This month marks my 4-year anniversary of becoming vegan. I could write and sing the praises about being vegan forever but I thought I would rather share a few lessons I have learned to help those who might be struggling in their own journeys.
1. It Gets Easier and Easier
When I first thought about giving up meat, I honestly didn’t think I could do it. I loved meat, especially chicken, and while I always felt that hypocritical, cognitive dissonance between my “love” for animals and my food addictions, I was never able to align my actions with my conscience. Then again, I had never truly tried.
When I decided to go meat-free for a few days each week, I was somewhat at a loss of what to eat. It was tough for me to plan a day’s menu, let alone more than one day, but it got easier the more I learned, the more vegetables I tried and the more I learned to cook. Now being meat-free (and dairy-, egg-, and honey-free) is effortless and the variety of foods to eat is endless.
Then I was confused how to do weight loss and veganism at the same time. I was used to eating fat-free foods (before I learned that fat-free usually equals extra sugar) and vegan foods had more calories and total fat. I recall standing in Whole Foods crying because I didn’t know what to do or what to buy. It took my making the effort to educate myself about nutrition to understand that the vegan choice was not only the healthier and more compassionate choice but better for my weight loss plan as well. The point is: don’t give up if it’s hard for you in the beginning. Anything new takes time to get accustomed to. Keep learning. Visit a sanctuary and meet the animals. Practice makes perfect!
2. If at First You Don’t Like Something, Try It Again and Again
At first I didn’t like a lot of foods. I hated tofu, soy milk, almond milk, tempeh, etc. but I kept trying them again and again. I tried different ways of cooking them, went to restaurants that knew how to cook them and eventually, I ended up loving them. But it took me over a year to like tofu and two years to love tempeh. I could have counted on one hand the number of vegetables I had ever tried. I would have sworn that I didn’t like most vegetables when the truth was I had never really tried them. Now I’d be hard-pressed to name a vegetable I don’t like. Even my husband who swore he hated eggplant and Brussels sprouts asks me to make them. Now I have a rule that I am not allowed to say I don’t like a food until I have tried it several times and in several different ways. I also try to eat something new every week so my menu of foods is always expanding.
Don’t be afraid to try new foods and when you eat plant-based versions of your favorite foods, don’t expect them to taste exactly the same. Tempeh bacon is delicious but it tastes like tempeh, not pork. Expecting foods to taste like their animal-based counterparts will only lead to disappointment. Instead, learn to appreciate the tastes of plant-based foods for their own delicious flavors.
3. Everyone’s Experience is Unique and Valid
It’s sad to say but there is a lot of judgment out there in the vegan world. It’s bad enough that vegans get judged by omnivores (or pre-vegans or whatever you want to call people) but then vegans get judged by other vegans for not being vegan the “right” way or for the “right” reasons or fast enough or angry enough, etc.
There are some vegans who were raised vegetarian or vegan which is awesome. They didn’t eat much, if any, animal products and therefore, probably don’t miss those foods or understand why anyone would want to eat them. I wish that was my story. But most vegans saw the light later and the later in life it happened, the more years of consuming animal products they experienced. Going vegan at age 40 or 50 is not the same experience as going vegan as a teenager or in your 20s.
Some people become vegetarian and stay there for years before they transition to veganism. Some people go directly to vegan. Some people do it for the animals, some for health or the environment. The important thing is getting there no matter what path a person takes. If someone stopped eating animal products because they think aliens told them to, fine. As long as animal lives are saved, that is what matters.
My husband and I went vegan in our 40s. We each had a lifetime of meat-eating habits to change and long-term, well-established relationships and activities that were affected. It doesn’t mean that we couldn’t make the change since we did, and we did it relatively quickly, but it does mean that we had a lot of challenges to deal with. And while I am proud to say that we have never “fallen off the vegan wagon,” that doesn’t mean that we haven’t been tempted which leads to my next lesson.
4. Cravings are Normal
We didn’t give up meat because we didn’t like it and it disgusted us. We both loved the taste of meat but morally and ethically, we could no longer engage in the cruelty that brought those tastes to us. But becoming vegetarian and/or vegan doesn’t automatically wipe the slate of one’s brain clean. There is a difference between what the brain/mouth/stomach wants and what the conscience will allow.
Of course, I now look at meat, dairy and eggs differently. There is a strong level of aversion that I didn’t have before. The site of raw meat makes me ill, sad and angry. Dairy particularly enrages me and once, when eating at a vegetarian restaurant, we had to move to another table because the smell of the eggs the people next to us were eating was making me sick.
But in all honesty, sometimes when I see cooked food on TV or in real life, I have cravings. When I smell certain foods, I have cravings. When I am in certain places or moods that have food associations for me, I have cravings. There are foods I loved that I still miss. There’s a part of me that still wants Buffalo wings, fried chicken, steak, and pizza with extra cheese. The point is that I will NOT eat them EVER. I will NOT put my cravings above the suffering and lives of other beings. For me, there is no going back. I just make cruelty-free and healthier versions of those foods.
Over time, the cravings lessen but I still get them and that does not make me a bad vegan. It makes me NORMAL. Having cravings is not what is important. What matters is what I do about them. I remind myself about the hell the animals go through and then it’s simple because no matter what foods I crave, I love the taste of compassion more.
5. Veganism is Mega-Healthier but Not Total Immunity
If you read “My Vegan Journey” here on Christina Cooks, then you know that I’ve experienced a miraculous turnaround with my health since becoming vegan. I’ve lost 116 lbs. so far, I am no longer hypertensive, I don’t get sick as often or as severely and I am no longer taking the arsenal of medications that I used to. I credit veganism with much of my progress but just eating a plant-based diet is not enough. First I gave up MSG, high-fructose corn syrup, additives and preservatives. Then I gave up white, refined foods. Then I became a vegetarian, then a vegan. Then I gave up highly processed foods. Then I became gluten-free and lastly, I am working on decreasing the amount of soy I consume.
My diet is a whole-foods one. I don’t eat sweets or junk food. If I want a snack, I eat dried fruit or popcorn. Admittedly, I still fry food way too often but if I eat something fried, I balance it with a raw salad. I take vitamins, supplements and probiotics. Kale, collards and chard are my favorite foods.
And still I am battling with autoimmune disorders and other illnesses. I often wonder how much sicker I would be if I did not eat such a healthy, plant-based, whole foods diet and I know that veganism is probably saving my life. But when I hear people talk about veganism as an insurance policy against all illnesses or as a cure-all, I personally think that is irresponsible. Vegans can still get cancer, heart disease, stomach problems and other diseases. The risk is greatly lessened but it’s still possible, especially the later in life the change was made. People still need to make sure they get the proper vitamins and minerals, exercise, eat healthfully and see doctors for medical screenings and care. Good nutrition is definitely the BEST medicine but it might not be the only medicine a person needs.
6. Advocacy Comes in Many Forms
When I first became vegan, I went to protests, rallies, parades, marches, events and fundraisers. I wanted to do everything and anything that involved fighting for the animals. But I didn’t enjoy everything I did. I learned that I am not happy being around people who yell, insult or attack other people. I can’t imagine that anyone who is being humiliated on a public street is going to be open to listening and learning; I certainly would not have been.
At the beginning, I experienced that zeal and excitement too. If I could learn the truth and see the light, why couldn’t everyone else? But different people respond to different methods and in their own time. I don’t want to judge or insult people who have not yet learned the truth or who are still stuck in their denial and I certainly don’t want to give up the hope that they will eventually break through.
When I hear people do that, I think that these same people who are my friends and whom I love dearly would not have thought I was a good person just 3 short years ago. I would prefer to see everyone as a potential vegan and help them see the truth in a friendly, compassionate way.
The world needs all kinds of advocates – protestors, educators, writers, performers, cooking, legal, etc. The key is finding out what you are good at and what makes you happy and most effective. For a while I was at a loss as to what my niche was. I looked at where my talents lie. I know I am a good teacher (at least my students say so) and I like to write and I love to cook. For me, writing, cooking and posting recipes on my blog is a great way for me to reach out to people and show them that being vegan is easy and delicious. I wear clothes and buttons with vegan messages and I love when people offer me food so I can proclaim my veganism with pride. I know that I have convinced many people to become vegan (or at least try) by educating them about animal cruelty in a way that is neither accusatory nor judgmental. Now I am writing a vegan cookbook and one day I hope to teach about veganism on a larger scale, perhaps in the school system.
Whether it’s keeping a blog or writing a book or wearing a t-shirt or button with a vegan message that sparks conversation or publicly ordering a cruelty-free meal, it is activism. It all counts. Everyone doesn’t have to do everything but everyone can do something.
7. Vegan Pride is Key
This is quite simple. If you don’t show pride in being vegan, then no one will respect your choice. If you act like you are a freak, people will treat you like one. If you apologize for being compassionate, people will agree with you that you have something to apologize for. If you make being vegan seem difficult or inconvenient, then that is what people will think it is. If you are afraid to admit to people that you are vegan, then you are sending the message that it’s something to be ashamed of.
People who are not vegan don’t know what it is like to be vegan. The only information they have is what vegans give to them. It is important to show people that being vegan is something to be proud of, that it’s easy and rewarding, and that you are dedicated and firm in your convictions.
Choosing compassion is NEVER something to be ashamed of or something that should be hidden or apologized for. Becoming vegan is my proudest accomplishment in my entire life and everyone that knows me knows that is how I feel. They know how important and serious it is to me and the sooner they learn how deep my convictions run, the sooner they respect my beliefs.
I say The “V” Word multiple times a day. I make sure that everyone who knows me knows what the word “vegan” means. It is the simplest yet most important lesson of all: The “V” Word: Say it. Eat it. Live it.