Veganism is a way of life avoiding the use of all animal products: food, clothing, cosmetics and so on. The most common reasons cited for becoming vegan, according to the Vegan Society, are:
- Animal welfare
- Religious/spiritual beliefs
- Environmental concerns
- Resource use (ie it takes more land and water to raise livestock than to raise crops)
While many vegans will share most or all of these reasons, priorities may well differ from individual to individual.
Though veganism is an entire lifestyle, this piece focuses on the new vegan's top priority - how to adopt a vegan (animal product free) diet.
Veganism without Tears
Changing your diet is often an emotionally fraught and daunting experience, especially when you're the only member of your family or circle of friends to make such a change. Diet and culture are so inextricably linked that a shift in your eating patterns may have long-reaching social consequences, from finding it difficult to eat at the same restaurants you used to, to social awkwardness with family or friends, to finding yourself stuck with something inedible and unidentifiable at weddings and other celebrations. Family members and friends may even feel that your dietary choice is an implicit criticism of their diets, which can cause some resentment.
The reasons for going vegan are many and various, from issues of personal health, to food intolerances, to environmentalism, to compassion for animals. Regardless of how you came to the decision to adopt a vegan diet, it's helpful to gather your resources before you make the switch.
Thinking Out of the Box
The very first thing you have to do to accomplish veganism without tears is take a good hard look at your attitude to food. Few of us think through the nutritional value of our meals as a matter of course; many people are simply lost when it's proposed that a meal may contain neither flesh nor dairy products. The oft-quoted fear that vegans may become anaemic is a symptom of this unthinking attitude - the only reason someone would become anaemic on a vegan diet is if they had carried their sloppy thinking about food over from their old diet to their new one.
Checking out a variety of vegan cookbooks is a must. Second-hand book shops are a blessing, but if you can't find any books there, you ought to find a substantial number in the vegetarian section of any reputable high-street bookshop. Reading them over for fun and not only when you're about to cook, allows you to absorb a great deal of information about vegan cooking, the kinds of ingredients you'll be most frequently using, and the techniques you'll need to learn in order to use them to their best advantage.
Thinking about cooking as a fun and interesting new hobby helps enormously. The accumulation of good quality cookbooks helps here, as does the company of good friends who will be supportive in your endeavours. Planning your meals for a few days at a time allows you to build up your confidence, as well as serving as a practical example of how versatile vegan foods can be. Spend time at the grocery shop, food co-op or health food shop getting to know the products - if something is unfamiliar, ask or look it up later. Think of it as a pet project.
Abandon the idea of a central food around which others are arrayed. The 'meat and two veg' scenario needs to go out the window, allowing you to have a far more flexible idea of what a meal should look like. Check out a variety of ethnic cuisines, from Mediterranean to Asian to African, and see how they approach creating meals. Make a note of restaurants in your area that serve vegetarian food. If necessary, phone them and ask if they can provide vegan food. Also, check online for vegan restaurant guides. Another concept that you need to kick to the curb is that of the vegan diet as extreme or austere. Veganism is not about denying yourself the good things in life, but about a whole different diet. Do not think of it as a discipline, a form of asceticism (unless that's very much your bag). Revel in your liberation from meat and two veg and take pleasure in the wonderful new meals you create. Make cooking a creative endeavour and eating a sensual delight. After a while, when someone asks if you don't feel that you're missing out, you'll be able to honestly reply that you're not - you're too busy enjoying yourself.
A central and fundamental part of thinking outside the box is actually listening to what your body wants. This means more than simply feeding your cravings - it means working out what impulses are natural and healthy, and what are simply habits; it means being honest with yourself about what your body needs, and what makes it feel healthy and vigorous.
Take up reading the ingredients on everything you buy. At first this is a headache, as it is time consuming and confusing. However, with a decent guide to animal products, it is well worth the effort. Over time, you will come to automatically recognise many animal products (no matter how well disguised by their chemical names); as a general rule of thumb, if you can't pronounce something, look it up, and think twice about eating it.
Get to know your plant-matter. The majority of vegan cookbooks contain thorough nutritional sections for a purpose, and they are generally very good. The Vegan Society is not only a mine of information on other matters relating to veganism, but also about nutrition. If you've never bothered to work out which foods do what before, it can seem a tad overwhelming; however, within a short time you'll get the gist. And the gist is: variety. Ensure that you're eating plenty of vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and pulses - and vary them. Eating local seasonal produce (which is highly recommended where possible) is not the same as eating the same thing over and over and over again.
As well as the well-worn refrain of 'You'll get anaemic!', you may also hear 'But where will you get your protein from?' Checking out the nutritional value of plants is an eye-opener. You'll be amazed at how many sources there are for protein in the plant kingdom, and once you've found that out you'll be amazed at a culture that insists on eating far more protein than is necessary for good health.
Aiming to reduce your intake of refined foods in general is a good idea. The more refined a food, the less nutritional value it has, which is why you'll find so many foods labelled as 'enriched' - they've had all the nutrients refined out of them and then had others put back in, leaving the consumer paying twice: once for the refining and again for the 'enrichment' process. Sticking with the less refined versions is not only tastier, but is also better for you. This includes avoiding overly refined sugars. Nutrition experts are pretty much united in declaring white sugar to be 'white death' and there are serious labour and environmental concerns associated with refined white sugar production1. One of the major nutritional problems with sugar is that many people find it somewhat addictive and it is found in a wide range of packaged foods, resulting in an unhealthy rate of consumption. A further problem for vegans is that some white sugar is refined through bone char; apparently, most of the sugar available in the UK is vegan, but this is not necessarily so, and refinement through bone char is not uncommon in many areas. But do not despair, for there are many more natural sweeteners, from evaporated cane juices to rice syrups to malts, all of which undergo some refining process, but retain some actual nutritional value. One thing you will notice about vegan food is that it is generally not as artificially sweet as mainstream food. However, decadent vegan whole food desserts can be made without much fuss.
Our culture's obsession with calories and fat is terribly destructive. Simply by being on a wholefood vegan diet you may find yourself losing weight at a slow and steady pace. The very best attitude to your eating is to listen to your body, stop eating when you're full and eat something healthy when you're hungry instead of waiting until you're ferociously hungry and then eating huge amounts of food. Having removed animal products from your diet, you will have cut out 'bad' cholesterol, saturated fats and quite a few calories. As long as your diet is high in fibre, contains approximately five portions of vegetables a day, plenty of fruit, pulses, seeds and nuts overall, you'll be providing your body with sufficient energy to function well. Worrying about calories is pointless. Ensure a sensible mix of foods and a reasonable level of activity and throw away your calorie-charts. While you're at it, stop worrying about fat. Commercially available low-fat foods are high in sugar. Vegans need to ensure a reasonable amount of fat in their diets not by deep-frying everything, but by including omega fatty acids in the form of linseed oil (surprisingly good in homemade hummus). If you're an athlete, check out the online resources below for information for vegan athletes; those who are very active typically have different dietary requirements than those who aren't.
30 Days to Break a Habit
It is often said that it takes 30 days to break a habit and, make no mistake, shifting from a meat-and-dairy based diet to a vegan diet means breaking some very big habits.
One recommended route is to ease in, simply taking out one meat, dairy or refined food from your diet at a time and replacing it with a vegan substitute. Proponents of this method aver that this does not take as long as it might at first seem, as you lose your appetite for several foodstuffs at once. Some have phased in their veganism over the course of a year with this method, others in less.
Another method is to go ovo-lacto-vegetarian first for a few months and then remove the dairy foods from your diet after a set period. Proponents of this method assert that it is easier than going the whole hog - or whatever the vegan equivalent is.
The Researcher of this piece was an ovo-lacto-vegetarian for many years, much addicted to refined sugars, who took a third route - the detox method. This method involves going on a 'fast' for a couple of days: plenty of water, fruit juice, and vegetable broth or stock, along with little in the way of physical exertion. Then eat vegetable soup - any vegetables you fancy, with vegetable broth or stock - as much as you like, whenever you like for two or three days. Then add steamed rice and vegetables to your diet (this is practically the same as the pre-operative weight-loss programme designed for heart patients). A week after beginning, start introducing different foods to your diet, one by one and take notice of how they affect your body. (Do they make you lethargic? Energetic? Headachey?) Stick with wholefoods and avoid animal products. Within a month, you should find most of your cravings for refined foods and animal products abating; within a couple of months, they'll probably be gone. You may find yourself surprised by the odd craving for an animal product or refined food several months down the line. Consider the nutritional value of that food and see if you can't get the same nutrients elsewhere. This method has two major advantages:
It is quicker than either of the above-mentioned methods.
It encourages you to think carefully about what you're eating.
It is important to seek medical advice before changing your diet. However, this is potentially fraught with problems: GPs do not typically receive much in the way of training in nutrition and may be wedded to the idea that vegans are more susceptible than others to anaemia, lack of protein and other maladies. Your GP may be well up on nutrition and know that vegans are at lower risk from type-II diabetes, stroke, heart attack, and a variety of cancers than non-vegans; further, s/he might know that organisations such as diabetes UK are happy to recommend a well-balanced vegan diet and that such a diet (high in fibre, low in fat and cholesterol-free) is in perfect accord with the guidelines laid down by the British Heart Foundation. He or she may be aware of the positive stance on vegetarian and vegan diets taken by the internationally respected American Dietetic Association. What is really important, regardless of your GP's attitude to veganism, is to determine your current state of health and identify any health problems you may have to keep an eye out for. You should have regular check-ups in any case, but when changing your lifestyle, it's always good to know where you're starting from. If you have genuine concerns about your intended change of diet, ask to be referred to a state registered dietitian, who ought to be able to help you create a healthy vegan diet.
Finally, support from others is vital in any big life change. While some may be able to tough it out alone, most humans need positive feedback to continue a lifestyle change, whether from a partner, friends, family members, or an online community. Seek out support from those around you, check out local restaurants that include vegan food (Asian cuisines are particularly good venues for vegans; Middle Eastern and African cuisines often offer many vegan dishes), and let people know, politely, that making disparaging comments about your diet is just as rude as you making disparaging comments about theirs.
The Vegan Guest
It will come to pass that you are invited to someone's home for a meal, and you will explain there and then that you are vegan (never leave it to the last moment, or - heaven forbid - until you get there). The chances are that their smile will take on a fixed quality as they silently panic. A good way to deal with this is to offer to bring food to share, or to suggest eating out at a restaurant you know to have vegan options. If your host is determined to make food for you, but hasn't a clue how to go about it, it might be considered polite to offer a favourite cookbook for their perusal.
When offered non-vegan food, it is best to explain that you're vegan and that this means that you don't eat animal produce. People will often ask if you're 'allowed' to eat a particular food; it may be best to gently reply that you choose not to. Above all else, be courteous, do not make faces at what others are eating (even if it does nauseate you) and hold your temper, even if others are making rude comments about your dietary choices. The goodwill your behaviour generates will be worth it.
Is It Or Isn't It?
There is little debate over what constitutes vegan food - anything that isn't an animal product. However, there are some vegans who argue that honey doesn't count. Of course it is an insect product, and some therefore count it as not technically an animal product; most vegans, though, count honey as an animal product and don't buy it at all.
Animal products are found in a bizarre range of items, from food to cosmetics to cars, and often in the least obvious places. Guides such as the EG Smith Collective's Animal Products A to Z are invaluable in discerning whether or not any given ingredient is of animal origin.
In the end, veganism is a process, a striving for an animal-product-free life. We can't live entirely animal-product-free existences in our culture, but we can strive to live up to our principles and ideals. And that includes being compassionate towards ourselves. Unless you have a serious food intolerance or allergy, which will cause a medical emergency, it is OK to slip up now and then. Beating yourself up over not noticing the cheese in a burger is not productive - just accept it as a lesson to look closer at the ingredients next time and move on. With time, you'll find ingredient-checking becomes second nature, and you'll become familiar with which foods and brands you can trust.
All of these cookbooks contain dessert sections (cakes, pies, biscuits and so on); most contain sections on nutrition.
The Vegan Cookbook, Alan Wakeman and Gordon Baskerville, Faber and Faber, ISBN: 0571178049. Classic vegan cookbook contains good solid recipes you'll use a lot.
The Voluptuous Vegan, Myra Kornfeld, et al, Clarkson N Potter, ISBN: 0609804898. Upscale vegan recipes for elegant dishes. Excellent sections on kitchen necessities, ingredients, and techniques.
Simply Vegan - Quick Vegetarian Meals, Debra Wasserman, Vegetarian Resource Group, US - ISBN: 093141105X. Extremely easy, extremely fast vegan food.
How It All Vegan!, Sarah Kramer and Tanya Barnard, Arsenal Pulp Pr Ltd, ISBN: 1551520672. Fun and funky easy recipes from two Canadian punks who obviously love their food.
Vegan Vittles, Joanne Stepniak, Book Pub Co, ISBN: 1570670250. Great, easy-to-follow recipes. Occasionally precious, but very sound.
Authentic Chinese Cuisine for the Contemporary Kitchen, Bryanna Clark Grogan, Book Publishing Company, ISBN: 157067101X. Excellent recipes allow you to create a variety of Chinese foods, including the famous 'mock meats' with minimum fuss. Includes good sections on special ingredients.
Great Vegetarian Cooking Under Pressure, Lorna J Sass, Morrow, ISBN: 0688123260. Superb cookbook with foolproof recipes. Buy a pressure cooker and buy this book.
Real Thai Vegetarian, Nancie McDermott, Chronicle Books, ISBN: 0811811514. Sumptuous Thai recipes made very easy.
Veggie Works Vegan Cookbook, Mark W Rassmussen, Veggie Works, Inc, ISBN: 0970996616. Excellent cookbook from the famed New Jersey vegan restaurant.
The Indian Vegetarian, Neelam Batra, John Wiley and Sons Inc, ISBN: 0025076752. Fantastic and easy Indian cuisine with a California twist.
Vegan in Volume - Vegan Quantity Recipes for Every Occasion, Nancy Berkoff, Vegetarian Resource Group, ISBN: 0931411211. Splendid resource for caterers, restaurateurs or simply those who have to feed many mouths.
Great Good Desserts Naturally!, Fran Costigan, Book Pub Co, ISBN: 0967310806. Utterly superb book devoted to the fine art of making mind-bendingly fantastic desserts. Easy to follow, with good sections on wholefoods in baking.
Dr Michael Klaper served as a nutritional advisor to NASA, specialising in long-term nutrition for astronauts and is an advocate of veganism.
The Low Fat Vegetarian Recipe Archive does what it says on the tin.
BootsnAll.com offers information and advice to vegetarians and vegans venturing abroad.
The Vegan Village provides information on all manner of products for vegans.
The Harvard School of Public Health created a balanced food pyramid for the US government; this pyramid was promptly rejected for a meat and dairy-heavy version after lobbying from the powerful cattlemen's organisations. Not vegan, but certainly not the food pyramid you see taught in schools.
The classic cross-cultural nutritional study known as 'The China Project' resulted in the chief researcher going vegan.
The Vegan Family House provides a peep inside the lives of a vegan family in Scotland. Invaluable information on raising vegan children alongside many good vegan recipes.
Vegan.com provides news, nutritional information, and book reviews for vegans.
Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier addresses the needs of the vegan athlete, including diet while training, equipment, etc.
The Vegan Bodybuilding site tells you all you need to know about natural, steroid-free, vegan bodybuilding.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a well-respected American organisation of 5,000 doctors (including the editor of the Journal of Cardiology) who promote veganism as a healthy lifestyle.
Vegan chocolate - not only vegan, but also organic and Fair Trade. Come to the dark side.