As someone who was right up there with the world’s greatest cheese lovers, I feel like of all the things I’m qualified to talk about, making the transition to veganism is one of them! I’ve been vegan for nearly two years now, so while it’s starting to feel more like a worn-in pair of slippers, it’s not so long ago that I was navigating all of this myself.
So buckle up, because this is how to go vegan for beginners 101. And trust me, we’ve got a lot to talk about!
No matter where you are on your vegan journey right now:
- You’ve just started and you’re finding it challenging
- You’re interested in going vegan but want more info on what exactly you’re getting yourself into
- You’re simply curious about what I have to say
then firstly – well done! This is a great first step (and I don’t mean that in a patronising way). Having an openness to new ways of viewing the world is no mean feat.
In this guide, I hope to address all of the concerns and unknowns that you have when you first go vegan. Questions like: What does it really mean to be vegan? What areas of my life will it affect? What challenges can I expect to face? So, without any further ado, let’s get started!
What Exactly Is Veganism & Why Does It Matter?
Veganism is the intentional choice for your own health, the planet, and animals. But while it is rapidly growing in popularity, it’s still by far the counter-cultural choice at just 3% of the population in 2021. So what exactly is veganism, and why is it so important today?
The difference between vegan, vegetarian & plant-based
Firstly, I just want to whizz back to basics. Because you’ve probably heard the terms ‘vegan’, ‘veggie’ and ‘plant-based’ thrown around somewhat interchangeably. But in reality, they’re three different things.
Vegetarians share some common ground with vegans in that they also don’t eat meat, fish or gelatine. However, they only avoid products directly derived from a dead animal. Vegans, on the other hand, take things a step further and also choose not to consume animal by-products, such as eggs, milk or honey (note: the dairy and egg industries can be just as horrific).
The line becomes even more blurred when it comes to ‘plant-based’ vs ‘vegan’. While those following a plant-based diet only eat vegan foods, it is more for health reasons rather than ethics. Veganism, by contrast, is a fully-encompassing lifestyle choice that extends beyond food.
The definition of veganism, as described by The Vegan Society, is:
A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.
This means that a vegan will avoid all animal-derived products, whether it’s materials in their wardrobe such as leather, wool, fur or silk, or cosmetics in their bathroom that have been tested on animals. They will also choose not to visit places where animals are kept in captivity for human entertainment, such as zoos or circuses.
A crash course in vegan ethics
In his 1975 work Animal Liberation – a book which is widely regarded as the seminal text of the animal rights movement – Peter Singer introduces the concept of ‘speciesism’. This refers to the unjust and discriminatory treatment of individuals based on their species (you can think of it a bit like racism or sexism, just taken one step further).
Speciesism privileges the rights of one species over another, which often leads to the exploitation and mistreatment of non-humans. Singer reasons that it shouldn’t matter whether animals are as intelligent as us, but rather ‘Can they suffer?’ Vegans believe that all beings have a right to life and freedom, without experiencing unnecessary suffering at the hands of human beings.
Reasons to go vegan
The main reason for going vegan is generally ethical, i.e. reducing the suffering of animals as much as possible. But there are plenty of other good reasons to go vegan. Some of the advantages include:
- Health benefits: By eating more plant foods, you lower your risk of major chronic illnesses such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, as well as certain types of cancer. It also supports a generally healthier BMI and weight compared to standard Western diets.
- Sustainability: The demand for meat is driving deforestation of the world’s rainforests and resulting in huge amounts of biodiversity loss. By going vegan, you’ll reduce your carbon footprint, as well as contributing to less air and water pollution.
- World population: A whopping 62% of European crops are used to feed animals, with only 23% feeding people. Plant-based diets feed more of the world’s population and would help to combat poverty in poorer countries.
The Stuff You’re Likely Worrying About as a Newbie Vegan
There are probably all sorts of niggling questions that might be preventing you from taking the plant-based plunge! So let me try and put your mind at ease, while still giving you an honest perspective on what to expect.
Common vegan myths
There are loads of myths about veganism out there, many harmful, that can’t help but put you off going vegan. When you look into them further, though, they often simply aren’t true!
For instance, you may be concerned about where you’re going to get your calcium from if you don’t drink milk. Or, perhaps you’ve heard that it’s hard to get enough protein when eating plant-based foods (spoiler alert: vegan sources of protein are plentiful and include legumes, tofu, whole grains, nuts, plus many more!).
So before you write off veganism, do your own research and don’t accept traditional wisdom as gospel.
How to go vegan on a budget
Admittedly, veganism can be expensive if you’re buying a lot of dairy alternatives and mock meats. This is because there is currently a high demand from consumers as veganism skyrockets in popularity and brands try to catch up.
However, if you build your diet around plant-based whole foods like legumes, fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains, then it can also be one of the cheapest diets in the world.
In general, I find that as long as I’m careful to plan out my meals and batch cook for the week ahead, my food bill is significantly cheaper (up to 25%), than when I used to regularly buy meat, fish and dairy. You can also save by making your own plant-based milk and investing in a nut milk maker.
How to get all the nutrients you need on a vegan diet
It’s ironic, really, that we never stop to think about whether we’re getting the right nutrients when we’re stuffing our faces with meat, cheese and processed junk foods. These questions only start getting thrown around when veganism is put on the table for discussion.
The truth is that you can eat healthily or unhealthily whether you follow a vegan diet or a non-vegan diet. And, even when you take care to eat very healthily, there are always going to be risks of nutrient deficiency. For instance, most people, regardless of diet, should consider supplementing with Vitamin B12 and D3 (for the latter, especially in the dark winter months).
As a vegan, you may find that you are particularly at risk of being deficient in the following nutrients (but we’ll talk about how to easily address this later on):
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D
- Omega-3 fatty acids
The Importance of Getting Into the Right Mindset
When people talk about going vegan, most of it seems to be focused on the nuts and bolts of doing it. While this is certainly important (and we’ll get into this shortly), I think it’s so important to pause for a moment and appreciate that this is a really monumental lifestyle change.
If you’ve ever struggled with a new year’s gym resolution, then you’ll know that… well, change is goddamn hard. So don’t glamourise the situation or expect things to be a piece of cake (I mean, there’s a lot of delicious cake you can’t eat anymore).
Here are some helpful pointers to keep you on track – especially on the days you lack motivation.
Educate yourself so that you know your 'why'
If veganism is going to be a part of your life for the long haul, then it needs to become a part of your identity. In other words, it should be deeply embedded in your system of values.
As Nietzsche so eloquently put it:
He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.
It really, really helps to have a good understanding of the issues at hand to connect with why you’re going vegan. This might sound obvious, but if you’re just doing it to look good or because it’s what all your friends are doing, I can 99% guarantee that it isn’t something you’ll stick with long term.
I’ll level with you. Vegan food often is a compromise on taste, especially when it comes to many of your favourite foods (vegan cheese has a long way to go…). And I’m saying this as someone who gets genuinely excited about vegan alternatives and enjoys plant-based cooking. So you’ll need some hard-core willpower when the first week of initial burning motivation has faded away.
Factory farming and animal testing are horrible to learn about (yep, I bawled my eyes out through Earthlings), but educating yourself will give you the rocket fuel you need to keep going. Despite my worst cravings when people all around me are eating delicious meaty Dominos pizza, there’s not a hesitation in my mind about why I’m choosing a vegan lifestyle.
My best suggestion is to watch some vegan documentaries, which will give you a good overview of all aspects of plant-based living – from ethics and sustainability to personal health.
Have an open mind and manage expectations
On the back of my last point, I just want to emphasise that 90% of going vegan is simply mindset. If you say you can’t do it, or that you’ll miss cheese too much, then that will most likely be your experience. This is because we construct our realities with the thoughts we think.
What I’m trying to say is choose positive thoughts! For instance:
- “I could never go vegan” becomes “Going vegan would be a challenge, but it’s possible”
- “I don’t have enough willpower” becomes “I’ll learn more so I can decide whether this is truly important to me”
Another area to manage is your own expectations. If you’re expecting glowing skin, increased energy levels, and half a stone of weight loss in the first week… Honestly? I can’t say that I experienced any of these things. In reality, the high-fibre foods mostly aggravated my IBS (something which I still struggle with periodically).
I’m not trying to put you off, and I’m not saying this will be your experience, but don’t expect veganism to be the answer to all your problems. A family member recently asked me if I felt any improvements following a vegan diet, and it was a real anti-climax to be truthful about it. There’s a lot of pressure to glamourise everything about veganism when there are plenty of trade-offs, and it isn’t all plain sailing.
What I will say is that there is long-term satisfaction in living by your values as opposed to pursuing short-term pleasure, so try to shift this to be your focus as much as possible.
Making the Transition to a Vegan Diet
Now that you’re in the best possible mindset, let’s take a look at how to transition to a vegan diet as seamlessly as possible.
What can I and can’t I eat?
This seems to be the most common, panicky question when people ask me about veganism, i.e. ‘What do you actually eat if dairy is out of the question?’ or ‘What can you put in a sandwich that’s vegan?’ Yep, the latter had me stumped for a while at the start too!
Whenever you’re feeling stuck, my best advice is to take a look at Dr Greger’s daily dozen (see above) which gives you a brief overview of the food groups you should be prioritising on a healthy vegan diet.
Vegan foods you can eat
- Fruits and vegetables
- Grains like pasta, bread, rice and porridge
- Legumes including beans and pulses
- Tofu, tempeh and seitan
- Nuts and seeds
- Dairy alternatives like oat, almond or pea milk
- Mock meats and processed vegan foods (ideally keep the vegan junk food in moderation, for your health and wallet!)
When your food choices have been on autopilot your whole life and you’re having to come up with new meal ideas, I know how hard this stage can be (trust me, it gets easier with time!). So I’ve got more advice if you’re struggling to know where to start.
Foods you can't eat as a vegan
Some non-vegan foods go without saying, for example:
- Meat and poultry
- Fish and seafood
- Eggs and dairy products (including milk, butter, yoghurt, cheese)
However, there are some sneaky non-vegan ingredients that you may not know to look out for. A few of the most common include:
- Royal jelly
More and more food is now being labelled as vegan, but navigating food labels can be tricky. So to avoid it becoming your new favourite hobby, here is a comprehensive vegan ingredients checker from PETA.
Oh, and I only avoid foods if non-vegan ingredients are listed in the main ingredients. When an item ‘may contain milk/eggs’ or has been ‘produced in a factory’ that handles non-vegan ingredients, I tend not to worry about this. Life is too short.
Get a decent vegan multivitamin
As we’ve already discussed, you run the risk of some important nutrient deficiencies on a vegan diet. While some foods like Marmite or nutritional yeast are fortified with vitamins like B12, it’s worth considering supplementing.
It can quickly get expensive and a lot to remember when you’re taking multiple pills, so I prefer to take a targeted vegan multivitamin. This will absolutely ensure that you’re hitting the recommended daily requirements and that your body is getting all the vital nutrients it needs to function properly.
Personally, I’ve used Nutravita’s vegan multivitamin for a couple of years now and had no complaints, but I’ve gone into more detail about a range of brands I’d recommend, so check it out if you’re looking for the best option for your own personal needs.
Go at your own pace
Adopting a vegan lifestyle will look different for each individual, but diet is often a popular place to start. There are a few different routes you can try out, so don’t beat yourself up if progress is slow (there’s no one-size-fits-all approach!):
- Go vegan gradually: I went pescatarian for a full year before committing 100% to veganism, and I think that this gradual elimination of animal products helped to make this a more sustainable lifestyle change. If you want to make a start, try out some simple plant-based swaps, for instance using oat milk in your tea instead of cow’s milk, mock meat burgers instead of beef, or olive spread instead of butter. Maybe just dip a toe in by committing to one plant-based dinner a week.
- Go vegan through a challenge: If you’re the type of person who thrives on a challenge, then committing to Veganuary might be the perfect introduction to veganism for you.
- Go vegan overnight: Alternatively, you might be an all-or-nothing kind of person who can’t bear the thought of drinking dairy or eating meat ever again. I get it, because once I’d made my mind up, I skipped straight past vegetarianism and virtually went vegan overnight. It’s a more challenging route, but absolutely doable.
Make a vegan meal plan you can stick with
Vegan recipes don’t have to be complicated or involve 15+ ingredients you can’t pronounce. For nice, easy vegan meals that don’t feel too overwhelming, start by ‘veganising’ the dinners you already know and love. For example, simply swap the beef mince in a bolognese for soy mince or lentils, or switch out meat patties for vegan burgers.
Another cooking method I swear by is one pot batch cooking. By sticking to just a few vegan-friendly key ingredients and making more than you need, you’ll not only have a delicious meal, but also some handy leftover portions that you can easily microwave at a later date. Having some ‘cheat’ meals on hand like this is a great way to avoid the temptation of unhealthy or non-vegan food when you can’t be bothered to cook at the end of a long day!
If you’re looking for an example of a healthy weekly meal plan to get you started with, then I’ve created just the resource (grocery list included!).
Enlist the help of a vegan meal delivery service
While its great to cook from scratch, there’s lots of choice now when it comes to plant-based recipe boxes. These are great to use from time to time, especially when you’re gaining confidence cooking with new styles of cuisine. It also avoids food waste because you’re only given exactly the pre-portioned ingredients that you’ll need!
There are even companies that offer vegan readymeals (minus the preservatives and unhealthy ingredients found in many supermarket varieties).
The key here is not to strive for perfectionism. At the start of your vegan transition, make sure to set yourself up for success. It never hurts to have a few vegan-friendly microwave meals on hand. Trust me on this one, you’ll be thanking yourself!
Eating out as a vegan
While eating out as a vegan is much better than it used to be – it’s very rare not to find at least one vegan option on the menu – choices can still be limited. Don’t get me wrong, I love a vegan burger as much as anyone, but I don’t want one every single time I go out (aka the go-to ‘token’ vegan offering).
That said, a bit of prior planning is always helpful if you have any say over the venue. You can find vegan-friendly restaurants by using the Happy Cow app. Or, if you live in a city, you may even be able to find exclusively vegan restaurants.
Look at menus beforehand (my favourite pastime!) or call restaurants directly to check what options are available if it isn’t clear. Desserts are notoriously poor (sorbet, anyone?), but it’s always worth asking questions so as to drive demand for menu development in the future.
How to Manage Your Relationships as a Vegan
What you assume will be the hardest part – changing your diet – often turns out to be easier than you think compared to the social and cultural ramifications of your new lifestyle choice.
It’s easy to underestimate the toll that veganism can have on your relationships with friends and family. From feeling frustrated that no one ‘gets it’ to wondering what you’ll do when faced with a plate of turkey on Christmas day, here’s everything you need to navigate a vegan lifestyle with your loved ones.
Once you’ve made up your mind about veganism, it can be hard to understand how the whole world hasn’t also come to the same epiphany. So first off, don’t harbour feelings of resentment towards your meat-eating family and friends. You only need to worry about your own actions.
On the flip side, veganism is still a fairly ‘fringe’ lifestyle choice, so don’t expect everyone to be lining up at your door to praise your good deed. In fact, don’t even be surprised to receive a few raised eyebrows or outright criticism.
If you’re still living under someone else’ roof, it can be particularly challenging, so I’ve gathered together my best advice on the topic to help you navigate the path of least resistance.
Navigating love and dating
Maybe you haven’t even considered the realm of love and dating in your vegan lifestyle choice. But if veganism is a major part of your identity now, then you may find yourself feeling frustrated in this area.
From sharing a fridge to cooking meat dishes for your other half, it begs the question as to whether it’s even possible for vegans and non-vegans to harmoniously coexist in a relationship together?
I believe that with love, communication and understanding, it absolutely can be. But it’s up to you as an individual to make that call. Know your boundaries and deal breakers so as to avoid unnecessary expectations, disagreement and disappointment.
Vegan gift giving
Now that you’re vegan, you’ll likely find that well-intentioned loved ones struggle to know what they can and can’t buy for you. Plus, you’ll also want to purchase cruelty-free presents for others that align with your values… ones that they’ll be genuinely pleased to receive!
To make things easier all around, I’ve pulled together the ultimate vegan gifts guide for him and her (a mammoth task, but so worth it) to suit all tastes and budgets. What with Christmas on the horizon, why not have a little nosey?!
How to survive the holiday season
When it comes around to seasonal times of year like Easter and Christmas, it can be awkward when traditional family gatherings typically revolve around meat as the centrepiece.
One solution is to host yourself and put on a spread of delicious plant-based food. Alternatively, if you’ve got meat eaters who don’t fancy giving up their roast, then offer to take your own dishes, or assist with the cooking and ‘veganise’ where necessary. For example, pop a nut roast in the oven alongside the turkey, or use vegetable juices for the gravy.
Remember that the main thing is always communication. Talk to your loved ones, and I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to help accommodate to your needs.
Beyond Diet: Transitioning to a Vegan Lifestyle
For many people, a vegan lifestyle often begins with diet (and there’s no shame in taking things one step at a time!). But in reality, veganism is about much more than simply eating plant-based foods. It means avoiding animal-based products and cruelty towards animals in every aspect of our lives.
What to do with all the non-vegan stuff you already own?
It’s easy enough to clear out your fridge of animal products, but once you get beyond diet, it can be a bit of an ethical grey area as to what to do with all your non-vegan items. I know that I had a leather jacket and woolly jumpers galore.
While purists will argue that you should get rid of all your non-vegan items right this second, there is no right or wrong answer. If you’re really uncomfortable with the thought of owning animal-derived products, then, by all means, go ahead. The problem is that getting rid of things that are still useful causes waste and isn’t helpful from a sustainability point of view.
I’ve discussed the topic in more detail, but in short, my advice would be to replace things gradually as they wear out with vegan options.
Avoid animal-derived materials when you buy new clothes
We often forget the silent victims of the fashion industry. In the documentary film SLAY, Melanie Joy uses the term ‘carnism’ to describe the way in which animals literally ‘disappear’ into everyday objects. To avoid unnecessary suffering and animal cruelty, vegans will intentionally avoid animal materials, including:
Here are a few of my favourite 100% vegan places to shop for clothes and accessories:
Take a deep dive into the subject with more of my articles on plant-based fashion.
Avoid animal ingredients in cosmetics products
Alongside fashion, there are a lot of makeup, personal care and household cleaning products that either contain animal ingredients or have been tested on animals.
As a new vegan, take care to look out for cruelty-free certification from Leaping Bunny or PETA, as well as vegan certification from The Vegan Society. You can also use specific brand checkers like Cruelty-Free Kitty or Ethical Elephant. Don’t be afraid to reach out to brands directly for answers if their treatment of animals isn’t made clear.
Also, check out my carefully researched buying guides that will introduce you to kind and conscious brands (while never compromising on performance).
Do the best you can
The harsh reality is that we live in a non-vegan world, with manufacturing industries and structures in place that are slow to change. While there are many vegan alternatives now available, you may struggle when it comes to a 100% vegan car, the medicine you need to take, or even the bricks and mortar of your house.
It’s worth reminding ourselves in these instances of the Vegan Society’s definition we started with:
… which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation.
Some things will be beyond your control, and that is okay. Even if you make a genuine mistake and slip up, it’s all too easy to get hung up on perfectionism. Remember that veganism is more about the intent to minimise animal suffering rather than trying to remain completely untouched by cruel systems.
To make things as easy as possible, check out my directory for go-to online stores for vegan shopping.
Going Vegan for Beginners: A Lifestyle Change for the Long Haul
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, then hopefully you have a much better understanding of exactly what it means to embark on a vegan lifestyle. For me, it’s been a constant learning curve, complete with its ups and downs. But in passing this knowledge on to you – even if I’ve made your transition just the tiniest bit easier – then I consider that a success!
Of course, this is just my experience, and everyone’s vegan transition will be unique to the individual. So if you are in the process of going vegan or want to share any particular challenges you’ve faced, then I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!