Having lived a vegan lifestyle for almost six years now, I’ve seen so much change in the market and overall community.
I’ve also learned a lot too – primarily to do with how to make a plant-based diet work long-term, and some of the amazing benefits it can have for your mind and body – not to mention for animals and the environment.
For someone who isn’t yet vegan, or curious about adapting a more plant-based lifestyle, I can totally see how it would feel a bit scary or daunting. But having lived the lifestyle sustainably for the last few years, I can assure you there is absolutely nothing to worry about!
I decided to share some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned since going plant-based, and what I would tell my younger self, if I was going through the transition again. Who knows – maybe it’ll put some of your concerns to rest as well!
1. Its easy to forget that a plant-based diet still isn’t considered ‘normal’.
Probably one of the biggest things I’ve learned is just how easy it is to forget that a plant-based diet is still considered ‘wacky’, ‘strange’ or abnormal in many circles.
With a supportive family and accepting friends, as well as media articles proclaiming every new year ‘the year of the vegan’, I’ve often been lulled into thinking that plant-based eating is well and truly part of mainstream living.
If you ask my opinion, that is totally the case – I believe a plant-based diet is the optimal diet designed for our species, and – when environmental and ethical factors are taken into account – the only true way to eat. I also have a vegan best friend and happen to follow a lot of online personalities who are vegan, so you could say my perspective is a little skewed.
However, I am reminded from time to time that eating plant-based is a totally new concept to some people, and despite your best efforts to not act like a ‘typical vegan’ (whatever that is…?), you’re still going to be the weirdo, no matter what.
I’ve kind of learned to embrace this identity in these scenarios, and have realised that the best way to treat people who feel this way is with kindness, respect and curiosity. Sure, they may not understand your choices, and it can feel super frustrating, but taking the time to explain what veganism is and answering all of their questions with calm, clear facts is usually the best approach here.
After all, as difficult as these conversations can be, you may have just introduced one new person to plant-based eating, and there’s no telling what they may lead to later down the line.
2. It doesn’t have to involve eating 100% perfectly healthy, all of the time.
My transition to veganism started with a desire to be healthier, so you could say I was plant-based first and vegan second.
This meant that my transition to plant-based eating involved a focus on cutting out processed foods and introducing more whole plant foods into my diet. This is of course a fantastic, positive change for anyone, but in my case, I was perhaps a little too concerned at first with what was healthy and what wasn’t, and would avoid almost anything slightly processed for fear of it being less than ‘optimal’.
While that period was definitely helpful in enabling me to ditch unhealthy habits and learn to love whole foods, I’ve since realised that that’s neither sustainable nor enjoyable for most people to stick with. It was only when I met my boyfriend Christian in 2015 that I began to appreciate the joys of eating the not-so-healthy foods from time to time, as we naturally dined out more and enjoyed our favourite treats. Rest assured, my vegan lifestyle remained intact, but I began to loosen up on the health aspect as I celebrated vegan foods that both nourished my body and my soul.
Now, my diet is a lot more relaxed, with a focus on whole plant foods at least 80% of the time, and the other 20% or so allowing room for vegan junk food and treats. This has been key in enabling me to stick with a plant-based diet long-term and to tell you the truth, I feel even healthier as a result!
3. There are actually lots of different ways to eat plant-based.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that a plant-based diet has to look a certain way, or match someone’s diet you follow on Instagram. But in reality, there are lots of different ways to eat plant-based, and it’s important to find the one that works for you.
Some people may prefer to focus on high protein meals, filling their plate with beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu and enjoying protein shakes throughout the day. Others may function well when incorporating more healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds, nut butters and tahini, whilst others may see better results by keeping their fats low.
Some plant-based dieters choose to take things high carb with large amounts of fruit, smoothies, rice, pasta and potatoes, whilst others that prefer a lower-carb approach can definitely do so whilst still eating plant-based.
Whatever your style of eating, you’ll find that there is a variety of ways to do this and watching others online (such as food bloggers and YouTubers) will show just how varied this way of eating can be.
That said, don’t follow someone else’s diet just because that’s what seems trendy in the moment. Following others for inspiration is great, but experimenting with your own body is what’s going to lead you to a way of plant-based eating you feel most happy with.
4. You don’t need to worry about not getting enough protein.
When I first went plant-based, one of the things I was super conscious of was…*drum roll* you guessed it! Not getting enough protein. Of course! Hah.
I had been so spooked by all the women’s health and fitness articles I was reading at the time that I was shovelling down beans, pulses, quinoa, buckwheat and tofu like there was no tomorrow and often feeling stuffed and bloated as a result. I would also add hemp protein powder to my smoothies which, whilst not in any means a bad thing, was probably not necessary at the time as I was consuming more than enough protein elsewhere.
Not only was I cramming in way too many high density legumes, I also wasn’t going easy on my digestive system and giving it a chance to adjust to all this new plant fibre I was suddenly consuming. Needless to say, it didn’t make me feel great.
We’re all taught by the media and sports marketing that protein is the ultimate macro-nutrient and is what’s most important for the body. However, that isn’t actually true at all – too much protein is actually very acidic and can lead to inflammation and ailments in the body. It’s also been shown that we don’t need as much protein daily as we think – just 0.8g per kilogram of body weight (0.36g per pound), which really isn’t that much. And when it comes to gaining muscle, studies have shown that it’s actually carbohydrates that contribute just as much, if not more, to the building and retention of muscle mass.
A year or so into my plant-based journey, having learned about the benefits of a higher carb diet (and also being better informed about plant-based protein), I cooled it on the legumes and began to relax about the whole protein thing. And unsurprisingly, my body responded much better – I felt better, looked better, and still to this day have no problem holding onto lean muscle.
I could go into this in much more detail in a later post, but if you’re worried about getting enough protein, check out this article I wrote for Nutriciously on plant-based protein. Hopefully that’ll put your mind at rest and make you realise that protein deficiency is a very difficult thing to come by – it’s much more important to get a variety of healthy whole plant-based foods.
5. In fact, you don’t really have to worry about any macro…
Another common worry most people have regarding plant-based diets is of eating too many carbs. I unfortunately also fell prey to this widely perpetuated myth, continuing to question my food choices even after going plant-based. Wouldn’t I be better eating some ‘lean’ salmon and a salad, instead of all this rice and chickpeas? How could I eat more ‘lean’ protein whilst still sticking to plants?
As it turns out, none of these fears were at all warranted. First of all, carbohydrates are incredibly important for the body, giving us sustainable energy throughout the day and supplying the brain with much-needed glucose. Whilst you might be hooked in by all those low-carb diet weight loss stories, know that the effects of these diets are often very short-lived and aren’t sustainable long-term. Limiting carbs can also lead to other problems in the body such as low energy, sluggish digestion, irritable mood and brain fog. Weight loss and health can absolutely be achieved without resorting to such drastic measures.
Secondly, carbohydrates coming from whole plant foods are packed with important nutrients and will be turned into usable energy much more easily. Unlike refined carbs coming from white bread, cakes, pastries and processed snacks, complex carbs coming from sweet potatoes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables have no direct link with weight gain and will help to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
Once I ditched the ‘carbs = bad’ mindset, I was free to enjoy all the whole plant foods I wanted without worrying about what macro-nutrient they might fit into. Rather than focusing specifically on macros, nowadays I focus more on getting a wide variety of health-giving plant foods into my diet every day.
This has not only elevated my enjoyment on a plant-based diet, but my overall health too.
6. You WILL need to eat more (and learn to trust your hunger)!
When people first start to limit or cut out animal products, they’re often surprised by just how much more they need to eat in order to feel satisfied. They may find themselves feeling hungry and deprived all the time and assume that a plant-based diet just doesn’t work for them…which of course isn’t true. They just aren’t eating enough!
In the early days of my plant-based journey, learning to trust my own hunger was a huge learning curve, and there were times when I would feel guilty or uncertain about eating more than one plateful of food because it seemed so much more than what others were eating (or what I was used to eating before). The truth is, when you cut out animal products you cut out a lot of calories, so you have to be sure to make up for those calories by eating enough nutrient dense plant foods.
Another aspect to consider is that plants are much lower in calories than animal products. Compare one sweet potato (100 calories) to one cup of chicken breast (400 calories). You’d have to eat four sweet potatoes to get the same amount of calories, which is a huge difference! This is something to bear in mind when cooking and enjoying plant-based meals. Eat till you’re full, eat often and eat enough!
When you stick to whole foods, your hunger can become a reliable impulse. Learning to trust mine has been a huge factor in making a plant-based diet work long-term. This interview I did with plant-based trainers The PlantKind Life elaborates more on this, and will hopefully enable you to see that calories and portion control need to go out of the window when it comes to eating plants.
7. People will often look to your diet as the cause of any health problems.
Have you ever had a cold (or recurring colds) and had somebody suggest it might be because of your plant-based diet?
Most plant-based eaters will be able to relate on this one, because I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard it at some point! Whilst those well-meaning people may just be looking out for us, their suggestion is actually very misaligned, as health problems and illnesses can be experienced by anyone on any type of diet, yet meat-eaters don’t get asked whether their omnivorous diet has something to do with their sinus problems!
When it comes to common colds and seasonal illnesses, these are pretty common for all of us, and can be triggered/exacerbated by a range of factors such as stress, amount of sleep we’ve had and yes, how many nutrients we’ve been consuming (which is likely to be pretty high for those eating a whole food plant based diet).
When it comes to more serious, underlying health problems, disease doesn’t discriminate based on what type of diet we assume, but rather the individual microutrients we may be getting (or not getting). Studies have shown for instance that non-vegans are just as likely, if not more likely, to be deficient in B12, whilst almost everyone in the UK is prone to vitamin D deficiency because of the lack of sunlight we get.
Anybody can be healthy or unhealthy on a plant-based diet, but so long as you’re eating a variety of whole foods (and supplementing B12 and any other important nutrients you struggle with), your diet is much less likely to be the cause of any illnesses.
I’m also really pleased to see more and more doctors (in the UK at least) acknowledge and commend plant-based eating. Even the British Dietetic Association has now approved plant-based diets as being nutritionally adequate for all ages and stages of life.
8. Making ethics your reason makes it much easier to stick to your guns.
Picture this. You’re at a friend or family member’s house, or maybe out at a restaurant. You’re all eating dinner. You’re offered something containing cheese. You politely turn it down.
“Are you sure? A bit of cheese won’t hurt you!”
“It’s only a tiny amount.”
“Nobody will know! We won’t tell anyone.”
“You’ve eaten so well today. You deserve a treat.”
When choosing a plant-based diet primarily for health reasons, you’ll likely encounter many of these comments whenever you try to turn down animal-based dishes. And I know as well as anyone, that these are the times when your willpower and good intentions may go by the wayside, and you give in the social pressure because you don’t want to seem rude or ungrateful….or maybe you do in fact feel that you “deserve a treat”.
However, when your reasons for choosing a plant-based diet are ethical ones, people are much less likely to try to change your mind. There seems to be a certain sacredness, a kind of untouchableness, about one’s morals or principals that will protect you, for the most part, from those who may try to sway you otherwise. Of course there will still be those people who may think they can change your beliefs in one conversation, but most people will be respectful and accept your choices.
While eating plant-based for health is certainly fantastic, eating plant-based for ethics (as part of a vegan lifetsyle) makes it much easier to have people respect your choices at the dinner table, and will also make it easier to stick to the diet long-term.
9. You will ALWAYS be able to find something (tasty) to eat.
One of the main worries for most people new to a vegan diet is: “Will I be able to always find something to eat?”
I totally get it. Whether it’s out for dinner with friends, attending a family gathering or eating on the go, being vegan (or plant-based) can make your choices a little slimmer in terms of what’s available at any given time. Nobody wants to have to settle for an unappealing limp salad or have to pick at a snacks in place of a real meal. I completely understand how most people would imagine their food choices to be much more abundant when allowing animal products into their diet.
However, here’s what I’ve learned in the last six years: in today’s climate, you will ALWAYS be able to find something great to eat. Like, ALWAYS. Let that sink in a moment.
In the last few years, plant-based options have sky-rocketed and the diet is recognised as a legitimately mainstream way of eating. Whether you’re on the go, eating in a restaurant etc, you don’t have to worry about choices being scarce. They’re everywhere! Both big restaurant chains and independent cafes, as well as fast food franchises, supermarkets and coffee shops, are all doing their bit to supply a steady stream of delicious, colourful and nutritiously sound food options for us plant eaters. It’s really quite amazing.
Whilst in my early vegan days I was always used to carrying snacks around in my bag, shopping at particular places for certain ingredients and checking restaurant menus ahead of time (sometimes phoning the restaurant beforehand to check they could cater for me), nowadays all of those things are pretty rare, and I tend to let go a lot more and just go with the flow.
Don’t get me wrong – none of those things were exactly hard by any means, and any new vegan/plant-based eater will often have to still do some label-checking and planning when they first venture out with their new lifestyle. But I can safely say that things are a whole lot easier now than they were five years ago, and they’re only going to continue getting easier, as the plant-based market is expanding at a terrific rate. I can’t speak for every country, but here in the UK, as well as the states, Australia and most of Europe, are all recognising that plant-based diets are here to stay.
Oh, and I will quickly add that a positive mindset definitely helps too. If you acknowledge that yummy food options are all around you, you’ll be much more likely to seek out those wonderful hidden gems.
10. And yes…you can still be a total ‘foodie’.
Another reason I’ve heard others give for not wanting to be plant-based is because they recognise themselves as a “foodie”. They love food, are passionate about cooking and trying new dishes, and are generally open to all flavours and cuisines. Many people feel that as a ‘foodie’, they would be limiting their options and their ability to explore their passion for food, if they were to remove animal products from the equation.
Not only do I feel this isn’t a substantial argument against eating more ethically, I can first and foremost say that you CAN feel every bit excited, satisfied and fulfilled by your food on a plant-based diet…perhaps even more so! When you choose to fill your body with an abundance of plants, you start to discover so many new and incredible foods that you may not have tried before. In my pre-plant eating days I had no idea what jackfruit was; had never tried tofu and wasn’t aware of all the wonderful things you could do with oyster mushrooms. There are over 300,000 species of edible plants worldwide, and yet we are eating only a fraction of those. Yes, when you go plant-based you give up the five major animal foods…but you open up a door to so, so much more.
I was a huge foodie, have been my whole life. I have always been obsessed with food from a young age, with a ravaging appetitie (that hasn’t changed) and a keen interest in trying new flavours. That excitement and passion for food has not dwindled…it’s now actually stronger than ever. And knowing that my food choices don’t harm animals or cause as much damage to the environment only adds to that enjoyment.
Join the Conversation
Drop me a comment telling me what you’ve learned since adapting a plant-based diet! Or, if you’re not plant-based yet, let me know if any of these lessons have made you want to give it a try!
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