A Beginner's Guide to Going Vegan and Living Your Best Plant-Based Life

Once associated almost exclusively with granola-crunching hippies, the vegan diet isn’t nearly as fringe as it was, say, 30 years ago (Beyonce’s dabbled in it, for crying out loud, while Brad Pitt and Ellen Degeneres have been vegan for years!). Still, it can continue to draw some blank stares or skeptical eyebrow-raises from those who aren’t entirely familiar with what it actually means. Some people think “vegan” is an abbreviated way to say “vegetarian.” Then there are others who are convinced that being vegan means eating salads three meals a day. Let’s start clearing some things up.

What Does Being Vegan Mean?

A vegan diet focuses on plant-based foods and beverages and eliminates all animal products. Its anchoring aim is to eliminate the use and harm of living beings. While vegetarians still consume dairy and eggs, vegans remove any and all animal byproducts, or foods that involve animals in their processing mechanisms. Meat, poultry, fish, and dairy are taken off the plate and replaced with veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, and grains.

We’re focusing on the eating aspect of going vegan here, but veganism is thought of as an entire lifestyle. Many people apply its principles beyond food, steering clear of clothes, makeup, personal care items, medication, and even entertainment options that exploit animals or use animal products.

Oh, we should also note that a vegan diet is not automatically a low-carb or low-fat diet. It’s about cutting the meat here, not the macros.

What You Can Eat

  • Veggies. In case the “veg” part of “vegan” didn’t make that clear.
  • Fruits. No limits on nature’s candy.
  • Grains. Experiment with varieties beyond plain old bread, pasta, and rice. Think couscous and farro and barley.
  • Legumes: Meet your new primary protein sources.
  • Nuts and seeds: So. Much. Almond. Butter.
  • Tofu and tempeh: There’s a whole world of non-boring tofu recipes out there.
  • Plant-based oils: Cold-pressed is best.
  • Natural sweeteners: Honey isn’t allowed (y’know, bees), but sweeten up life (in moderation) with coconut sugar, maple syrup, agave…

Pro tip: For some help in terms of vitamin intake, mineral absorption, or gut health, add fermented foods like seaweed, kimchi, sauerkraut, and miso paste, plus a source of vitamin B12 like nutritional yeast.

What’s Off-Limits

  • Animal proteins: Beef, pork, poultry, and seafood are all off the table.
  • Eggs: Scrambled tofu is just as good, don’t worry.
  • Dairy: Cashew “mac and cheese” and almond milk lattes await.
  • Bee products: Sorry, honey.
  • Animal oils/fats: Careful, lard and fish oils can sneak into the most unexpected places.

Pro tip: Replace these foods with well-balanced vegan alternatives (read: plenty of legumes, quinoa, nut butters, and tofu) and trust us, you will still get plenty of protein.

Sneaky, Potentially Non-Vegan Foods to Look Out For

  • Certain breads: That glossy top comes from egg wash, while doughs can sneak in honey, egg yolks, or even protein from poultry feathers.
  • Condiments, dressings, sauces: Anchovies in Worcestershire sauce, eggs in mayo, dairy in ranch dressing, cheese in store-bought pesto.
  • Sugars: The process to make refined white sugar involves animal bone char—definitely not vegan.
  • Deep-fried foods: Your onion rings could be dredged in an eggy batter or fried in animal fat.
  • Gummy candies, Jell-O, marshmallows: These sticky sweets most often get their chewy, jiggly texture from gelatin.
  • Food/drinks with red coloring: That bright red “natural” color comes from the extract of crushed and boiled beetles. Can’t make this stuff up.
  • Roasted salted peanuts: Gelatin (protein from the tendons of cows or pigs) is used to help the salt stick to the peanuts.
  • Certain alcohols: Clear hard liquors = generally safe. Imported beers and wines that might be made with a fish gelatin = not-so-happy hour.
  • Juices: Omega-3, vitamin D-fortified OJ might get those “heart-healthy” boost through ingredients like fish oil and sheep’s wool-derived lanolin.

7 Tips for Vegan Success

1. Read labels for red flags.
Check packaged food labels for words like castoreum, casein, lactose, rennet, shellac, and whey. They all refer to proteins, thickeners, and other additives sourced from animals. Read the fine print too—that’s where non-vegan allergens like milk or eggs are mentioned.

2. Be prepared.
Whether you’re on the road or just eating out, planning in advance can be the difference between being happy or hangry. Pack vegan-friendly, portable snacks and don’t be shy about calling restaurants in advance about vegan options (they won’t think you’re weird).

3. Swap it out.
Instead of jumping off the deep end into the totally uncharted territory of hemp/pea protein/cashew milk/kale smoothies, make the transition easier by finding vegan ways to recreate your favorite dishes. Satisfy an egg craving with scrambled tofu, make mac and cheese with cashew sauce instead of dairy, try bean-based burgers instead of beef patties. You can even make vegan bacon. And while the focus should be on real foods, eating a processed vegan hot dog once in a while isn’t gonna kill ya.

4. Take a supplement.
Being vegan has lots of health benefits, but cutting out animal products can also leave a few nutritional gaps in your diet. Prevent deficiencies in iron, vitamin D and B12, omega-3, iodine, and zinc by taking supplements or being diligent about eating vegan foods rich in those nutrients, like seaweed, nutritional yeast, lentils, and walnuts.

5. Focus on adding, not subtracting.
Nobody loves being told what they can’t have. Animal products may no longer be “allowed,” but if your grocery cart is packed with sweet potatoes, quinoa, spinach, bananas, berries, tofu, beans, and almond milk, it’ll be pretty hard to feel deprived.

6. Be kind to yourself.
Veganism is all about being kind to animals and the planet, but what’s the point if you aren’t kind to yourself too?! Give yourself a break if you slip up from time to time, be patient if your taste buds take a while to adjust to new foods, and don’t stress if you find that you can’t be 100 percent committed to being 100 percent vegan, 100 percent of the time.

7. Buddy up.
No lifestyle change is easy to make alone. Join online or in-person vegan communities via social media, meetups, or forums. It’s so much more fun—and helpful—when you have fellow herbivores to help you stay motivated, swap recipes, answer questions, and generally feel less like the only vegan in the world.

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