Veganism for Beginners
So you’ve heard the term “vegan” being thrown around in the media, especially within the past year or two. Whether you are familiar with the jist of things, or have no clue what this word even means, veganism is gaining more popularity as celebrities and models are taking on this dietary plan which is causing it to be talked about more and more through various social media outlets. I’m here to help those of you who are interested in this lifestyle learn more about the topic and encourage those who possess even the slightest interest in health and nutrition to keep reading! Having the right knowledge is the most important thing when it comes to your health.
What is it?
As defined in the Merriam-Websters dictionary, a vegan is a “person who does not eat any food that comes from animals and who often also does not use animal products (such as leather)”. No beef, pork, chicken, cheese, yogurt, fish, eggs, cream, gelatin, milk or any other animal product. It is often discussed that vegans do not consume honey either. There is much debate over whether or not honey is consumed by real vegans, as you may read more about in this article by Jo Stepanik of VegSource.com.
Where should you start?
Transitioning to veganism can be extremely overwhelming. Some find it no problem to go vegan cold turkey, but others have a bit more trouble. If you don’t think you’ll be able to do a complete 180 overnight, I suggest trying to start small. Replace your coffee creamer with soy milk or almond milk. Avoid sprinkling that cheese atop your lunchtime salad. Make a delicious marinara sauce without the meat and substitute mushrooms or other vegetables instead.
Veganism is not about giving anything up or losing anything; it is about gaining the peace within yourself that comes from embracing nonviolence and refusing to participate in the exploitation of the vulnerable. -Gary Francione
Once you begin to gradually cut meat and dairy products out of your daily diet, it will become easy, and you’ll naturally avoid these products. That being said, if you think you’re able to go 100% vegan at the flip of the switch, do it! There’s nothing more exciting than jumping head first into something you wholeheartedly believe in. If you’re passionate about your health and the health of the planet, and think that veganism is the right path for you, it will be easy to adopt this lifestyle.
Know the Types: Ethical vs. Dietary
Make sure you are choosing this lifestyle for the right reasons. Unlike how it is portrayed in the media, becoming a vegan is not an automatic way of getting skinny or a temporary fad diet. It is a complete lifestyle choice that will affect your daily social and personal life. It’s key to note the difference between ethical and dietary vegans as well. The term ‘ethical vegan’ is used to describe an individual who not only follows a vegan diet for personal health reasons, but one who does not eat, wear or buy any animal products due to the cruelty that the animals endure throughout the process. Meanwhile, a ‘dietary vegan’ is one who follows a vegan diet but does not necessarily refrain from wearing leather, fur, or any other animal product. Also, it is possible that the reasoning behind a dietary vegan’s choice to eat this way may be purely associated with health or other personal reasons, and may not be focused as much on the well-being of the animals.
A plant-based diet, exactly how it sounds, is a diet based off of plants. Now, it is up to the individual on what type of vegan diet to follow, but for me personally, a plant-based vegan diet makes me feel the best. That is one without processed carbohydrates (bread, crackers, chips), refined sugars (white sugar, brown sugar, cane syrup, brown rice syrup, soda), low in fats such as oil, and without most alcohol. I realize that this is quite difficult for some people, and that is ok, too. It’s a personal choice and every person knows their body the best. My advice is to do whatever makes you feel greatest. For me, that is eating mostly fruits and vegetables, some whole grains (I love banana oatmeal for breakfast), some organic tofu, legumes and some nuts and seeds.
It is easy to go to the grocery store and look through the “alternative meat” section and buy imitation chicken nuggets, fake meat sausages and non-dairy cheese. But it is important to read the ingredients of some of these products. Many of them contain just as much processed ingredients as animal products do (fun fact: Oreos are technically vegan, but just because there are no animal products in them does not make them healthy!) Keep that in mind when you’re shopping for you or your family.
Your Grocery List
Technically, becoming vegan all begins at the grocery store. The produce section of the market will be your main point of interest, opposite of the deli and meat counter. Go to the grocery store with a plan and come home with nutritious and wholesome food that you can feel comfortable eating. Some of my favorite vegan staples are: bananas, sweet potatoes, spinach, raw cashew milk, avocado, cauliflower rice, almonds, whole oats, frozen blueberries, dried mangos, apples, chick peas (garbanzo beans), tomatoes, brazil nuts, and dates. Visit the FOOD tab to see tons of vegan recipe ideas, too! Although you may think it is limiting, there are endless vegan recipes readily available on the internet that are absolutely delicious and good for you, too. In addition, I have found that reading ingredients lists has made a huge difference in what I buy at the store.
Get a Blood Test
Some of my family and others close to me were concerned that I was not getting the proper amounts of essential vitamins and minerals on a vegan diet. So, I took it upon myself to call my doctor and order a blood test to measure my vitamin levels (specifically Vitamin D, B12, and Iron) as well as my Cholesterol, kidney and liver functioning. Taking care of your body is a serious matter, so I suggest monitoring your vitamin levels via blood test at least once a year to make sure you are receiving the right nutrients. That being said, if you are eating the proper servings of fruit, leafy greens, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fats, there should be no problems. My cholesterol has decreased 50 points since going vegan, and my liver, kidney and vitamin levels are all within the normal range!
Oils and Fats and Sugars, Oh My!
Oil. Fat. Sugar. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that these three things aren’t the best for you, and just because food is labeled vegan, does not mean it is free of fats, sugar or oil. This is where many new vegans and vegetarians get distracted, as there are so many non-dairy and non-meat food options that are available in grocery stores and restaurants. However, these alternatives are not necessarily the best for you. Filled with sneaky oils and sugar, it is key to read the ingredient labels of foods that are claimed to be vegan in the stores. In addition, various vegan restaurants and bakeries use margarine, egg-replacers, Xantham gum, and several other unnatural ingredients in their foods that can pack on the pounds if you aren’t careful. Some natural and raw foods that contain what you know as “healthy fats” are nuts, nut butters and avocado, in addition to fruits which contain natural sugar. With these natural foods even, you must be cautious and careful about how much you consume. It is easy to overdo the nuts and nut butters as these are high calorie foods that can pack on pounds quick.
But what about your protein…
The age old question… where do vegans get their protein? Well, the truth is that essentially all plant-based foods contain some sort of protein. There is a wealth of information about protein and the vegan diet. To make a long story short: it is easy to meet the standard recommendations for protein as long as you are consuming enough varied, nutrient dense calories. Essentially, there is no such thing as being “protein deficient” if you are consuming enough calories to keep your energy levels sustained and stomach feeling satisfied. In addition, protein is made up of 20 amino acids, 10 of which are called “essential amino acids” that our bodies cannot produce on our own, but can be easily obtained by eating a vegan diet. Only about 10% of our daily calorie intake needs to be from protein.
Plant protein can meet requirements when a variety of plant foods is consumed and energy needs are met. Research indicates that an assortment of plant foods eaten over the course of a day can provide all essential amino acids and ensure adequate nitrogen retention and use in healthy adults, thus complementary proteins do not need to be consumed at the same meal. – Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009
America is so focused on getting enough protein because we are taught from a young age that lean meats, eggs, yogurt and various other products are a good source of the nutrient. The meat and dairy industry has capitalized on this idea, which has caused the western diet to be too focused on these products. After all, if everyone knew that only 10% of your calories need to come from protein, and that every cell in our body actually runs on glucose and NOT protein, the meat and dairy industry wouldn’t make as much money. Plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, legumes, grains, yeast and various fruits and vegetables contain enough protein for any person to thrive off of. For more information on veganism and protein visit peta.org.
Ignoring the Stereotypes
There are so many arguments, books, diet fads, statements, journal articles, organizations and even doctors out there who have reasons as to why humans should consume meat, dairy, and other animal products. Their reasons may seem legitimate and valid to some, but there is no denying that a heavily plant-based diet is good for your health and even better for the animals and the planet. Veganism, although it is getting there, is not mainstream, which is why vegans often encounter negative attitudes and loads of questions regarding their lifestyle. Being confident and exuding compassionate positivity is what this lifestyle is all about. Instead of responding to probes and questions with hostility, respond to those in opposition with educational, thoughtful answers. Kindness has always been my strongest ammunition, and although it may be difficult at times to not let the ridicule or judgment get to you, stay true to what you think its right.
It’s also helpful to get involved in the vegan community. Whether you attend meet-ups in person, and go to vegan food festivals or find helpful material online and connect with individuals through social media, the vegan community is robust and supportive. If you’re feeling isolated in this lifestyle change, reach out to those around you and you might be pleasantly surprised at the reactions you get from peers.
I appreciate you all for reading and am excited that you have decided to learn more about this lifestyle. Below are some helpful links for new vegans, and please comment below or send me an email if you have specific questions! XO