How To Go (and Stay) Vegan

Farm Sanctuary Pig

Today is World Vegan Day! I’m excited to take this day to formally celebrate the diet/lifestyle that truly changed my life in the best possible way.  To be honest, this is a “holiday” that I never really anticipated celebrating because for a long time, I thought that I couldn’t (and didn’t want to) permanently give up all animal products, namely dairy.  Similarly, I’ve noticed that a lot of “would-be vegans” recognize the health, environmental and ethical benefits of excluding meat and/or dairy from their diets, but hesitate to fully commit to this lifestyle for the same reasons that held me back for many years.  I won’t go into the specific reasons why I went vegan here (and there are many – another post for another time!), but rather wanted to share my personal experience transitioning my diet, and a few of the things that helped me along the way in the hopes that it can be the boost that you need to make your own changes!

How I Did It:

Having been vegetarian since childhood, I decided to go vegan in the spring of 2013.  I had been experimenting with eliminating most dairy products for a year prior to that and felt pretty good, but was still eating cheese daily and wasn’t sure if I could give it up permanently.  At the time, I had been reading a lot about the many benefits of a plant-based diet but still wasn’t sure if it was for me.  A lot of my favorite foods would be “off limits”, I didn’t know too many vegan people, my husband still ate animal products, and I imagined that a vegan diet meant feeling constantly deprived and inconvenienced.  In fact, I’m fairly certain that I’ve said, “I will never go vegan – that’s too extreme/crazy!” (with conviction!) a handful of times over the years. Yet, I was really curious to see if I could do it – I wanted to challenge myself to see how it would feel both mentally and physically.  So, I made a conscious choice to try being vegan without the self-imposed pressure to do it perfectly or long-term.

For the first few months, it was a little touch and go.  I felt great, but definitely had days when I succumbed to my cravings and opted for cheese pizza, or went out to eat and ordered Cacio e Pepe, my favorite cheese-laden pasta.  I moved forward without guilt, but I almost always felt physically lousy the next day.  In an effort to prevent these “slip ups”, I started cooking more at home and experimenting with dairy-free versions of my old favorites (homemade vegan “mozzarella sauce” for pizza, chocolate chip cookies, alfredo sauce, cheesy nachos, ice cream).  I followed vegan social media accounts, joined local vegan meet up groups, and visited nearby farm animal sanctuaries.  And whenever time allowed, I devoured as many new podcasts, books, articles and documentaries on the subject that I could.  All of these things collectively bolstered my desire and ability to stay on track.

Having been vegan now for over 5 years and counting, I feel my healthiest ever, and no longer experience cravings – my weight is stable, my energy levels are consistent, I finally have a healthy relationship with food (a lifelong battle for me), I rarely get sick (knock on wood), and I’ve been fortunate enough to have two easy vegan pregnancies (I still have a few months to go on my current pregnancy, but so far, so good!).  I also feel really good about the positive impact that my diet has on my health, our planet, and love knowing that no animals have directly been harmed by my food choices.

My Top 5 Tips for Going (and Staying) Vegan:

So, if you’ve thought about being vegan but aren’t sure if you can do it, I’m here to tell you that YES, you can (and you will be so happy you did)!  It’s a big decision that will change your life in many ways, but I can all but guarantee you it’ll be worth the effort and short term adjustment period. Here are a few things that helped me stick with it:

  1. Find your “why”. This might be the most important predictor of long term success with veganism.  If someone chooses to go vegan because they want to lose 10 pounds or because someone you care about is vegan and you want to make them happy, it might serve as an initial push to get started, but likely won’t provide enough motivation to keep going when a powerful craving strikes, or a challenging social situation arises. For me, it was a combination of a few moving bookspodcasts and documentaries that revealed how much our daily food choices impact our health, the environment, and animal welfare (three things I’m super passionate about) that really pushed me toward making a more permanent change.  For others, it might be a serious health scare or watching a loved one suffer from chronic disease.  Whatever your reason is, make sure it’s deep and meaningful enough to you to serve as an anchor whenever you’re doubting whether you can really “do this”.  Let it be your touchstone.
  2. Take baby steps and let go of perfectionism.This was another big one for me.  I am very perfectionistic, so being patient with myself and allowing for “slip ups” was unprecedented and really helped with my success in making this big dietary transition.  As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t wake up one day and decide to be vegan – it was a year-long process.  First, I eliminated dairy foods that weren’t my favorites (aka foods that I was eating not for enjoyment, but because I thought I was “supposed to” from a nutrition perspective): milk and yogurt.  Next, I tackled eggs, ice cream, and any packaged processed foods that contained dairy – these are foods I really enjoyed but weren’t every day necessities. Cheese was the final frontier (as it is for so many, as it’s literally addictive and can be tough to replace) and took the longest.  Determine what foods you might eat regularly but don’t “need”, then eliminate them entirely and see how you feel.  If you find yourself caving and having a nibble of cheese, it’s OK, the vegan police won’t arrest you.  Slip ups are normal, but don’t use them as an excuse to throw in the towel, either – get back on track and try to be vegan 99% (or more) of the time. Your body needs a solid chance to adjust and your palate needs ample opportunity to stop craving those old foods – it can’t do that if it’s regularly being fed the same things you are trying to wean off of.
  3. Get comfortable cooking and eating more at home. We are living in an exciting time in which there are more vegan convenience foods available than ever – it’s wonderful to see these changes, but many of these products are still heavily processed and not good for you.  Being vegan and feeling great means eating a lot of whole foods and limiting the packaged stuff, so you’ll have to be OK with taking some time to prepare homemade meals and snacks whenever possible. Yes, this takes time, and I recognize (and deeply relate to) how overextended we all are, but cooking needs to become a priority – no way of sugar coating it!  Not only is homemade generally healthier, it is nicer to the environment (less packaging/waste!) and it tastes so much better!  Carve out time each week to meal plan and invest in a few solid cookbooks to get you started if you need recipe inspiration.  Be patient with yourself – learning how to cook without animal products can be a process, but you’ll find the results deliciously rewarding!
  4. Ignore outside “noise”. No matter how long you’ve been vegan, there will always be individuals who will question your decision and try and make you feel generally lousy about your diet. I’m not sure why people feel so threatened by veganism, but it can sometimes bring out the worst in those who choose to go down a different dietary path.  If you feel good and your choices aren’t hurting anyone, it doesn’t really matter what other people think, right?  You’re also going to read things from time to time in the media that say that the healthiest diet is Whole30 or Paleo or Keto or whatever else is in the news that month. That’s fine.  There is deep scientific evidence supporting a plant based way of eating, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics supports veganism at all life stages (pregnancy through old age) and that’s all I personally really need to reaffirm my decision.
  5. Seek out community. It can admittedly get lonely if you are surrounded only by folks who don’t share your dietary/ethical views (and even worse if they are critical of yours).  The lack of a support system makes it unnecessarily tough to continue down a vegan path (especially in the beginning!).  Many of my loved ones (including my husband!) still eat meat, and I respect their process/decisions, but I also am fortunate to have a good handful of people in my life who are also vegan.  If you don’t have any family members or friends interested in a plant based diet, there are ways to seek out vegan community elsewhere – Facebook has a ton of vegan-based groups, as does Meetup.com, if you’re looking for some in-person connection.  There are lots of Instagram accounts (myself included!) that can provide a sense of community as well as motivation, tips, and food inspiration to keep you going!  Finally, if you don’t see a group you like, start your own!  There are likely other people nearby who are looking for other vegans to connect with, too – you can exchange recipes, favorite products/cookbooks, host potlucks, organize outings to nearby vegan restaurants or local VegFests, etc.

What has helped you go/stay vegan?  I’d love to hear your tips and/or how you’re celebrating World Vegan Day in the comments below!

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