25 June 2012

12 tips to get you started on a vegan path

Veganism is not easy.  Vegans face constant ridicule, derision and lecturing by perfect strangers, while at the same time facing the cravings, the constant need to check labels and the inability to go out to dinner with friends.  I’ve been through all of this and more in my 36 years of veganism.  So here are a few of my tips to help make life a little easier.

1. It’s not necessary to go cold turkey (so to speak).  If you’ve been eating a diet full of fatty meats and cheeses, with very few veggies, going vegan is going to be tough.  Gradually ridding your diet of animal products might be an option, but replace them with veggies, not more fatty foods. Start with the worst health offenders like burgers, processed meats and dairy.  You’ll notice a change in your health within days or weeks, which will give you incentive to make more change.  That being said, cutting out all animal products in one fell swoop will mean that you will only go through the withdrawals once, rather than over several months.

2. Junk food should be an occasional treat not a daily occurrence.  The current trend in veganism is to recreate the unhealthy, fatty fast foods and junk foods that make up the Standard American Diet (SAD).  These foods are very often devoid of veggies and just as unhealthy as the originals.  The only differences are that they’re vegan and more expensive.  Skip these foods.  The first three letters in vegan are veg.  That should be your guiding principle.

3. Don’t beat yourself up over your past.  When I first became vegan, there was no Internet, no Twitter, no Facebook.  What information I had came from books from my local library and from the employees at the organic market in my neighborhood.  I didn’t know that most beers at the time used isinglass, a substance made from fish bladders and used to clarify beer and wine.  I didn’t know this until I’d been vegan for nearly two decades.  It’s not on the labels, so even though I read everything carefully, there was no way for me to know it was being used.  That doesn’t make me less vegan, it makes the companies who produce these products deceptive cheats.  I consciously chose not to be involved in animal cruelty (I consider killing animals for human consumption a form of cruelty).  The beer manufacturers chose to lie to me to sell their product.  Now I don’t drink beer unless I absolutely know for sure that isinglass isn’t used.

4. Honey is not vegan but most sugars are. Honey is made for the purpose of feeding baby bees.   Humans take the honey and use it for themselves.  Here it is no different from cow’s milk. There are other sweeteners that are vegan such as agave syrup, brown rice syrup and maple syrup and will work equally as well.  On the other hand, sugar used to be filtered through bone char in order to make it whiter.  However, most companies no longer practice this.  Stay away from Domino Sugar though.  They still use bone char.

5. If you live in a glass house, don’t throw stones.  Way too often I hear both new and experienced vegans arguing against animal cruelty while wearing leather sandals (“But I couldn’t find any cute ones in the vegan online shops”), eating honey laden sweets (“But I don’t like the taste of agave”), or wearing perfume (“But my boyfriend gave it to me”).  Veganism is a lifestyle not a diet.  If you are against animal cruelty, you have to try to free yourself of it in all aspects of your life.  While you’re doing that, don’t judge others for doing the same things you are.

6. Activism and veganism go hand in hand but that doesn’t mean that you have to devote every waking moment to it.  Choose one or two causes to work for or against.  If you try to do them all you won’t have time to work, sleep, go to school, make a sandwich.  And don’t get upset at people for not fighting for the same causes you are.  They only have 24 hours in a day too.

7. People will say ridiculous stuff to you as soon as they find out you’re vegan.  You are unhealthy; you’ll live a shorter life; your hair will fall out; you won’t be able to have kids; your teeth will fall out; you are destroying the economy; you are making things up about the meat industry.  Let it go.  Non-vegans who don’t want to give up their lifestyles are going to try to convert or discredit you because they see you as a threat.  Think of them as televangelists and turn the channel.

8. You might lose friends over your lifestyle change.  While some of your friends will be supportive and will just make the adjustments necessary to make sure everyone is happy, there is usually one in every crowd, who, like the people in tip #7, are going to be very pissed off that you’ve changed your thinking about animals.  That person will call you names, invite you to meals where only meat is served, scream at you, maybe even get violent. (I was once punched in the face for being vegan.)  Just go to YouTube and type “vegan” into the search bar.  You’ll see that about 30% of the videos are rants against vegans.  Be prepared to sever your relationship with so-called friends who aren’t going to allow you to be you.

9. Don’t preach to the converted.  It’s annoying and pointless.  It never ceases to amaze me that more often than not, when I introduce myself to someone at a vegan event, they are quick to offer me tips on veganism, kits for the new vegan or offers to teach me how to cook for the vegan lifestyle.  Once you become vegan, it’s very exciting to feel healthier and know that you’re working for a better planet.  It’s hard not to want to pass on everything you’ve learned, but remember, you didn’t invent veganism.  It’s been around a very long time.  When meeting a fellow vegan for the first time, get to know them a little, ask what is their favorite cheese substitute.  Ask what their favorite vegan city is, tell them yours.  It’s not always necessary to teach people about veganism.  Relax and have a fun conversation with someone who shares your interests.  I guarantee it will be just as exciting.

10. Expand your food horizons.  Don’t get stuck eating the same things over and over.  Go to an Asian market and look at the greens.  Try some yu choy or amaranth leaves or pea tendrils.  Buy a jar of fermented tofu and experiment.  Once a month go on a day trip to a co-op or farmer’s market in a different region.  See what they have.  Try a veggie or fruit you’ve never tried.  Never eaten nasturtium flowers?  They taste like pepper and are fantastic in salad.  Haven’t tried dragonfruit or durian or jackfruit?  True, they’re a little weird but what if you find that you love them?  Miss the smoky taste of bacon in your tofu scramble?  Try a little black lava salt.  Your diet is already restricted enough.  Don’t cut yourself off from all the possibilities.

11. It’s ok to dine out with friends and not have it be about the food.  Remember that you are going out with friends and let that be the focus.  If your group is mostly vegan and vegan friendly, great, you can go to a vegan restaurant.  But if you are the only vegan in the group and they want to go to a standard restaurant, go anyway.  Salad, french fries, steamed veggies and pasta marinara are all vegan.  You can find something on almost any menu.  If there is literally nothing, ask the kitchen to make you something simple.  You don’t always have to go out with friends just for the food.

12. Veganism is often emotionally draining, find something that helps you de-stress.  Since the point is to stop the horrific treatment of animals, we very often have to look at images and hear stories that make us ill, make us want to scream and cry and hide away from the rest of the world.  Find something that makes you strong enough to keep going.  Yoga may help you find and keep your center.  Dancing might help you focus on the physical rather than the mental.  Listen to music.  Do some gardening.  Paint.  Run.  Swim.  Drive.  I watch cartoons.  I find that watching colorful images, listening to goofy dialogue and singing playful songs helps a lot.  And there’s always a happy ending.  Whatever you choose to help you get through the truly awful days, choose something that makes you feel a little more uplifted than before.  Then get up the next day and start again.

Not everything works for everyone.  The rejection of animal cruelty is the easy part of veganism.  It’s the stuff that comes along with it that’s the hard part.

Fianna MacGregor | Blog | Blog | Twitter | Email
New York City Fianna has been vegan for 36 years. She is currently working on a second M.A. in Human Rights from NYU. When she isn’t veganizing every cookbook she can get her hands on, she’s working her urban farm in New York City. She also writes extensively on veganism, running and green living. Her newest project is to trace everything she buys to find out if it’s cruelty-free (both animal and human) and eco-friendly. Fianna and her fiancĂ© are animal rescuers of dogs, cats and birds.

Photo credit: TDIV