How To (Slowly) Go Vegan
This guide is much-requested and long overdue, so thanks so much to those of you who have waited patiently for it! Though I feel like a seasoned (hah) vegan now, I've been vegan for less than two years, and my transition was a long and slow one. We're talking years. This is a gentle guide for anyone curious about trying veganism, whether you're ready to take the plunge or just want to dip your toes in the water.
I don't necessarily recommend taking as long to go vegan as I did, because the animals, the planet, and our health can't wait. That said, I know from personal experience that going vegan can seem daunting or impossible. I was pescetarian for a year or so (fish/seafood only), then vegetarian for two years, and then finally went vegan on March 27, 2016.
Some people go vegan overnight, which is great if it works for them, but a lot of us need a little more time to make the switch. I'd recommend taking anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, but it really depends on what you're ready and able to do. I encourage others to try veganism, but I'd never tell anyone to "go vegan" when I don't know their life circumstances.
For example, the reason I waited as long as I did to go vegetarian and then vegan was my mental health history. I've been in recovery from an eating disorder since I was nineteen (I'm one of those people who considers herself to be always "in recovery" even though I'm healthy now) and for a long time, I worried that putting any restrictions on the food I eat would trigger disordered eating behaviors. I can honestly say that going vegan has been nothing but healing for my relationship with food - I'll write about that another day - but that's because I waited until I was ready. Had I tried to go vegan while I was still active in my treatment, it might have been really unhealthy for me.
So, on that note, let's dive in to the first tip:
1. Know yourself.
This is my first tip because it is hands-down the most important. Especially given my eating disorder history, I had to ask myself a series of tough questions before I felt ready to go vegan. You should do the same. Toxic capitalism has paid for us to learn certain beliefs around food and our bodies for our entire lives, and it's important to separate that out from your desire to go vegan. Then, like a badass, you can use your veganism as a tool to resist the propaganda. But it has to be healthy.
Ask yourself the following: Why do I want to go vegan? What is my relationship to food? To my body? Do I have unresolved issues around food? (Hint: most of us do.) Do I have the time and energy to make this transition right now? Do I have access to a kitchen where I can store and prepare vegan food? Am I ready to commit to a lifestyle change?
There's a lot in those questions that I'll address in the upcoming tips, and my intent is not to scare you off veganism. Going vegan can be relatively easy for some of us, but everyone hits roadblocks, and I think it's important to reflect on these questions before going for it. In fact, my hope is that getting clear on your answers will smooth the transition and help veganism stick for you in the long term. My next-best tip on staying vegan for the long haul is...
2. Know your why.
There are a million reasons to go vegan, but the top three most common are for the animals, for the planet, and for your health. As an animal liberationist, my reason was animal rights and an ethic of non-violence (though my opinions on violence and how to define it have changed with time). Plenty of people, including one of my closest friends, go vegan to reduce their environmental impact. And still more people go vegan in order to adopt a healthier lifestyle. I'm not here to tell you why to go vegan - there are plenty of resources on that included at the end of this post - but rather to impress upon you the importance of knowing why you want to make the change. Your reason could be personal; it could be political; it could be any number of things, but regardless of what your why is, you have to have one.
That's not to say that your why won't change over time; in fact, one of the cool things about veganism is that it opens our eyes to the interconnectedness of the world. I can't tell you how many times a vegan told me they made the change for one reason, but now have several motivations to stay vegan. For example, my environmentalist friend became invested in animal rights only after going vegan, and I started to care about the environment more after going vegan for the animals. That's the beauty of the movement!
3. It's a lifestyle, baby.
Veganism is about much more than just the food we eat. Veganism is a lifestyle that changes what we eat, wear, buy, and use. So many aspects of my life changed when I went vegan, including the clothes I wore; the makeup, skincare, and bodycare I used; the products I used to clean my house; the gifts I bought for other people; the activities I do for fun; and even how I travel.
That's not to say that you can't maintain the same amazing lifestyle you have now as a vegan - in fact, I'd argue the vegan version is probably better and more fun! But it does mean you'll need to be thoughtful. Leather, silk, and wool abound in clothing stores; tons of toiletries and household products are tested on animals or contain animal products; and milk powder hides in damn near everything. You can start with diet and phase these other things out gradually, but know that going vegan takes more than changing what you eat.
If you just want to eat a plant-based diet and this other stuff is too overwhelming, it's okay! Just please say "I eat a vegan diet" or "I'm plant-based" so people don't get confused about why the vegan is rocking a brand-new leather purse and Maybelline mascara. I'm a firm believer that any change helps, so go for it. And with that said...
4. Every bit helps.
I might get a lot of heat for this from other vegans in the comments, but I think that to the degree anyone is willing to reduce or limit their use of animal products, it's a fantastic change. Would I prefer that everyone went vegan and stopped eating, wearing, and using animals? Of course. But I know that's not realistic, at least not soon, and every small change you make helps the animals and the planet.
If I had a dollar for every time someone told me, "I would go vegan, but I just can't give up [BLANK]" I’d be rolling in the Benjamins. Know what I tell them?
"That's great! Why don't you try eating a plant-based diet except for [BLANK]?"
People always look so confused when I say this, and maybe that's because veganism would be meaningless if everyone made exceptions all over the place. But you don't need to call yourself a vegan to make a difference. Can't give up cheese? That's fine! Down to ditch everything except creamer in your morning coffee? Totally cool. Do what you can, when you can, where you can. Even if you can't control the food you eat, for example, you could still wear vegan makeup and refuse to go to the watery hell that is SeaWorld. You've got options.
5. Devour resources and information.
You'll probably want to do this anyway, as most new vegans go through a phase of voracious information consumption, but make sure you collect as many helpful resources as possible. The end of this post will be a great start! This information will not only help you define your why but also help you figure out your how. What do vegans eat, anyway? (A lot more than just salads.) Do I need to take any supplements? (Yes, B12.) How can I veganize my favorite dish? (It's easy.) Is horseback riding vegan? (Nope.) Will I wither and die? (Not unless you only eat salads!)
In 2017, there's such a wealth of information on veganism out there that we have no excuse to claim ignorance about why and how to go vegan. In my experience, educating myself made me feel more confident that I could navigate the transition healthily and happily.
6. Be okay with failure.
There is no "perfect vegan." I've made plenty of mistakes - accidentally munching through a non-vegan bag of crisps because who in their right mind would put milk powder in salt and vinegar potato chips, forgetting to ask about fish sauce in my Thai noodles, and going to a zoo even though I didn't feel good about it. I get the impression that a lot of people think vegans are masochistic and stressed out all the time, and at least in my experience, that's not true. I don't beat myself up for making mistakes; I just make a mental note, decide to change my behavior next time, and move on.
Similarly, it was only when my vegan friend encouraged me to give myself permission to "fail" at veganism - to try it for two weeks and go back to being vegetarian if it was too hard - that I actually felt confident enough to try it. I fell in love with the lifestyle and never looked back.
7. Enlist support.
I remember hearing on a vegan podcast that one of the number-one reasons people stop being vegan is because they feel isolated. And that's understandable. Going vegan is a big change that can leave you feeling misunderstood. Once you open your eyes to the devastation we cause by consuming animals - and trust me, there's a lot - it can be hard to relate to people who aren't similarly aware of or interested in these issues. There are two ways to deal with this.
The first way to cope is by finding other vegans. You can do this IRL or online. There are countless forums and meetups and groups, and these spaces are available to anyone who can connect to the Internet. Even just solo dining at a nearby vegan restaurant can make me feel like I'm among my people. The best scenario is obviously to have some cool vegan pals in your town. I promise there's at least one. Find them! We don't bite.
The second way is to include your non-vegan friends and family in your lifestyle change. Share your why with them if they ask, bake them vegan chocolate chip cookies, and ask them to try a new vegan restaurant with you. If you're as lucky as I am, they'll be supportive, as long as you don't try to pressure them to go vegan with you. Most of my friends aren’t vegan, but they happily eat vegan food with me, or go above and beyond to make sure there are vegan snacks for me at our parties. Seriously, give your amazing non-vegan community a chance to support you. One of my favorite things to do is cook with non-vegan friends, because they're always impressed with how good vegan food tastes.
8. Fall in love with cooking.
You don't have to like cooking to go vegan, but it certainly helps. Create a roster of 5-7 go-to vegan meals that you learn to cook so that you can whip up a healthy and delicious dish any time your stomach is growling. One of the biggest obstacles to eating a more plant-based diet, from what people have told me, is that we just aren't taught to make delicious vegan food. To be honest, a lot of us don't learn how to make healthy, wholesome food, let alone plant-based food, due to the proliferation of highly processed junk. There are probably great veg-friendly restaurants in your area - most towns nowadays seem to have at least one - but eating out all the time gets old fast and just isn't affordable for most of us.
Not only will learning to cook vegan food make the transition easier, it will also make it more enjoyable. You'll get creative, you'll eat tasty food, and you'll have a built-in way to introduce your friends and family to an important part of your life. Get yourself a badass cookbook (see my suggestions in the resources section) and get cookin!
9. Listen to Kendrick and be humble.
Listen, all vegans have that moment: we're armed to the teeth with tons of information about animal agriculture and deforestation and overfishing and slaughterhouses and we start dominating conversations. We want the whole world to know this information and experience the magic of veganism, and we want it right now. I get it. I probably cried more during the first month I went vegan than I did in all of the twelve months prior, because I was reading book after book about what happens to the animals we use, wear, and eat. I couldn't understand why more people weren't talking about it.
But then I remembered that thirty days before, I was one of those people. And I still remember that now. Pretty much all vegans have at least a few non-vegan years under their belt, and probably a lot more. So as tempting as it can be to tell everyone they should go vegan right now, don't. (See above where I mention that we can't know people's circumstances.) Absolutely share your veganism with those around you. If it's true for you like it is for me, tell them it's the best decision you've ever made. When someone asks you for the seventeenth time that day where you get your protein, happily tell them. Invite your friends to come over for a vegan dinner party. But also have compassion and humility. There's a lot you still don't know, either. (Also, mainstream veganism has a loooooong way to go when it comes to supporting other liberation movements.)
I like to think about veganism as a triangle of compassion: compassion for myself, for others, and for animals. I'm gentle with myself when I make mistakes and gentle with other people about my veganism. If your veganism is radical or militant, I'm not going to tell you to do it differently - just recognize that not everyone is there (yet).
10. Have fun.
Going vegan is one of the most joyful decisions I've ever made. I quickly became healthier and happier than I'd ever been before. I found a stronger connection with animals, with nature, and with myself. I'm not sure, but I think I became a kinder, better person. I'm a much, much better and more creative cook, as evidenced by the fact that my sister told me yesterday, "Sarah, your food was awful two years ago, but now it's so good!" I have a lot of fun with my veganism. I enjoy vegan memes. I've made some great vegan friends. I eat a lot of delicious vegan food. I regularly have amazing dreams in which I rescue an assortment of animals, including a frog, a pig, and an ostrich. And I'm sure that traveling while vegan is going to lead to many more adventures.
Contrary to popular belief, veganism is not an exercise in sacrifice or deprivation. I gave certain things up when I went vegan, but I gained so much more. Most importantly, I gained a subtle zest for life, for food, and for moving my body that I never had before. So enjoy the transition.
There are so many vegan resources that I couldn't possibly list them all, but these are my favorites. They account for many different tastes (especially among the YouTube channels) so browse around, figure out what fits for you, and discover new vegan faves along the way.
Main Street Vegan by Victoria Moran
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Starch Solution by Dr. John McDougall (beware of weight-loss talk though)
Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows by Melanie Joy
The Sexual Politics of Meat by Carol J. Adams
Sistah Vegan edited by A. Breeze Harper (read my review here)
Anything by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, but especially the tenth anniversary edition of Vegan with a Vengeance - it's the only vegan cookbook I own
Bryant Terry's cookbooks, which feature mouthwatering takes on Afro-vegan and vegan soul food
The Vegan Stoner website
Forks Over Knives
101 Reasons to Go Vegan (on YouTube)
Food for Thought by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (love her - I binge-listened to this podcast's archives when I first went vegan)
And that's all for now! Like I said, this list is only a small sampling of everything that's out there. As a blogger, I highly recommend browsing the vegan blogosphere to find the writers who vibe with your veganism; there are just too many for me to even begin a list of them.
If you're thinking of going vegan and have questions or want support, please reach out! This is a judgement-free zone. Most of all, relax and have fun.