and successfully swear off of animal products for life, on the first day. People who have eaten predominantly healthy, mostly plant-based diets their whole life are also prone to being successful at avoiding the temptations of food made from animals. I, however, was very different! I do think that the world of animal agriculture is grossly cruel, but seeing the documentaries does not always affect me on the emotional level that it affects others on. Also, I was raised on bologna sandwiches and tater tot casserole, so I was almost doomed from the start. For folks like us, the gradual method will ensure our long term success. After all, what is the point of doing this just to give up? Those who are able to convert fast, sometimes criticise the slower ones, but for the sake of eliminating animal cruelty and the sake of public health, it's better to have a bunch of successful vegans for life that had to stay on meat a little longer, than to have a bunch of unsuccessful ex-vegans who got frustrated, got hungry, quit, and will now probably always eat animals. Feel free to use that logic any time the topic comes up!
Where do I begin?
You might be surprised that the first step down Vegan Avenue has nothing to do with food. Trust and believe that you are gonna need some support and encouragement for something like this. Do your friends and family think you're crazy? No problem! Ignore. Facebook groups are an excellent place to find like-minded people, information, and inspiration. So join a vegan Facebook group. Find some awesome vegans to connect with on Twitter and Instagram. Getting involved in vegan social media is something that you can easily do right now, within the next ten minutes, for free. So why not start there?
What should I stop eating first?
Since we're doing this gradually, you don't have to give up all your favorite things right away. (Truth be told, all your favorite things are gonna be veganized eventually, so no worries.)
My advice is always to axe the animal product that you eat the least of, first. Whether it be dairy, eggs, or any type of meat. For me, it was pork. I knew that I rarely ever ate it, and it wasn't that important to me, so I started by leaving pork off the table. It was only about a week before I was completely comfortable with leaving pork in the past. This is gonna set the stage and give you a feel for how eliminating certain things from your diet is going to be from here on out. Think of this as the preliminary round.
But what comes next?
The plan, from here on out, is to gradually keep eliminating different types of animal products until you eventually become vegetarian. What type of meat would you like to cut out next? For me, it was beef. Once I was comfortable without pork, I decided to consciously have my last piece of beef and be done with it forever. I found that it did help to be in control of when I was eating my last piece of each type of meat, and really say "ok this is the last one!" There was a sense of finality to it which made it easier for me to break away from it. The vegan in me today even cringes, looking back on that sort of ritual. But, once again, what good is it going to do, for aspiring vegans to still be emotionally attached to meat and end up going back to it in the end? You might be better off giving each phase some closure.
Keep cutting meat from your day to day, until you've gotten rid of pork, beef, chicken, rabbit, any other small animals, turkey, duck, all other poultry, fish, shellfish, the more exotic meats like gator, crocodile, snake... All of it. If you can be working on limiting your eggs and dairy and introducing yourself to vegan cheese during this time, you get some bonus points! Remember, there are meat substitutions to help you when you get a craving, or are having nostalgia about a certain food. I used to make vegetarian Hamburger Helper all the time, by buying the Hamburger Helper and substituting the beef with a ground Portobello beef substitute. The meat substitutes can be expensive, but they are incredibly helpful for this phase, and you'll eat them less and less as you get more comfortable with plant-based foods. They become more of a treat than an every day type thing.
Keep eliminating animal proteins from your diet one by one. Don't forget gelatin! Gelatin contains cartilage, bones, and skin. It is found in Jello, gummy snacks, pill capsules, and some packaged foods. It is definitely not vegan and it's not even vegetarian. Every time you eliminate an animal protein, think of it as leveling up. Every time you stop eating an animal product, you are getting closer and closer to your goal!
Once you have stopped eating mammals, birds, (and for some folks, insects, reptiles, and amphibians), and you're only eating plants, eggs, dairy, and seafood... Congratulations! You're a pescatarian! Take away the seafood, and you've reached vegetarianism!
... But what's next?
Stepping From Vegetarianism Into Veganism
Some, actually many, people are not familiar with the difference between veganism and vegetarianism. As far as dietary practice goes, veganism differs from vegetarianism when you start talking about dairy, eggs, and even honey. A vegetarian merely stops eating the bodies of animals. A vegan ceases to eat not only animal bodies, but also every animal byproduct. So to cross over into veganism, you must eliminate eggs, milk, cheese (from cows, goats, and sheep), cream, butter, and any other animal byproduct or secretion that you can think of. Many people don't fully understand that the egg and dairy industries go hand in hand with the meat industries. Expired hens and dairy cows are always led to slaughter. Since baby cows have to be immediately separated from the dairy cows to prevent them from drinking the milk that was made for them, female calves are recycled back into the dairy industry and slaughtered at the end of their milk production phase, and male calves are slaughtered and sold as veal. Going vegetarian goes a long way, but by consuming animal byproducts, we are still contributing to the meat industry. And by continuing to consume animal proteins, we are putting ourselves at a higher risk for cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. (Source: The China Study)
So how do you make the transition from vegetarianism to veganism? The answer is to do it the same way that you did with the meat. Gradually!
Pick one day of the week to eat a strictly vegan diet. For me, it was Monday. Just one day a week where you're not only swearing off animal bodies, but animal byproducts as well. Once you're comfortable with your one vegan day, add another day. I chose Friday, that way there's plenty of space between vegan days for meal planning and learning new things. Once I was thriving on Mondays and Fridays, I started doing Monday/Wednesday/Friday. Next, you're gonna have to pick a day that will make you vegan two days in a row. The challenge intensifies! I don't know how it will be for you, but once I was vegan 4-6 days out of the week, I almost had to make a conscious effort to have an animal byproduct on my vegetarian days. Your habits start to change. Your way of thinking starts to transform. When it's easier to just be vegan full time, you know that you're ready! Have your last piece of cheese, or whatever you have to do, and make your final intentional dietary commitment to stay off of animals and animal byproducts.
But what about cheeeeeessse?!
Cheese. Easily one of the most addictive foods on the planet. Luckily for you, vegan cheese has come a very long way since I started being a vegan. When I began veganism almost 7 years ago, vegan cheese tasted like absolute cardboard. It used to be made from oils and chemicals. Now vegan cheese made from nuts, vegetables, and tapioca exists and can be used to make firm vegan cheeses, soft vegan cheese spreads, and even creamy vegan cheeses, like nacho cheese or queso. I'll just tell you ahead of time, if you eat Daiya vegan cheese cold, you'll probably be turned off right away. BUT Daiya is the absolute best melted vegan cheese. So if you don't like a brand of vegan cheese when it's cold, keep in mind that the taste profile might be completely different when it's melted. Try every vegan cheese on the market or try making your own. Soon, you won't even care about dairy cheese.
Do I get cheat days?
Being an official vegan or vegetarian means being devout. So you can't consider yourself vegan or vegetarian until you're absolutely unwavering. I will tell you though, that during my transition, I did give myself some cheat opportunities in the beginning. I made holidays an exception, because I did not yet know how to give myself those restrictions at family gettogethers. Especially when my family members didn't understand vegan and vegetarian diets. No worries. The more devout you get, the more these cheat days will seem pointless and you'll stop doing them. And family members will change their habits too! My parents now always have hummus, almond milk, and vegan butter in their fridge. My mother has learned all kinds of vegan recipes to make for me when I come home, and she knows where to find all the vegan products at the grocery stores. These are all things that she did not pay attention to before. And my brother has since turned away from dairy and is pescatarian now. Your family will be influenced, for sure.
What if I mess up?
It's inevitable that you might accidentally eat something with meat, eggs or dairy in it. Just the other day, I accidentally swallowed a piece of actual chicken that was supposed to be vegan tofu "chicken" when I ordered a salad at the deli. It's important to forgive yourself, forgive other people if it was an honest mistake, and continue on. If you fall off the wagon and give in to a craving, it's important to get right back on and continue where you left off. When I was having a hard time giving up dairy cheese, I realized that it was the mentality of "well, I ate dairy for lunch yesterday, so I might as well eat it today too" that was holding me back. So, when I would eat dairy cheese, I would do some reverse psychology and tell myself it was vegan cheese and that I hadn't broken my pattern. I know myself, and I know if I have some kind of streak going, I will work to keep it going. Soon enough, the fake affirmations started working and made me the devout vegan that I am today. Whatever ya gotta do! Mental tricks work.
What do I eat at restaurants?
Many Restaurants nowadays have vegan entrees. If they don't, no worries at all! If it's a chain restaurant you're about to go to, Google "vegan items at (name of chain here)." That will open your eyes to the actual list of vegan items that certain restaurants have, that are not necessarily marked as vegan. Always be leery of beans and rice at restaurants. Most refried beans are made with lard, and many types of rice are made with chicken stalk. If the restaurant has a vegetarian burger, it's likely made with eggs unless it's specifically marked vegan. Always ask. Call ahead and ask, if you have time. I usually read the entire menu and make myself a vegan meal with side items. I read about all the burgers to see if they have any interesting burger toppings that I might like to add to stuff. If all else fails and it doesn't appear that they have any vegan options, my go-to is always salad and fries. Going out to eat is usually more about spending time with family and friends in an entertaining atmosphere than it is about the food for me. I'm never upset if I have to do a salad and fries.
When I was in the middle of my transition, I would often be tempted by non-vegan menu items... like eggs benedict at brunch. In order to silence these temptations, I would think to myself, "Ok I might stray from veganism and eat eggs benedict. But, let's just see what the vegan options are first! Oatmeal with brown sugar, fruit cup, fries, avocado toast, raisin toast, bagel..." And I would opt for a brunch of vegan side items every time! Yet another mental trick that works wonders!
I've mastered the dietary stuff. Anything else?
Yes. Think about other products you buy. You need faux leather, faux fur, cruelty free makeup, cruelty free bath products, hair products, skin products, cleaning products.... All of it has to be animal product free and not tested on animals. Most cruelty free products are labeled with a bunny. If they are not labeled, a quick Google search should provide an answer. If you must buy real leather, a good option is to buy it second hand. That way, your money isn't going into the leather industry. In the market for new bedding? Make sure it's not made from down feathers. If you already own items that are not animal friendly, I don't think you need to purge your home of those items. Although some vegans might choose to do that. If the damage has already been done, I think it's respectful to the animals who suffered for those items, to not waste those items. use them until they're gone or worn out, and just don't repurchase, or purchase a good vegan alternative.
And with that, all you have to do is stay consistent, keep growing in your veganism, and be a better vegan today than you were yesterday! Much love and luck to ya!