Table Of Contents
- A Note on Willpower
- Lay Your Foundation First
- Where to Start & How Fast to Go
- What to Expect When Going Vegan
- Know Your Nutrition
- Grocery Shopping for Vegan Food
- Don’t Give Up & Remember Your Why
If you’re seeking help with going vegan, you’ve already done the hardest part: making the decision! While it’s perfectly natural to feel overwhelmed and even intimidated with the “nuts and bolts” of how to go vegan, reaching the point of understanding why you should go vegan—and actually deciding to take action—is by far the most challenging step. Going vegan is the easy part!
This page provides some guidance to help you get started on your vegan journey with confidence.
The most important aspect of going vegan isn’t your meal plan—it’s your “why”. If you have a clear reason for why you want to go vegan—and connect with it fully—going and staying vegan is not a challenge. No one can tell you your “why” but you. If you go vegan for someone else, you’re more likely to go back to eating and using animals eventually.
This decision has to come from within yourself, and tied to something genuine. Veganism then becomes integrated into your core values, rather than viewed as some “diet” you’re trying. In the beginning, it may even be helpful to write down your “why” and keep it in your pocket or wallet to remind yourself. You can also choose an object or piece of jewelry that signifies your “why” to keep as a reminder. These suggestions may sound silly, but we humans tend to connect with concrete and tactile things over concepts—in moments of doubt, having something solid and tangible can make a huge difference.
There are an infinite number of ways to be a vegan when it comes to dietary choices. A vegan diet simply means not eating anything of animal origin. Beyond that, it’s a free-for-all. Your veganism doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. No two vegans are alike—just like no two people are alike.
While the diversity of choices for eating vegan is a great thing, it can be overwhelming when trying to determine where—and how—to start. The most basic and sustainable approach to transitioning to a vegan diet is straight substitution. This approach is just what it sounds like: take your normal meals and make them vegan!
When it comes to the question of how “fast” to go, using straight substitution is a way of going fully vegan “overnight” without the “shock” of a massive dietary change. I’ve heard from a lot of people who attempt to go from a junk food diet—akin to the Standard American Diet—to a “high raw” vegan, living off of only carrots and wheatgrass juice. Unsurprisingly, they fall back into consuming animal products. Going vegan wasn’t the problem—it was making such a dramatic shift, and not consuming adequate calories and nutrition. That’s not a realistic transition, nor a sustainable way of eating.
Outside of not consuming enough food, what often pulls people back to their old ways of eating is comfort, habit, and emotional ties. Food is very powerful culturally and emotionally. Certain dishes may have a powerful draw for you due to your upbringing or experiences you’ve had around those meals. Taste and smell can evoke emotions and memories in an instant.
Going fully vegan all at once doesn’t have to be a jarring experience. By substituting what you currently eat with vegan alternatives, you can go vegan all at once, rather than in “stages”, and still have the comfort of routine and familiarity.
As you progress in your vegan journey, you may want to branch out into some new and different foods and ways of eating, whether for health and nutritional reasons, or to experience something new. This won’t be true for everyone, of course—if you’re comfortable with your vegan diet the way it is, stick with it!
Change can be scary! Knowing what to expect in advance provides some stability and assurance. While no two vegan journeys are the same, this section covers some of the potential physical and emotional experiences you may have while going vegan.
It’s truly impossible to tell you what you will experience physically when going vegan. First of all, there is no one “vegan diet.” Veganism simply defines what (or, more accurately, whom) you don’t eat—not what you do eat.
The physical effects of eating a whole-foods, organic, produce-heavy vegan diet are likely to be different than a vegan junk food diet. Additionally, your individual health status, conditions and history impact the way your body will respond.
When switching to a vegan diet, many people do experience an increase in energy, improved digestion, a clearer complexion, less body odor, faster recovery after exercise, and more. However, it is extremely important to note that such health benefits are not guaranteed. everyone’s experience is different. The myriad of variables involved are beyond the scope of this (or, I’d argue, any) guide.
The one universal change you can expect from a dietary aspect is consuming fewer animal products, since you won’t be eating any. While this may seem like a silly thing to include, it’s important to remember that animal products are a “package” deal.
When eating a plant-based vegan diet, you can expect to consume consume no dietary cholesterol, animal protein, body secretions, antibiotics, pus, blood, or poop (although that last one may be a gamble depending on how your produce is grown).
Plant foods are the only foods with fiber, a disease-fighting nutrient of which an astounding 97% of Americans don’t get enough.1 If you include produce in your diet, you’ll also be eating more antioxidants, phytonutrients, hydrating foods, vitamins and minerals.
I do want to re-emphasize that you can craft your vegan diet in whatever way works for you. If health is not a high priority with you, there’s plenty of vegan junk food choices—after all, the animals don’t care what you eat, as long as it’s not them!
Any life change can produce strong emotions, and going vegan is no exception. On the purely dietary side of things, you may experience some withdrawal-type symptoms or even “grieve the loss” of your favorite dishes. Food is deeply tied to our emotional memory and our cultural and familial traditions.
The good news is that you can “veganize” all of your favorite dishes! Even if you’re not much of a chef, the list of vegan ready-made alternatives continues to grow and increase in availability.
On a more profound level, you may experience some emotional upheaval when coming to terms with what you’ve been supporting your whole life.
It’s natural to become overwhelmed as you start to come face-to-face with the horrors of the animal products industry—the brutalization of sentient beings, the destruction of the environment, the health impact upon yourself, friends, and family, the diversion of global food and water resources. It’s a lot to take in, to say the least.
You may become frustrated with yourself that you didn’t go vegan sooner—but it’s important to acknowledge that you have made the choice to take action now. It’s never too late to change—your story will be a powerful testament to others who feel they’ve waited too long.
For more in-depth guidance on what to expect emotionally, from navigating the transition, to overcoming social challenges, please see the dedicated post “What to Expect Emotionally When Going Vegan.”
One of the most exciting things you can expect from going vegan is to finally be living in line with your values. I think it’s safe to say that most people love animals, but continue to consume and exploit them. When we live in a way that conflicts with our values, it takes a toll—whether we’re aware of it or not.
We must maintain a severe disconnect deep within ourselves in order to be able to love our cats and dogs while we pay others to enslave, torture and kill pigs, cows, and chickens for us. It doesn’t make sense, and leads to the absurd objections we throw around when confronted with the discontinuity. The bare truth is that we don’t want to face our actions.
The same is true of environmentalism. Many people want to be environmentally-conscious. They recycle, take shorter showers, even drive hybrid cars. But nothing makes nearly as large an impact on the planet as what we eat.
We all want to think of ourselves as good people. But when we are contributing to the murder of innocent beings, the destruction of the planet, the diversion of food and resources, and the endangerment of our society’s health as a whole, we have to do some pretty intense mental gymnastics to preserve this concept of ourselves.
When you go vegan you’ll have peace of mind knowing that you’re finally living your values. As Franz Kafka said while viewing fish in an aquarium,
“Now I can look at you in peace; I don’t eat you any more.”— Franz Kafka
You can go to sleep every night knowing that no one had to die for your meal. That no blood was shed on your account. That you’ve made the most impactful, incredible decision of your life. That is what you can expect.
Nutrition is one of the most common concerns for new and potential vegans. There is a widespread misconception that it’s difficult to impossible to get adequate nutrition on a vegan diet. The truth is that a balanced whole-plant-foods-based diet can have a profoundly positive impact on your health—even preventing and reversing the #1 killer worldwide: heart disease.2
While a vegan diet can definitively be nutritionally sufficient and health-promoting, it’s important to note that “vegan” does not equal “healthy” by default. As mentioned earlier in this guide, there is an astounding array of vegan junk foods available: ethically sound, yes—but nutritionally, not so much. This is not to say that vegan treats have no place in a healthy lifestyle—just that their vegan status should not be taken as a synonym for balanced nutrition.
Unfortunately, one of the greatest barriers to understanding vegan nutrition is wading through the staggering amount of misinformation and disinformation. Even with a cursory search, it doesn’t take long to start finding directly conflicting advice. Always be vigilant in assessing the source of any nutritional information. There are plenty of cases of nutritional studies, governmental recommendations, and even independent bloggers tailoring their content to industry and corporate influences.3
A great place to start is the Vegan Nutrition Concerns series, which addresses head-on the common nutrient-specific concerns when transitioning to a vegan diet—including specific concerns for children—and touches upon the health impact of animal products. The series covers protein, B12, omega 3 fatty acids, iron, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, iodine, and even carnitine, creatine, and carnosine.
With all the noise and misinformation about nutrition, and the ever-cycling dietary trends and fads, these resources provide grounded information on ensuring proper nutrition on a vegan diet.
When you’re a brand new vegan, or attempting to go vegan, it can seem daunting to shop for food. Where do you find these elusive vegan items? What do all the crazy ingredients on labels mean? Why the heck are eggs and dairy in so many things unnecessarily?
It’s impossible to provide guidance that is totally universal, as every country, state, city, area, and even grocery store is different. This section addresses some of the general basics. These may not apply perfectly to your experience, depending on your location.
Usually, your best bet for vegan options—especially whole-food options—is to work the perimeter. Most stores are designed such that the outer perimeter houses the fresh produce and bulk sections. Not only is it cheaper to buy unpackaged bulk items, but you’re more likely to find vegan foods—and easily avoid sneaky ingredients.
Fruits and vegetables are an easy pick. They have one ingredient, so there’s no question about hidden animal-derived ingredients—except the wax on some fruits. Most grocers don’t have the information on which fruits are coated with beeswax or shellac rather than plant-derived wax. If you’re wanting to fully avoid potential animal-derived coatings, you can contact the farms individually and ask what they use. Or, if you’re in a position to, you can grow your own fruits and vegetables.
Bulk sections are another “safe zone” in that most of them only have one ingredient. Rice, oats, beans, et cetera. One thing to keep an eye out for is bulk granola, which can contain honey or milk-chocolate pieces.
Many larger grocery stores have a “natural” section of some sort. This is often where you can find vegan cheeses, meats, ice creams, yogurts, cream cheese, chips, and more—basically the vegan version of the rest of the grocery store. In other stores you’ll find the vegan cheese by the dairy cheese, the vegan milk by the dairy milk, the vegan meats by the flesh meats, et cetera. You’ll learn the layout of your store with time—don’t be afraid to ask for help.
One word of caution about “natural” sections—just because something is in the natural section, doesn’t mean it’s vegan. These sections also contain products with other distinctions, such as gluten-free, antibiotic-free, organic, et cetera—none of which mean they are vegan. Always check the ingredients to be sure—even meat-free does not mean vegan. Many Morningstar brand meat-free products, for example, contain eggs and dairy.
Vegan food isn’t as elusive as it may seem at first. In fact, you already buy and eat vegan food—ever had fruit? rice? beans? It’s even possible to find vegan options at a gas station—though I’d not recommend that as your primary source for groceries! Here are some of the options that may be in your area.
Despite the common misconception, eating vegan doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s even possible to eat vegan on $4 a day! As mentioned above, many vegan staples are incredibly affordable—especially when purchased in the bulk sections of stores—and cruising your local farmers’ markets, or connecting with a CSA can help cut down costs.
You can find more money-saving tips and content covering budgeting and accessibility in the Vegan On A Budget series.
If your circumstances are such that you’re struggling to afford or otherwise access healthy food, there may be resources available in your area. Many countries have governmental food assistance programs, and food pantries provide free food for community members in need. While it is again impossible to provide guidance that is totally universal, below are some guideposts and resources for finding assistance.
Resources for finding access to fresh food
- Ample Harvest (connecting local gardeners with food pantries in the US)
- Grow A Row (same concept in Canada)
- Learn About Food Deserts & Find Resources For Change from Food Empowerment Project
- A Well Fed World
- Brown Paper Bag Movement
- Philadelphia Community Gardens
- Detroit Area Community Gardens
- Chicago Community Gardens
- NYC Community Gardens
- Atlanta Community Gardens
- Urban Farming
The hardest part of being vegan is living in a non-vegan world. Becoming acutely and painfully aware of the extreme exploitation and cruelty all around you can be overwhelming, to say the least. You may struggle to explain your new path to friends and family. You may feel isolated and unsure of yourself. Don’t give up. You are not alone.
You can find guidance for navigating these moments, as well as common challenges for new vegans, such as dining out, socializing, dealing with friends and family, and finding hope and joy in difficult times on the Stay Vegan page (currently in development).
More than anything, it’s in these times of struggle and doubt, that it’s so very vital to remember your why. More than any tips and tricks anyone can offer, staying connected to why you’ve decided to go vegan will keep you grounded.
You may have lost the “comfort” of denial, but you’ve gained the comfort of knowing you no longer have to participate in and support horrific acts of violence, the destruction of our planet, and the diversion of global resources. The impact of your decision to go vegan reaches far beyond yourself.
Stay open. Keep learning. This is just the beginning.