My own vegan journey started in January. Five years later, I’ve learned a few things I’d love to share to help in your own vegan journey, this Veganuary.
Whether your intentions are to try going vegan for a month only or start a long term journey, it’s an amazing thing you are doing for the animals, the earth, and yourself. Every little bit counts and every vegan choice is a good one. You’re lucky, also, because at this moment in time there are so many incredible resources available to help navigate this new world–an abundance of food bloggers creating delicious vegan recipes, so many choices of vegan grocery store alternatives, and vegan options on most restaurant menus. It’s easier than ever to be vegan today, but it’s also a huge shift if you’ve eaten an omnivore diet your whole life. In order to make this journey easier for you, I’m sharing some of my favourite tips I’ve picked up along my own journey.
Tip 1: It’s easier than you think to find vegan versions of your favourite food…
It’s easy, but some are better than others. Don’t get discouraged if it’s not right yet.
Hardest food to veganize: cheese, steak, fried/poached egg, glass of milk.
Easiest food to veganize: baked goods, burgers, scrambled eggs, latte.
Essentially, it’s not as easy to substitute plant-based options for meat, egg, and dairy in their pure form. As additives to recipes, there are many vegan ingredients or combinations of ingredients that will taste and feel very much like their animal-based counterparts. Plant-based meat recipes like burgers, meatballs, chili, and sauce are so incredibly convincing. If you’re craving meat early on in your veganuary, I recommend starting there and not going for the seitan steak just yet. Impossible brand meat is the closest to the real thing (ground beef) as you can get and even moreso with sauce. Likewise, plant milks are quite a bit different from cow milk and everyone has their own preference. You’ll notice the difference less when it’s mixed in with other flavours.
Tip 2: Don’t overload on nuts if you don’t want to gain weight.
Alternatively, if you want to gain weight, nuts will do it. Cashews in creative and ingenious recipes are the perfect alternative to dairy when you’re feeling the craving. I definitely overdid it in my first month of veganism. I was eating cashew cheese, cashew-crusted kale chips, handfuls of cashews almost every day. I gained weight and inflamed my guts. Moderation is key.
Tip 3: Don’t overload on beans if you don’t want to be gassy.
I mean, no one wants to be gassy. Legumes are so healthy and delicious and beans are such an easy protein and iron alternative, but it’s important to go slow. Most omnivores don’t eat legumes at the same rate as vegans and it’s easy to forget the body needs time to adjust to new foods. If you’re suddenly replacing all meat and dairy servings with beans, it’s going to be hard for your body to keep up. Cue the gas bloat and inflammation. Go slowly and gradually increase your amounts of legumes to give your body time to adjust. It will. Balancing your diet with probiotic foods like sauerkraut and kimchi is helpful, too.
Tip 4: Check the ingredients.
Milk powder is randomly in everything, chips, bread. Also you may not realize some of the condiments you regularly consume have animal products in them. For instance, Worcestershire sauce is made from anchovies and many brands of sugar use bone char to filter.
Tip 5: Protein is not as scarce as many would have you believe and we don’t need as much as you think.
Even potatoes have (enough) protein. The most common anti-vegan barb is “where do you get your protein?” and the answer is basically “food.” The only people who need to focus on protein are body builders looking to build muscle rapidly and plant sources are completely sufficient.
Tip 6: Take b12 supplements and if you go back on veganism in February, keep taking that supplement.
While it’s true that it’s harder for vegans to naturally find b12 in their diet, it’s not easy for meat eaters either. Most people, vegan or not, are deficient in b12 unless they supplement. There are also many prescription medication that deplete your body of b12 and most people on them are completely unaware. The easiest way to get b12 in your diet is to go vegan as much of the vegan alternatives are fortified with it. Nutritional yeast is an ingredient common to many vegan recipes (used to add a cheesy flavour) and has more than enough b12 and other b vitamins.
Tip 7: Soy isn’t bad for you.
Soy is actually quite good for you, but some people have sensitivities to it. Also, most of the soy grown in the world (70%+) goes to feeding livestock, so it’s better for the environment to eat tofu than beef.
Tip 8: Milk alternatives take some work.
Everyone has a different plant milk preference and it may take time to find yours. However, if you’re used to drinking cow milk by the glass, the closest approximation you’ll find is Silk’s Nextmilk. It does have a bit of a bran aftertaste, but that disappears if you’re drinking it and munching cookies, which I highly recommend.
Tip 9: Vegan isn’t the same thing as healthy.
If you want to eat vegan because you want to be healthy, make sure you’re eating whole foods with little to no processing. Make sure, also, that you’re eating a balance of food groups and vitamins and enough calories. Vegetables and fruits are great, but you’ll need legumes and grains as well. Don’t assume that because a product is vegan that means it’s healthy. Healthy also means getting all your necessary nutrients and vitamins. Get to know your nutritional requirements and where to find them. Plant-based diets often need specific food combinations to get the most out of the foods. For instance, iron is best absorbed when balanced with vitamin C and blocked by caffeine, so be thoughtful about food pairings. Likewise, certain combinations of amino acids are necessary to form perfect proteins. Beans and rice together have the perfect balance, but separately lack something. It’s not terribly difficult to find the right pairings and they’re often pretty intuitive, but being mindful will help.
Tip 10: Eat enough calories.
Many people who try and fail at veganism don’t realize how many calories are in animal products and drastically reduce calorie consumption when they drop out these foods without adding appropriate substitutes. Pay attention to what you’re eating and the nutritional profiles or you won’t be successful.
Tip 11: If you’re lazy, take a multivitamin.
Take one even if you aren’t. It’s hard to be thoughtful about food choices when you’re just learning. Create a failsafe for your nutrition by taking a multivitamin to support your journey. Most omnivores never think about nutrition and take for granted that they are getting the right nutrients. It’s harder to apply that same attitude to a plant-based diet because you do need to try a bit harder to find a balance of nutrients. Also, the nutrients that are harder to come by in a vegan diet are usually the ones we store up in our body, so we don’t notice the deficiency until it’s farther along and having bigger impacts. That’s not to say you can’t easily be nutrient deficient/imbalanced on an omnivore diet, but you tend not to know it until something serious happens: you have a heart attack or stroke from high cholesterol.
Tip 12: It’s ok if you slip, just try not to completely fall off.
You don’t have to start over. Keep going and keep trying. Perfectionism isn’t realistic and it’s a harmful expectation. Practice makes progress.