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Have you been thinking about becoming a vegan? Do you feel overwhelmed or not sure where to start? You’re not alone!
As a vegan myself, I completely understand how difficult it is to find the information you need. Much of what’s out there is super confusing. It’s hard to find sources that explain things in simple ways that are easy to understand – and even harder to know which sources you can trust.
That’s why I’ve pulled together all the vegan basics you need to know in one comprehensive guide! We’re going to cover hot topics like what vegans do and don’t eat, how to avoid potential pitfalls, what really happens when you go vegan, and more. Let’s dive in!
To start with, we need to understand the answer to a simple question – what is a vegan?
At its core, veganism is based on avoiding all forms of animal cruelty and exploitation. Vegans don’t eat any animal products, including meat, dairy, eggs, or honey. They also don’t use cosmetics, clothing, or anything else made from animal products. Because it’s considered exploitation, vegans don’t participate in anything that forces animals to perform for human entertainment – like going to the circus or watching horse racing.
Veganism has a long history. Although the term “veganism” was first used in 1944, the concept is not new. In fact, references to vegetarianism go back as far as 500 BCE. Back then, benevolence towards animals was a cornerstone belief preached by the philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras and Siddhārtha Gautama (better known as Buddha).
Popular religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism all support the belief that humans should not inflict pain on animals. While veganism still hasn’t really caught on in Western culture on a large scale, it’s quite common in other parts of the world, particularly areas where the bulk of the population practices these religions.
Why Become a Vegan
When I first started exploring veganism, I was looking for a way to improve my health. I had suffered from debilitating migraines and was willing to do just about anything to find some relief. At the same time, I’m also a true animal lover. So, when the idea of becoming a vegan came up, it appealed to me on several levels.
There are many reasons why people decide to go vegan. Some, like me, adopt the practice for health reasons. Others are looking for a way to do less harm to the environment. Many vegans adopt the lifestyle because they believe in compassionate living and don’t want to do harm to any other living creatures. There’s no right or wrong reason to become a vegan. Most people who practice veganism start for a particular reason but appreciate the many benefits this lifestyle brings.
Veganism is a Growing Trend
Veganism is growing in popularity in many parts of the world, including the United States. A recent study found that 9.6 million Americans now consider themselves vegan. This is a 300% increase over the past 15 years!
Thanks to documentaries like Food Inc. and Forks over Knives, people are now much more aware of the problems associated with eating meat. This includes cruel and abusive industry practices and the impact that raising animals for meat has on the environment.
A vast improvement in the quality and availability of meat substitutes has also prompted more people to try at least some meatless meals. From Burger King’s Impossible Whopper to meatless chicken, seafood, and more, the options continue to grow. This is a trend that isn’t likely to go away any time soon. In fact, “plant-based innovation” was named as one of the top three food trends for 2020. )
Many celebrities have also made being vegan a trendy thing to do. Some famous contemporary vegans include Brad Pitt, Ariana Grande, Woody Harrelson, Billie Eilish, Miley Cyrus, Alicia Silverstone, Ellen Pompeo, Travis Barker, and Waka Flocka Flame.
Concern Over Epizootic Diseases
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought attention to the rise of epizootic diseases. This is an outbreak of sickness in the animal population that could extend to humans. Examples include avian influenza, swine fever, and foot-and-mouth disease.
Recently, a group of British doctors called for an end to factory farming as one way to prevent future pandemics. This is likely to spur even more people to step away from eating meat in 2020 and beyond.
What Do Vegans Eat?
When most people start exploring veganism, one of the first questions they ask is: “What do vegans eat?” If you’re anything like I was when I first started out, you might wonder how you’ll get enough protein. You might also be concerned about following all of the vegan “rules,” so you get it “right.”
Don’t worry, we’ll go through all the details. However, before we do, it’s also important to understand that you can choose to be as strict or lax as you want. Maybe you’ll dive right into being a full vegan, or maybe you’ll dabble a little bit to see whether it’s right for you. Instead of stressing yourself out too much, remember that each time you choose not to use an animal product, you’re making a difference.
That being said, here’s a simple list of things vegans don’t eat:
- Animal flesh (meat, poultry, seafood, shellfish, etc.)
- Dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc.)
In addition, vegans don’t eat anything that contains animal-derived ingredients. This includes gelatin, whey, pepsin, casein, albumin, carmine, shellac, and isinglass. Many foods contain hidden animal ingredients. Some examples include certain kinds of breakfast cereal, marshmallows, chewing gum, gummy candy, and certain types of beer and wine.
I can hear you thinking, “What else is left? What do vegans actually eat?” Well, the truth is, there’s a lot left! Some of the most common foods vegans consume include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes (beans, lentils, peas)
- Breads, pasta, rice
- Vegetable oils
- Dairy alternatives (almond milk, soymilk, coconut milk etc.)
You may have also heard the term “plant-based diet.” This is different from veganism. While vegans avoid all animal products, someone following a plant-based diet isn’t necessarily worried about this. Instead, their primary focus is on eating a diet that’s based on plants (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seeds, and nuts). They may or may not consume small amounts of animal products from time to time.
There are many other sub-diets that vegans practice. Some are healthier than others. A few terms you may hear include:
- 80/10/10 – a low-fat, raw vegan diet where 80% of calories come from carbs and no more than 10% each from fats and protein
- High-carb/low-fat (HCLF) – a whole-foods, plant-based diet that where 75-80% of calories come from carbs, and 10-15% each comes from fats and protein
- Raw – only eating vegan foods that are completely raw or heated to temperatures below 104 – 118 degrees Fahrenheit
- Oil-free – eating a vegan diet while also avoiding all forms of oil
Most of these came about as people looked for ways to make their diets even healthier and more effective. However, the problem with many of these vegan sub-diets is that they’re often overly restrictive. If the guidelines are misunderstood or adopted for the wrong reasons, it’s easy to suffer from malnourishment or other health problems. In addition, most of these eating trends have little to no strong scientific evidence to support the alleged health benefits.
If you’re planning to become a vegan, it’s best to stick with vegan basics and avoid the fads.
How to Tell if a Food or Product is Vegan
Once you’ve made the decision to go vegan, you’ll need to commit to doing some detective work. When I first started this way of eating, I didn’t realize how many different items contained animal products. If you’re really serious about veganism, you’ll want to examine everything from you food and beverages to soap, adhesives, and even the ink on labels.
Sometimes, the information is fairly straightforward. For example, a product that contains gelatins or beeswax clearly isn’t vegan. Other times, animal products are “hidden” behind terms you might not initially understand.
You can cover your bases by looking for a “certified vegan” logo or a label that says “suitable for vegans.” There are now also several phone apps you can download that will allow you to scan a product and immediately find out if it’s vegan.
What Happens When You Go Vegan?
If you do it in a healthy way, switching to a vegan diet will create positive physical and mental changes. However, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. If you were previously used to eating a lot of processed meats and/or junk food, there’s a possibility that you may feel worse before you feel better. Also, if your new diet isn’t nutritionally balanced, you may experience unpleasant side effects.
The First Few Weeks
Within the first few weeks of changing your diet, you may notice an energy boost. This is mostly due to the fact that you’ve increased your vitamin, mineral, and fiber levels. However, it’s also possible that you may feel tired and foggy.
It’s common for vegans to have choline and iodine deficiencies, since these nutrients are primarily found in eggs. This can negatively impact everything from your energy and metabolism to your memory and mood. You can combat this by eating vegetables that contain choline, like Brussles sprouts, broccoli, and sweet potatoes. I also suggest adding a bit of iodized table salt to your meals.
It’s also common to find that foods start to taste strange. Red meat is high in zinc, which is responsible for regulating your ability to taste. Consuming other sources of zinc – like kidney beans, chickpeas, tofu, mushrooms, kale, and whole grains should help you avoid this problem.
As you continue to eliminate processed foods and eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole foods, you’ll notice an improvement in your skin. The extra fiber you’re consuming will also improve your bowel function, so you’re likely to notice that your bowel habits become more regular. However, if you’re eating the same vegetables all the time – particularly broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage, then you may experience excess gas and bloating. Eating a wider range of vegetables and staying hydrated can both help to minimize these issues.
If you haven’t been consuming enough vitamin D, this is also the time when you might start to feel the negative effects. This nutrient is important for the health of your teeth, bones, and muscles. A deficiency has also been linked to serious health issues, including depression, migraines, heart disease, and cancer. If you’ve noticed signs of deficiency, like bone pain, muscle cramps, depression, or fatigue, you may want to consider taking a supplement.
Six Months and Beyond
Once you’ve been practicing veganism for six months to a year, your body will be used to getting whole foods and lots of nutrients. You’ll likely notice that you have more energy and you sleep better.
However, as you reach the one-year mark, you may start to suffer from some signs of B12 deficiency. This includes problems like memory issues, breathlessness, exhaustion, and tingling in the hands and feet. Long-term, you could also suffer from calcium deficiency. To maintain your health, it’s important to remember these common issues and combat them either by maintaining a well-balanced diet or taking supplements.
Will You Lose Weight on a Vegan Diet?
If you’ve been paying attention to some of the vegan celebrities, you may think that a vegan diet is a magic ticket to weight loss. After all, how can you not lose weight if all you eat is fruits and vegetables? It seems like a quick and easy solution, which many people are looking for.
However, going vegan won’t automatically lead to weight loss. There are plenty of mistakes you can make that will keep you from reaching your ideal weight. This includes not eating enough protein, failing to watch your portion sizes, eating plant-based junk food, and drinking too many calories.
If you follow a healthy vegan diet, there’s a good chance you’ll lose weight. This is due to a simple concept known as calorie-density. Basically, 100 calories of cheese or meat takes up far less space than 100 calories of fruits and vegetables. Eating 100 calories of produce will fill you up, leave you feeling far more satisfied, and provide your body with far more nutrients. A healthy vegan diet is also high in soluble fiber. This helps to keep you full for longer, so you’ll naturally consume fewer calories.
It’s also important to note that a vegan diet doesn’t have to lead to weight loss. In fact, there are many vegan athletes and bodybuilders who have no problem building muscle while following a vegan meal plan.
Benefits of Going Vegan
Protecting the planet and improving your health are two of the primary reasons that people decide to adopt a vegan lifestyle. But — does going vegan really make a difference? Let’s take a closer look at the impact veganism can have on your life and the world around you.
If you decide to practice veganism, you’ll start making an impact on the environment almost immediately. Raising animals for food requires a huge amount of water, land, food, and energy. The byproducts of this also create contaminants that pollute both our waterways and the air we breathe.
The benefits of adopting a vegan diet include cutting greenhouse gas emissions, preserving habitats and species, conserving water, and using less energy from fossil fuels. In fact, researchers at the University of Oxford found that eliminating meat, dairy, and eggs from your diet could reduce your food carbon footprint by as much as 73%.
We briefly touched on this earlier, but it’s worth repeating – a vegan diet isn’t automatically healthy! A candy bar and a cola may be vegan, but they’re not good for you. If you’re adopting a vegan lifestyle for the health benefits, it’s important to eat a healthy, balanced diet that’s mostly made up of whole foods. This will provide you with plenty of nutrients and create awesome health benefits, like:
- Lower risk of cardiovascular disease
- Improved kidney function
- Lower blood sugar levels
- Lower chance of developing diabetes
- Protection against certain cancers (colorectal, breast, prostate)
- Reduced arthritis pain
If you’re considering veganism for compassionate reasons, simply knowing that you’re making an impact can also support your mental health.
While it’s entirely possible to eat an extremely healthy vegan diet, it’s not always easy. You have to consciously make efforts to ensure your diet is balanced and avoid malnutrition. This means that you’ll need to do your research, learn about your nutritional needs, and pay attention to what you’re eating.
Consider your personal health, your lifestyle, and your individual nutritional needs before making the decision to switch to veganism.
Is Being Vegan Expensive?
When I first started thinking about becoming a vegan, I was also concerned about how it was going to impact my budget. There are many fancy vegan products out there that make the lifestyle appear almost like an exclusive club. However, you’ll find that the bulk of the expensive products are processed “junk food” that aren’t healthy for you anyway.
Some of the healthiest vegans almost exclusively eat fruits and vegetables, beans, pasta, and rice. Guess what? These are some of the least expensive ingredients on the planet!
It took some trial and error before I figured out how to stretch my budget while eating vegan. Luckily, you don’t have to figure it out on your own. Here are some of my best recommendations for low-cost vegan eating:
- Cook at home
- Avoid pre-packaged ingredients
- Buy in bulk (ex. oats, rice, legumes, grains)
- Shop for in-season produce
- Buy canned foods (lentils, beans, tomatoes, vegetables)
- Buy frozen fruits and vegetables
- Visit your local farmer’s market
- Shop at vegan-friendly stores
- Keep your meals simple
You can also spend some time researching inexpensive vegan meals to make at home. There are many sources out there. I like to find 5-10 recipes I really enjoy and rotate them regularly. This way, I always have easy, inexpensive meals at my fingertips.
What Do People Mean By a “Vegan Lifestyle”?
Many people think that giving up things like steak, bacon, and cheese is the hardest part of being a vegan. However, there are other challenges that may surprise you. You see, being a vegan is about more than what you eat. Veganism is a lifestyle that often puts you at odds with the mainstream. As you start to look at things from a different perspective, you may feel distanced from those who aren’t living the same way.
Veganism can lead to social challenges that impact dating and romantic relationships, family dynamics, the way you behave at restaurants, parties, and other events, and more.
Some people won’t understand your choice. Some may even challenge you, trying to tell you that what you’re doing isn’t healthy or doesn’t really make a difference. If you’re serious about making a change, you’ll need to hold tight to your values and commit to sticking to them despite these challenges.
You can also take comfort in knowing that as veganism grows more popular, it’s also becoming more widely accepted. There’s a good chance that your friends and family may already know other vegans. They may have heard about the benefits, making them less likely to question your decision. Many restaurants now offer vegan options and asking for a veggie burger at a BBQ is no longer taboo.
Many would say that it’s easier to be a vegan now than ever. If you’ve been on the fence, this may be the perfect time to give it a try.
Is Being Vegan Right for You?
Deciding to become a vegan is an incredibly personal choice. If you’re’ not sure whether it’s right for you, start by examining your values. Think about the reasons why you’re considering making this lifestyle change.
If you have a strong compassion for animals and no longer want to contribute to the cruelty they suffer, then you already know veganism is a great choice. The next step is to figure out the best way to get started and begin taking the first steps.
Are you considering veganism for health reasons alone? If so, things become a bit more complex. You may find that you’ll do better by simply increasing the amount of vegetables you eat and reducing your meat consumption. This is a great first step, and, if it feels good, you can always continue moving closer to veganism in the future.
How to Start and Stay Vegan
If you’ve made it this far and you still want to try being a vegan – congratulations! You’re about to embark on a journey that will almost surely change your life, improve the planet, and reduce animal suffering. Knowing how to get started will make your transition easier. Here are some of the things I wish I had known when I was making the switch.
1. Start Slowly (Or Don’t)
There’s no one right way to start practicing veganism. Some people do best by slowly adding more produce and cutting out animal products over time. Others prefer to dive right in and make a 100% commitment right away. Think about which approach will work best for your personality and current lifestyle, then do what feels right.
2. Feel the Excitement
Remember that you’re embarking on an exciting new adventure! Get yourself pumped up to learn all about the world of veganism, nutrition, and a whole new way of cooking. Start finding some vegan influencers to follow on Facebook and Instagram, sign up for some food blog newsletters, or make a list of great vegan restaurants you want to try!
3. Get Your Mindset Right
If you really want to commit to something, it’s important to connect with your “why.” This is the driving force behind your decision to make the change in the first place. Take some time to really think about this and consider writing it down. This will help you regain your focus when things start to get tough.
4. Practice Makes Perfect
There are a ton of great vegan recipes for you to try. Some are easier to make than others, but practice makes perfect. If you don’t know how to cook the basics – like vegetables and beans – you won’t enjoy eating them. Don’t give up on the first try! Keep experimenting until you find foods and cooking methods you really enjoy.
5. Track Your Nutrients
A healthy vegan diet will leave you feeling both satisfied and nourished. You probably won’t have too much trouble getting the vitamins and nutrients you need or the proper amount of protein. However, you won’t really know unless you track your eating, at least at first. Once you get a good idea of what a healthy diet looks and feels like, you’ll be able to do it more organically.
6. Find Your Tribe
Despite growing acceptance, veganism can sometimes feel like a lonely journey. Consider looking for vegan groups either locally or on social media. If you can, plan to attend nearby vegan gatherings, festivals, or fairs. Put yourself out there and try to find some like-minded people you can relate to. Once you make some vegan friends, the lifestyle is far more comfortable.
7. Forgive Yourself
Changing your entire lifestyle isn’t easy, and there’s a good chance you’ll slip at least a few times. You might find that you’re tired, gassy, and hangry. In most cases, some simple adjustments will help you get back on track. However, you won’t be the first vegan to think about quitting (trust me, I know!).
Give your body and your mind some time to adjust. Don’t be too hard on yourself when things get tough — the struggle is real! It took me several tries to transition to a fully functioning vegan, but once I found my groove, I haven’t looked back. If you really want to, you can do it too!
When you slip (and you will!) quickly forgive yourself, remember your “why,” and don’t give up.