What I Struggled with when I Became Vegan
After years of helping people transition into a vegan diet. After seeing friends and family go through this change, experiencing my own, and seeing some people stick with it and some people go back to old ways, I can tell you this: no two experiences are alike! There are however certain common threads when it comes to that initial adjustment period, and the rest of the journey itself.
I've told you many times about all the wonderful things I experienced when I went vegan (here and here), I've shared all the physical vegan side effects I went through when I was transitioning, but only now and again have I mentioned the things that were harder for me, because of course no big change comes without its stumbles and lessons learned. Today I wanted to take you down my memory lane and share the things that I personally struggled with. I think in this new age of social media, where everything is filtered, and everyone seems to have it all together, we can sometimes feel a bit alone. We feel we're the only ones that might go through rough patches, moments of doubt, food cravings, feeling alone and disheartened. I'd love to be that little voice that stands over your shoulder, that tells you: "what you're feeling is normal, it has happened to me too, and there are so many things you can learn from this, and change, so that this ride is fun and as smooth sailing as possible".
So here are some of the things I struggled with when I was switching to a vegan diet, and the resources and tips that helped me along the way:
Re-learning how to build my plate
This can be so hard when your plate consisted of a big piece of meat, some potatoes and a salad or some green beans on the side like mine did. I've always loved vegetables, but they were always sides, meant to add a bit of green to a plate full of animal products (because my burgers always had meat and cheese, bacon, side of fries with cheese and bacon, milkshake when available- oh boy!). It can be very hard to even picture what a vegan plate is supposed to look like, let alone what a balanced plate of vegan food consists of.
I wish I could tell you I read all the books on nutrition, figured it out the hard way, consulted my doctor and read all the blogs.
The truth is I was a copy cat.
In my first week as a vegan, in which I was staring at an empty plate not quite sure what to add to it, I made the best decision I could make (to this day I have no clue how this idea came to me!), but I went online, looked for a couple of fully vegan restaurants I had heard of, and I went straight to the menu.
I can still remember my Candle 79 aha moment. By looking at the menus of these great restaurants, I realized I could make veggie burgers, or bowls that were made up of a grain, a bean, some veggies and a choice of sauce to pour all over it (pouring stuff on stuff works am I right?!).
I discovered that a plate of vegan food simply meant I could make all my favorites but with vegan ingredients. For example, shepherd's pie could be made with lentils, burgers could have a veggie patty instead of a meat based one, spaghetti bolognese could be made with crumbled tempeh, chopped mushrooms or chopped seitan, lasagna could be made with crumbled tofu and some spinach for a scrumptious tofu ricotta filling. I started looking at the menus of wonderful chefs who knew how to pair things just right, and I started learning about combinations, pairings, and suddenly my creativity took off. Most importantly, my blank plate staring days were over! I now understood what a plate of vegan food could look like. I can also remember the huge aha moment when I thought of things like bean burritos, stuffed baked potatoes, hummus and veggie wraps. the simple dishes I loved which I was already making very close to their vegan form and which just needed some tweaking.
Another thing that really helped was realizing that a meal could look exactly the same as it once did, or completely different! A balanced meal could be a bean taco with all the fixings, or a veggie bowl with lots of toppings, something magical and so easy to make that had never been a part of my life until I went vegan.
Here's a little video we made for our friends at Vegan Outreach on how to assemble a great veggie bowl, the meal that made vegan cooking so much easier for me in the beginning:
Re-learning how to build a nutritiously balanced plate
After I found my sea legs and was no longer staring at empty pans and plates, and after I had found a few great cookbooks and I felt I knew how to create some of my favorites, vegan style, the question of how to get all the nutrients I needed really worried me. Why? because there were so many podcasts, blogs, books, and experts recommending all sorts of different things.
It can get confusing fast, not to mention stressful when you're suddenly wondering if you have to remove oils from your diet, or go gluten free, whether soy is good or bad. We'll talk about this further down the list but here's what got me out of the rabbit hole, eating with confidence and without stressing out about it.
I found the plant plate:
The plant plate is the vegan equivalent to the food pyramid, but done in such a perfect, easy to follow and visual way. Created by registered dietitian Virginia Messina, this is a visual guide that explains what you should be trying to include in your meals to get all the nutrients you need. It's not meant to be a rigid guideline, you don't need to count grams or portions, it's just useful as a visual to keep in mind, and help you remember that you need to include lots of calcium rich greens, get lots of protein (and the many ways in which you can get it, from a pb and j sandwich to a veggie burger or some beans, and even a glass of soy milk). It also gives you the essentials on supplementing, like getting some sun on your skin, taking vitamin B12, cooking with iodized salt, omega 3 sources and more.
After I found this, the struggle and the mixed messages I was seeing left and right, as well as all that nutritional confusion just went away. I knew that it wasn't complicated at all, and that I had a reliable guide, made by health experts and based on scientific research, that I could check back on when I felt I needed to.
You can learn how to read it and use it here!
Not knowing what to supplement
It's a well known fact that as vegans we need to supplement vitamin B12 and that this is a non-negotiable, but after that initial phase of reading every book you can find, watching every vegan documentary and reading every vegan blog out there (because no, you're not alone if this has happened to you and all your netflix recommends now are food documentaries), new questions regarding supplementation start worrying us. What if I don't eat the same way every day? How can I make sure that I'm getting everything I need? Some people recommend a multivitamin, some people don't. Some say we need to supplement omega 3s occasionally, others say having daily flaxseeds and walnuts is enough. What is a new vegan to do?!
This question plagued me and it has been the breaking point for many ex vegans I know, where the fear of not getting enough nutrients starts taking a life of its own.
After lots of researching I loved finding one reliable source when it came to vegan nutrition. The first step was making sure I was eating a varied diet, basing my meals around the Plant Plate (see above), and this all meant I would be covering most of my bases with the food I ate. Then came B12 supplementation as well (this is necessary for vegans).
For other nutrients, the main resources that helped me figure out what I needed were:
- The book Vegan for Her by Virginia Messina and JL Fields
- The book Vegan for Life by Jack Norris and Virginia Messina
- Getting regular blood work done. I can't stress how helpful this is in easing your mind when it comes to nutrition. Getting regular checkups and having your doctor test the levels of different nutrients, your hormone levels and a standard blood test will do wonders to help you see if there's any particular nutrient you might be lacking or need to supplement. I get regular check ups and blood tests, and what mostly happens is my levels are even better than before I went vegan. When a level is on the lower side (usually iron for me since I've struggled with anemia since I was a teenager), I do a cycle of supplementation under my doctor's supervision, and then I go back to just focusing on my diet. This is just one specific example, for you this might be vitamin D, omega 3s, or nothing at all!
There's absolutely nothing wrong with needing to supplement specific nutrients, and this should always be done with the supervision of your doctor. For our favorite plant-based doctor directories, nutritionists you can consult and resources regarding vegan nutrition, you might also love our vegan library of resources which you can access with the big button at the end of this post!
Not knowing if the physical changes I was going through were normal
Because for most of us the change to a plant-based diet feels like such a huge shift, any small or big change we experience in our body can sometimes cause concern or worry, and many of these are totally normal and experienced by almost all new vegans! This is the case for increased gas or more frequent trips to the bathroom due to the extra intake of fiber (which is a great thing!), Some people experience boosts in energy, some feel lethargic because they're not consuming enough calories. There are so many things to discuss when it comes to the side effects you might experience when transitioning to a vegan diet, that I wrote a whole post dedicated to these issues. You can find our vegan side effects post here, and of course if any uncomfortable or unusual symptoms persist or are causing you worry, pay a visit to your doctor.
Seeing old friends who weren't as supportive with that "vegan thing"
You've probably heard me talk about this one many times before in this blog and in our podcast, because the social aspects of being vegan were THE HARDEST part of going vegan for me.
Forget cheese or bacon, or the endless steaks on the grill I was no longer having, it was coming out of the vegan closet, and having to share with my friends (aka my old barbecue buddies because that's basically ALL we did together!) that I would no longer be eating animal products.
It was hard because I was completely unprepared for the reaction I got from some people, and if you've been the recipient of a few jokes, endless questions and sometimes even anger, you know what I'm talking about. It's here where I want to spend a bit of time because this can feel so discouraging. It can feel lonely and tough to suddenly have the food spotlight on you at dinner parties and social events, but it doesn't have to be. Had I known then what I know now and will try to help you with, this part of my transition would have gone much smoother.
The secret to being a happy social vegan, even when no one around you is vegan, is confidence. Confidence is what I lacked in the beginning, and as most difficult things in life, veganism was my biggest mirror and teacher when it came to the fact that I was in deep need of a self-confidence boost in many areas of my life.
When people ask me what the greatest thing being vegan has brought to my life is, I always say three things: I've loved helping animals, I love the food, and it gave me more self confidence than I ever had in my life! Coming from a childhood where I was often times the odd one out, and felt embarrassed by it, this was life changing.
It was life changing but it was also extremely hard! I now had to speak up at dinner parties when someone asked me questions or offered me something that wasn't vegan, I had people joke around and ask me those mean "I'm going to get you" questions that at first I wasn't experienced enough to answer. I would sometimes feel like a little kid at the end of a neverending Alice and Wonderland tea table with everyone staring at me as I had to answer questions. You wouldn't believe it now after watching our courses or youtube videos, but I'm actually extremely shy and a huge introvert! You would never guess it now, because that was the gift that veganism gave me. It made me assertive, it taught me how to laugh at myself, and it taught me how being me, even if that's different from anyone else (as it always has been in my case), was more than alright... it was awesome!
It all started with confidence.
Easier said than done right? The only way through it was going through it. Making mistakes. Answering three questions in a very weird way until I knew exactly what my perspective on the issue was, not only what I had read in books. It took sticking with it and showing people that I was still the same person, only now I was much happier and calmer with the choices I was making at the table. I still joked around, I could still eat with my friends when they were eating differently than I was, I focused on making people delicious vegan treats, and soon, I went from being their previously hardcore carnivore friend doing "that vegan thing", to their vegan friend that made them the best chocolate cake on this planet. Everything can be solved with vegan chocolate cake (wink!).
Going to big social engagements, i.e. weddings, holiday gatherings, etc.
Once I had those smaller social events down and felt very comfortable, the big ones remained. The ones where you might be a guest in a larger event, where people are very used to having their traditions when it comes to food. What then? These types of events were hard for me in the beginning. Especially when I was going through a particularly busy wedding season.
The thing that helped me the most was being a proud and open vegan. Meaning, by then everyone knew that I didn't eat animal products, and they were so gracious to always have a vegan meal for us at weddings! When it came to holiday gatherings, I would always offer to help and make some of the dishes vegan, and I would also host my own 100% vegan holiday parties that people loved and enjoyed no matter what their diet was. When it comes to holiday gatherings, I share some great tips for enjoying the holiday season as a vegan in this video, and many of these tips will apply to lots of social gatherings:
I always find it surprising that very few vegan bloggers discuss cravings. This can make people feel that having cravings means you've lost the battle, that you're moments away from quitting, or that there's something wrong with you. Even after witnessing the horrors of the animal agriculture system, and feeling that I could never eat an animal product again, I still sometimes missed the taste of certain familiar foods. For some people this is cheese, for me it was sunny side up eggs and a bagel with smoked salmon. This is normal! Imagine spending your whole life eating one way, and then completely changing it, in my case over the course of just a few weeks. It's normal to miss certain foods, textures, and experiences with food.
What's important is that you make sure that your taste buds are always satisfied and also having fun. Veganism is sometimes confused with a perfectly pure clean eating diet. That's a diet. That's not what vegan means and that's not what healthy eating necessarily means either. You can have a healthy diet, while making sure you're feeling satisfied. When I felt the most massive cravings for non-vegan foods (ironically not at the beginning of my transition but about 4 years in), was right after I had fallen trap to the perfection diet trend, I was restricting much more than I had to, and cravings for non-vegan foods started arriving left and right. Make sure you're including plenty of foods that are satisfying and that you love. This can include vegan mock meats or cheeses, it can include dessert and crunchy textures. This can include really healthy whole foods, and also delicious treats and play foods. I find that when I include great variety in my diet, focusing not only on getting the nutrients I need but also on enjoyment, pleasure and making my favorites, I eat mindfully, enjoy every bite and keep my diet as balanced as it has ever been. Surprise surprise, my cravings went away when I went from a deprivation mindset, to a "I can have what I enjoy" mindset. Interesting right?
Feeling confused with the countless "mini vegan diets" out there
Since I come from a place of having had a messy relationship with food growing up, the mini vegan diets I started seeing all over the place made me crazy around food. When I thought oil was good for you then I would find a resource that would say you had to get rid of them. Other clean eating diets told me I wasn't supposed to touch any processed foods and reduce starches, a week later I would find that starches were basically going to save our planet from the apocalypse. Then I would hear vegan meats would help raise my protein intake, then I would hear raw was the key.
This is not veganism, and in my opinion it can do more harm than good.
It's what I call superhero eating syndrome, and many of us catch it in the beginning stages of our veganism.
This little "condition" is what I've seen time and time again as the reason why so many people stop being vegan, a way of eating that would have been much more healthier when sticking to it long term as opposed to just a few weeks of clean eating perfection.
Vegan means vegan. It means eating normal foods that include plant-based alternatives as opposed to animal-based ones. It means you can have a balance of natural whole foods, and treat foods too. That you can take advantage of the amazing substitutions that make you feel satiated and happy, and also learn how to include many more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes into your diet, that perhaps you weren't eating before.
The day I relaxed about the way I was eating, was the day my long messy relationship with food changed, my health started shining, and my love of this lifestyle grew even more. We're in the era of the food phobia, and I'm on a mission to bring it back down to basics, so you can feel normal, and help the animals, our health and our planet along the way.
Talking about vegan issues with non-vegans
When we go vegan we're like a little kid learning how to ride a bike for the first time. It's new, it's a little scary, we're going to stumble, and you're not an expert just because your dad already bought you the bike.
Although most people will assume you got an overnight PhD in nutrition, animal rights, environmental conservation, philosophy and eating psychology, you're just you! I promise that although in the beginning these questions might catch you off guard, you might not know what to say, or you might make a mistake, you'll start gaining knowledge with time and especially experience.
What you can do to ease everything in the beginning is say this:
"I'm not an expert, but what I can tell you is this is why I made the choice, and this is how I've felt along the way..."
It also changes the world in a very cool way when you say things like: "I don't know", or "I can't really remember, but I can send you some information if you'd like". Or "all I know is this.." It's ok to admit that we don't have all the answers, and as time goes by, you'll gain more confidence and knowledge too.
Dealing with the hard images and information I had seen regarding animal suffering
If you've gone through this transition because of ethical reasons like I have, it can be so hard to deal with the images that are probably now stuck in your head forever. I've been there. I have images from Earthlings that will never ever leave me. These images are hard and painful to watch. What I always say to myself is this: that image, that video, that animal suffering, made me make this choice and help another animal. It's horrifying, it's sad, and it's unbelievably painful to see that we, as vegans, are just a minority. For now that is! Because things are changing in leaps and bounds.
I know how hard it is to be a witness, so treat yourself with plenty of love and compassion before and after watching these images, if indeed you decide to do so. For some of us this step isn't necessary. For some people who are vegan, it isn't necessary to go back there again if you chose to watch them once upon a time. For me these images were necessary. For others, reading about the issues is a less harsh way to approach this subject. Only you know what is right for you and only you know your boundaries. This means only you can make this choice.
If continuing to watch images is traumatizing you, stop. If they helped you make this change like they did with me, thank them, take care of your emotional self before and after, and live your life. Fill yourself up with plenty of positive images too. Of animals free in nature and in sanctuaries, of videos that show they're just like us or our dogs and cats. These images give me back all the hope that the others took away, and the others helped me go vegan. I always knew my limits and boundaries when it came to this, so honor and respect yours too.
Saying the words "I am vegan"
The big Kahuna!
This was so hard for me to say when I first got started on this journey. I remember saying things like "I'm veggie", "I'm vegetarian", "I don't eat meat". All of these things are true, but what was even truer is that I was afraid of putting a label on the way I ate, and I was afraid of being the weirdo. I was afraid that in Spain, where I've been living since I went vegan, no one would even know what that meant.
All I can say, without a doubt, is that the moment I started saying it proudly, things started getting SO MUCH EASIER! There was no confusion when friends picked a restaurant, or when someone invited us to their house. People in most restaurants knew what that meant, and when they didn't, it gave me so many chances to practice explaining it!
If you are vegan, the word has so much meaning. It can help inspire others, it can help explain what you eat with a simple word, it can help your local restaurants put the word on menus, which in turn inspires others to think that this change is indeed possible. I love the word vegan, and we'll be talking more about it soon, when we discuss labels and identity.
I hope my struggles help you on your journey, and I hope that it's filled with lessons learned, with a deeper understanding of yourself, a deeper love for animals and our planet, and of course, delicious vegan food and a healthy body that goes with you on all your adventures.