This guide aims to assist new and transitioning vegans with some simple and helpful advice on the ins and outs of going vegan.
So you’ve finally decided to take the leap and go vegan. First of all, congratulations! Vegans seek to live in a way which excludes, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. As such, by going vegan you are performing a powerful act of protest against animal exploitation by reducing the demand for all animal products. However, since we live in a society that treats veganism as in some way extreme, we are socialised to believe that animal products are a necessity for our daily lives. For this reason, going vegan can seem a daunting and confusing process. Hopefully, this guide will help you along the way.
Where do I start?
The first and most important step for any transitioning or potential vegan is to get educated. This will provide the inspiration you need, and will help dispel some of the propaganda perpetuated by the meat and dairy industries. There are many vegan documentaries you could watch; a great place to start would be Earthlings for the ethical side of things, though do note this is an extremely graphic documentary. For the environmental aspects of veganism, Cowspiracy is a fantastic documentary which is available on Netflix, with only one short scene depicting duck slaughter, which could easily be skipped. Forks Over Knives is a good overview of some of the health benefits and contains no graphic footage. There are also several books you could read, particularly Eating Animals which focuses on the ethical arguments, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows which focuses on the psychology of meat and Slaughterhouse which focuses on the treatment of animals. There are also many excellent online resources, such as Vegankit, Veganeasy and the Vegan Society website.
How should I go about it?
When it comes to how you should start transitioning, there are a few different methods you could choose. Which one you go with will be based on your own situation, and what you think will be most likely to result in a permanent shift to veganism.
- By product: This method is one of the easiest, and basically involves eliminating animal products one at a time. You might start with something easier like beef, or perhaps milk, and eliminate this one product from your diet while not attempting to limit anything else. It is important that you replace these items with something vegan which you enjoy, so that you don’t feel like you are losing out.
- By meal: This is a slightly different method but it works better for some people, and involves going vegan one meal at a time as opposed to one product. Under this method, you might start with something like breakfast, and you would make your breakfast vegan every day. Once you have mastered this and have several breakfast options you enjoy, you would then include lunch, followed by dinner and snacks in between. This has the advantage of slowly lowering your consumption of all animal products, rather than just one at a time, and you don’t get that initial body shock when you stop eating a product your body is used to.
- Cold Turkey: This method is often considered the most difficult, but it does have advantages. This method is essentially involves eliminating all animal products at once. This can be overwhelming and will be a bit of a body shock, but it has the advantage of immediately reducing the harm you cause by a drastic amount, and will usually mean you feel the positive effects of a vegan diet sooner.
What do vegans eat?
Vegans have a wealth of healthy and affordable options available to us. Some of our main staples include things like pastas, noodles, rice, breads, quinoa, legumes, nuts and nut butters, lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, tempeh, seitan, soy, oats, cereals, and frozen or fresh fruits and vegetables. You can find my full list of cheap vegan groceries here, and a list of easy recipes using mainly these ingredients here. Some people also choose to supplement their diet with specialist vegan replacement items like faux meats and cheeses. These can make transitioning much easier, but they tend to be more expensive than just eating plants, though they are still comparable in price to the animal products they emulate. The short answer to this question is pretty much anything you could eat before you went vegan, just in a different form.
What don’t vegans eat?
Vegans don’t consume anything which comes from an animal, including all meats, fish, cheese, milk, eggs and honey. Most of these ingredients will be very obvious to spot, but some, such as certain insect derived E numbers, can present more of a challenge. You find an exhaustive list of non-vegan ingredients here, but I find the most common sneaky ingredients to look out for are carmine (E120), gelatin, whey, rennet and casein. You should get into the habit of always checking ingredients. There are also apps which can make this easier for you, such as Is it Vegan and Can I Eat This. It is may be helpful to know that “may contain milk/eggs” does not mean the product is not vegan, it simply means the product was produced in a factory which also handles milk or eggs. If you are interested in finding out what the ethical issues are with specific animal products, you can find my collection of articles on the topic here.
What about clothes?
Since you have been living as a non-vegan, it is very likely you will have many clothing items which aren’t vegan. You may feel the need to replace all of these items right away; if you can afford to do this then you absolutely can, just don’t forget to donate all of that unwanted clothing to a shelter so it can do some good. However, for most of us this just isn’t realistic. The harm was done with the initial purchase, so it is okay to continue to use animal fabrics until you can comfortably afford to replace them. Remember, it isn’t just leather and fur, vegans also don’t use wool, silk, felt, feathers or down. The good news is that synthetic alternatives for all of these items are cheap, durable and widely available. Most high street stores, particularly on the cheaper end, already sell synthetic fibres, and some shoe companies like Doc Martens and Vans offer vegan ranges. There are also several online retailers of speciality vegan clothing, a list of which can be found here.
What about cosmetics and household products?
Similar to clothing, it is likely that you have many cosmetics and household products which are not vegan. For a product to be vegan, it must contain no animal ingredients and must not be tested on animals. Again, you can use the products you have now and replace them with more appropriate ones the next time you make a purchase. Fortunately, more and more retailers are taking note of the campaigns against animal testing and are providing cruelty free options. It can be a little difficult to tell if a company tests on animals, as their disclaimers are often very misleading, but a list of companies who do test on animals can be found here. When a product has not been tested on animals, it should feature a little bunny icon. However, it should be noted that these products sometimes still contain animal derived ingredients, those which don’t will often be marked vegan. A list of vegan cosmetics can be found here, and you can buy many vegan household products here.
What about entertainment?
Another area of your life which veganism is likely to effect is entertainment. As vegans we do not believe that animals should be exploited for any purpose, including entertainment. Some examples of animals being used as entertainment would be circuses, dog or horse racing, horse riding and carting, dog sledding, aquariums, sea parks, hunting, fishing and zoos. Vegans essentially hold that these industries and activities are exploitative in that they use animals for the purposes of entertaining humans. There are many vegan alternatives to these activities, and if you want to visit animals up close, there are many thousands of animal sanctuaries who do wonderful work, just be sure to check that the sanctuary in question is reputable and is a non-profit.
How do I make sure I’m getting all of my nutrients?
There is no mineral, vitamin or nutrient that cannot be attained on a vegan diet. Both the National Health Service and the American Dietetic Association state that veganism is appropriate for all stages of life and may even have several health benefits. Of course, veganism is no guarantee of health, you can still consume plenty of junk foods as a vegan. The main concerns are generally regarding protein, iron, calcium, vitamins B6 and B12. The protein concern is a bit of a myth; it is difficult to be protein deficient if you are getting enough calories, you can find a list of vegan high protein foods here. Iron is also not a problem as a vegan, since iron is contained in most plant milks and leafy greens, you can find some examples here. Similarly, calcium is contained in most plant milks, nuts and many vegetables, here are some examples. Vitamin B6 and B12 are present in fortified foods, as well as nutritional yeast which can be purchased very cheaply. Despite the availability of these vitamins in a vegan diet, I would still recommend supplementing just to be safe, this is a great one.
How can I afford to go vegan?
It is a common misconception that vegan diets are inherently expensive, and is often an assumption based on seeing people eat specialty vegan ready meals and faux products. These products are popular but they aren’t necessary for a vegan diet at all. The vegan staples mentioned earlier represent some of the cheapest and most nutritious food sources in any supermarket and they are widely available. This makes perfect sense economically because the lower on the food chain you eat, the less work has gone into the final product and thus the cheaper it is. This is why most of the world’s poorest people subsist on primarily a vegetarian diet. It also helps to buy food products in bulk if you can, as this will make them even cheaper. The vegan options at most fast food restaurants are also usually the cheapest.
Can I still go out to eat?
Depending on where you live, it is likely there will be specifically vegetarian/vegan restaurants in your area, or at least vegan friendly ones. Happy Cow is a great app to help you find local vegan restaurants. Even if these are sparse in your area, most restaurants will be willing to make a vegetarian option vegan, or even prepare something off-men if you ask nicely and talk them through what you do not eat. The best thing to do is to call ahead and let them know about your dietary requirements beforehand, this is polite and usually results in a better quality of meal than one cobbled together at the last minute. If you’re eating somewhere you don’t trust, it can often be prudent to tell them you are allergic rather than vegan, as they are likely to take this more seriously. You should always thank the waiting staff and the chef for any additional effort they have gone through in order to accommodate you. If you can afford it, it never hurts to be generous with your tip if a server has gone out of their way to make sure that your meal is vegan.
How do I deal with cravings?
You may not actually experience any cravings as a vegan, though many do in the early stages and for some people these cravings persist, though most often sporadically. This is a natural part of any change in diet and is a result of your body being accustomed to receiving a certain food item. The items we crave tend to be those processed to have high levels of sugars and fat; most animal products certainly fall into this category. As your body gets rid of these foods over time, these cravings will become less intense in nature and will likely disappear entirely. In the meantime, keep in mind it is sugars and fat or protein you are craving, not necessarily the animal products themselves. You therefore have the option to replace these sugars and fats with vegan foods, there are several high fat and high calorie vegan options, as well as many vegan snack foods, some of which may surprise you.
What if my parents/guardians won’t let me?
Parents usually object to veganism on the grounds of convenience, cost, or health. We have already covered health and cost, but in terms of convenience, it is up to you to make the transition as easy on your parents or guardians as you possibly can. You could try learning to cook some simple vegan meals which you can prepare for yourself, or offer to come along on their shopping trips to point out vegan friendly foods. Parents will be less likely to object if you do most of the hard work for them. It can also be helpful to show them some of the resources already listed and watch documentaries with them, so that they can understand where you are coming from, and particularly that veganism can be done in a healthy and low cost way. If they still refuse and it is unsafe for you to push it any further, you may just have to be as vegan as you can be under the circumstances. This isn’t your fault, and you can still be vegan when it is your choice while keeping your parents happy until you are able to move out.
Can I go vegan if I have an eating disorder?
Having an eating disorder or being in recovery from one can make veganism really difficult, so don’t feel bad if you don’t feel you can attempt it at this point in your life. Some people find veganism to be hugely helpful in their recovery because it re-frames food choices in a positive light. However, things like checking ingredients and monitoring nutrients can be triggering, so if you are going to attempt to go vegan I would recommend following one of the two incremental methods listed earlier, and taking it very slowly. If it begins to interfere with your recovery, just focus on getting better first and foremost. If you can’t manage to eat completely vegan, you could of course still be vegan in every other aspect of your life, including clothing, entertainment, cosmetics and household products. You would still be doing a lot of good, and you’d be keeping yourself healthy for a time when you are able to fully commit to a vegan diet.
Will I get sick?
When you first start going vegan, you are likely to feel something of a body shock and you may even become ill as your body adapts to such a radical change. This is perfectly normal and should only be temporary. If symptoms persist, monitor your nutrient intake more closely as you are likely to be missing something. Again, this is normal before you become experienced at planning your diet. If you are convinced you are getting what you need but you are still sick, seek medical advice, as it may be an intolerance or another underlying medical issue. After the first month you will discover how good being vegan can make you feel. Even once you’ve gotten the hang of it though, you will still make mistakes and accidentally consume animals products, which after your body has adapted to a vegan diet may also make you a little sick. It is important that you don’t beat yourself up over these mistakes, as they are learning experiences and it still happens to those of us who have been vegan for many years.
How do I deal with criticism as a vegan?
As most vegans will tell you, the most difficult part about the lifestyle isn’t the food, it is dealing with non-vegans. People very often take the words “no thank you, I’m vegan” to be an invitation to question, debate and criticise your choices. It is unfortunately necessary to warn you here that vegans are widely hated, often by people who really should know better. This can be really difficult to deal with, but stick to your convictions and remember why you chose this lifestyle in the first place. The good news though, is that people tend to recycle the exact same arguments over and over, so you will end up with a lot of practice in formulating your responses. You can find my list of some of the most common anti-vegan arguments and some suggested responses here.
You can find additional links to help you on my resources page, as well as answers to commonly asked questions on my FAQs page. If there is anything else you need and can’t find the information on either of these, then feel free to drop me an ask. I answer all serious anonymous questions, though due to the volume I receive you may have to wait a couple of days for a reply. If your issue is time sensitive, feel free to send me a non-anonymous ask or a private message and I will usually answer within a day. I hope that your transition to veganism will be as positive for you as it has been for me. Good luck!