Transitioning to a Vegan Diet
July 7, 2014 10:20 AM   Subscribe

I recently read Finding Ultra by Rich Roll and was interested in make some changes similar to him in that I would like to go vegetarian or possibly Vegan. I purchased a few books, and was wondering how others have done with transitioning to a vegan diet? I'm hoping that eating more healthy will get me out of this rut that I am in. For those of you have gone vegan, did you learn to cook several meals before you made the change, or did you do something different?

The only thing preventing me from going vegan right now is experience and uncertainty with regards to what I should be eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The other factor is obviously the expense of eating in this lifestyle. If anyone has some experience with this or would be kind enough to share how they went vegan, it would be greatly appreciated.
posted by nidora to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
What nutritional goals are you trying to meet that would be easier to meet with a vegan diet?

I would try to do one meal at a time. Start looking for breakfast foods that are vegan until you have few good, solid, vegan breakfast options. Then start trying to have vegan lunches.

The thing is that you do have to be very conscious of your protein intake. I don't think that it's nearly as true with a vegetarian diet, so if this is purely for nutritional reasons (vs ethical or religious reasons) I would strongly suggest vegetarian eating instead of vegan eating.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:29 AM on July 7, 2014

I am currently an omnivore but spent most of a couple of years recently eating vegan. I decided to try it for one month and see what I thought before deciding, "I will be vegan." At the end of a month it was a no brainer to continue. Even though I was in my mid-30s when I made this decision and have always enjoyed cooking, I feel like I never really understood how to make food taste good until I went vegan. You do have to work a little harder but for me it was completely worth it. It has changed my diet and the way I cook forever, even though, as I say, I am eating some meat again now.

I can't recommend Isa Moskowitz's books and website strongly enough. She has tons of recipes online and a thriving community of people in the forums who want to help and will answer your questions and give you ideas. Appetite for Reduction is billed as a weight loss book but to me it is the simplest of all her cookbooks, great for weeknight meals. I have all her books, though - they are all fantastic.

If you're intimidated by making a huge change all at once, start small. Maybe try being vegan half the time for a few weeks, or just for dinner. Small changes are easier to maintain than a sudden huge one, especially for something that is as a big a part of your life as eating.

I will also say that eating vegan is actually much cheaper than eating meat (or even being vegetarian), as long as you don't go crazy with Whole Foods organic produce and pre-prepared items. Vegetables, tofu, beans, tempeh... all of this stuff is very inexpensive compared with fish and meat and cheese. I'd be surprised if your grocery bill doesn't go down, rather than increase.
posted by something something at 10:30 AM on July 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hi, non-vegan here, but I've been using a lot of Mark Bittman's recipes, especially the ones in Vegan Before 6 (eating a vegan brek and lunch) to slowly incorporate more vegan meals into my diet. The recipes in that book are typically vegan as a base and then he suggests some animal-derived products to add if you choose.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 10:33 AM on July 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've known several friends who have gone vegan quickly, and done it very unhealthily.

The biggest trap they seem to fall into is quickly relying on processed, prepackaged, objectively unhealthy foods that just happen to be 'vegan' to fill in the gaps of their own knowledge. There is a remarkable amount terrible vegan food products out there (there's also a ton of amazing ones…that, my family of omnivores routinely eat). If you're doing this for health reasons, you'll want to make sure what you're consuming is actually healthful, not just vegan. Vegan ≠ Healthy, at least not necessarily.

The more successful vegans I've known, typically go towards vegetarianism first (which is very easy to do cold turkey as it were), then slowly introduce veganism into their daily routine.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:35 AM on July 7, 2014

And, yeah, depending on how much meat you eat, it can be more expensive but it really doesn't have to be. I personally think it is cheapest to eat a pleasant vegetarian diet.

You can do a cheap vegan diet, but I find it depressing to eat the really cheap vegan stuff 24/7 and not eat any of the tastier fake meats. I hate cooking, though!

Speaking of Whole Foods, their store brand stuff can be decently priced and they do have a lot of vegan food. Their unsweetened soymilk is a staple around here, and their soy-based protein powder is really really tasty. That said, their convenience food is very pricey.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:36 AM on July 7, 2014

I just made the switch one day and it took a couple of months to get the hang of it really. There was no planning, just feeling my way. It helps that I was always open to trying new things, experimentation, and cooking/baking. Isa Chandra Moskowitz's books are great for beginners, particularly the Veganomicon.

Breakfast - depends on what you like? We're usually pretty simple with yogurt (right now I've been eating a lot of coconut milk greek style) or cereal with almond milk, and fruit and black coffee. Sometimes we make waffles or a tofu scramble, but that's not the norm.

Lunch - lots of peanut butter sandwiches due to laziness. I also try to make salads (like rice and beans, or pasta) which are hearty and last a couple of days. Left overs are another common lunch.

Dinner - again, it depends and we don't really think about it. Last night we had grilled veggies and Field Roast burgers. Night before I made grilled tofu, corn, and asparagus. Some nights it's just a huge salad with beans and nuts. Of course this is easy since the focus is usually the veg, and that makes a bulk of the meal. Stir fries with various things are also quite easy to make, tasty, and filling. I am a big fan of seitan and tofu though. Some of the fake meats can be an easy way to make a dish heartier, though a lot of time I just use a can of beans.

As for money - if you stick to fruit and veg and don't buy the most expensive stuff it's actually not that bad. True, the milks and the fake meats cost a lot but you shouldn't be eating too much of that anyhow.

As for being unhealty - I know I was the first couple of months but that's because I was trying to subsist on coffee with soymilk (for protein!) and lime popsicles. I think a lot of the unhealthy vegans rely on too many processed foods and/or get stuck in food ruts where they aren't eating a variety of anything and aren't getting enough veg. Once I flipped my thinking it got easier and now I don't even think about it. I've never had health problems because of my diet. I underwent chemo 7 years ago thinking I would have to go back to being omni, but my blood levels were always good. I think it's because I made sure I ate extra kale.
posted by kendrak at 10:42 AM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I actually have gone back and forth on being vegan - sometimes I'm a committed 100% vegan, sometimes I have lapses involving eggs and cheese. But that's more about my issues with food and stress than about actual vegan lifestyle stuff. Here are a few thoughts from when I started being vegan:

1. I chose a time when my routine was already disrupted - I was doing a week of volunteering and for activism-specific reasons it was going to be very easy for me to access vegan food. My usual cooking routines weren't in play.

2. I told myself that if I really wanted a non-vegan thing, I could have it. This took the mental pressure of "oh no I will never get to eat delicious cheese again" off me. When I wanted to eat non-vegan things, I reminded myself that all the things would still be available another time - I wasn't giving up my last opportunity to eat an omelet.

3. Most of the things I made were already close to vegan...vegan food really isn't this mysterious weird cuisine. Beans and rice, salads with nuts and fruit, all kinds of curries and stir fries, pasta dishes...People have this unconscious idea that if it isn't an animal product, it's somehow deficient in protein and can't possibly be a "real" dish unless it's crammed with tofu. The only thing that's difficult on a vegan diet is being truly low-carb, although you can easily eat a slow-carb/lower carb diet.

4. So you can easily eat oatmeal for breakfast, a peanut butter and whole wheat sandwich or a salad with nuts and fruit for lunch and a rice/bean/avocado burrito for dinner, and you're fine.

5. My advice would be to concentrate on easily veganizable things at first - dishes that you can basically subtract meat from and perform some simple substitutions on.

6. Earth Balance buttery spread is a very useful product - you can sub it 1-for-1 in any cooking application where butter is an ingredient rather than a focus (ie, browned butter sauce won't work) and it's perfectly satisfactory on popcorn, etc. The non-vegans in my house use it instead of butter just because it's around. It makes good frosting - people often check to see if the frosting I make is actually vegan, because it doesn't "taste" vegan.

7. Flax eggs - in baking, you can replace eggs with ground flax seed and water, again as long as the egg flavor is not the point. So - not so great in a pound cake or an angel food cake, perfectly acceptable in a spice cake or a chocolate cake. A cake which requires more than about 1 egg per 1.5 C flour is too eggy and this won't work.

7.5. After a while, you get used to the clearer flavors of vegan food - when I eat eggs, cheese or milk now, they taste incredibly rich to me, and meat nearly always tastes a bit greasy and overwhelming.

8. I found that after I was comfortable with basic vegan cooking of the beans/curry/pasta/stir-fry kind, I got more interested in the "weird" kinds of vegan things that don't have exact parallels in a non-vegan mainstream US diet. I use nutritional yeast a lot now, I make a lot of chickpea flour savory pancakes, I've just recently gotten into using hemp seeds. Basically, when I first started with vegan cooking, a lot of the wackier things in Veganomicon just looked kind of weird and icky to me (vegan omelet! vegan cheese!) but then it turned out that the "vegan omelet" was a chickpea flour pancake, and "vegan cheese" is just various kinds of cashew spread.

9. If you want to be a super-low-carb vegan who eats a great variety of vegetables every week, being vegan is kind of expensive. If you are happy enough eating a lot of legumes and grains and you're willing to have just a couple of kinds of fresh vegetables every week, it's not that spendy. I get a 2-lb bag of baby carrots and a bunch of apples every week, and then I supplement with whatever looks good/is on sale. So some weeks, I get a lot of greens and have simple salads, some weeks I get a lot of broccoli and have...a lot of broccoli, some weeks I get a lot of squash, etc.

I think the key part is being relatively comfortable with cooking. Vegan store-bought food can be a fun treat (ranging from healthy and delicious to junk and delicious) but it can't be the key element of the diet. You don't need to be a sophisticated cook, but you need to have the habit of cooking regularly.
posted by Frowner at 10:53 AM on July 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: For those of you have gone vegan, did you learn to cook several meals before you made the change, or did you do something different?

Vegan for 10+ years.

Honestly, I just woke up one morning and realized I could no longer live with myself if I continued to participate in a food chain that perpetuated the abuse of non-human animals, and since the dairy and egg industries are even more cruel than the meat industry, veganism it is! That makes it very easy for me: Animal products are no longer something I see as remotely edible, period, and it's up to me to adjust accordingly on a daily basis. I'm ridiculously healthy -- much moreso as a vegan than I was as an omni -- but health had nothing to do with my decision.

Veganism is really not expensive at all as long as you're OK totally eschewing faux meats and cheeses and most other insta-meal-type convenience foods. In my experience, the people who complain about how expensive it is to be vegan are a) omnivores and b) stocking their carts with Gardein nuggets, Daiya cheese, and Boca burgers instead of tofu, beans, rice, and leafy greens.

One of the biggest humps you need to get over is social: You're going to be cooking and eating at home much more frequently than you're going to be dining out, simply by virtue of the fact that most restaurants' idea of "vegan food" involves questionably-oiled french fries or a bowl of dry iceberg lettuce topped with a single unripe cherry tomato and most of your friends are not going to want to eschew meat/dairy at their gatherings, even if just for one meal out of their day.

So if you don't already know how to cook, now's the time to start practicing! Being extremely comfortable in the kitchen is 100% essential to long-term veganism. The hardest part is probably just learning how to mix and match flavors with a strictly herbivorous palate -- you're used to the natural unctuousness of meat and dairy, so plant-based foods might seem a little bland at first, which is why herbs, spices, sauces, and condiments are a vegan's best friend.

Breakfast is toast with peanut butter and fruit jam or Earth Balance. Biscuits and gravy. Tofu scramble with ranchero sauce and tempeh or crispy mushroom bacon. Lunch and dinner are usually PPK- or VegWeb-inspired. Isa Does It is the best cookbook I've ever owned, bar none.

The only remotely "weird" store-bought products I consider to be must-haves are nutritional yeast and vital wheat gluten (both available in your local Whole Foods' bulk bins), Earth Balance, Better Than Boullion, and (when I'm feeling fancy) Butler Soy Curls. Other than those things and the tofu/tempeh/soymilk Axis of Awesome, everything else is just standard-issue spices, snacks, and produce. Nothing too intimidating or expensive at all.

These previouslies might help you suss out a path forward:
Want to chomp some vegan food
Looking for a 'Vegan 101' grocery list

And here are some short-term experiments, which will give you a window into other omnis' experience with veganism: The Vegan Experience, Going Vegan, 21-Day Kickstart.
posted by divined by radio at 11:06 AM on July 7, 2014 [8 favorites]

When I first went vegan, having previously been vegetarian, I had no inspiration for meals whatsoever. For the first couple of weeks, I used Veggie Meal Maker's meal plans to get into the swing of things, and stopped using them after less than a month.

My biggest tip is to LOVE avocado. It adds a creamy note to anything you previously would have put cheese on and makes going without dairy a breeze!
posted by srrh at 11:44 AM on July 7, 2014

Depending on the day, I am vegetarian, or pescetarian, or vegan. I call myself a vegetarian, but I eat vegan at least a third of the time, and I'll have fish maybe a couple of times a year. I eat what I do largely for ethical and environmental reasons (although the health stuff is definitely a motivator), but I try not to worry too much about the label. If my goal is to reduce my impact and lead a healthy lifestyle, then as long as I'm doing that it shouldn't matter what label people stick on me. If you haven't done so already, you might find it worthwhile to take a step back and consider what you're trying to achieve and to determine whether worrying less about categorization (internally or externally) and easing into a new diet gradually wouldn't be beneficial. You don't necessarily have to do everything immediately or call yourself this or that to accomplish your goals.

In any case, "what [you] should be eating" is kind of a large question, but I thought I'd provide a some of my staples, with the caveat that I am not a doctor/nutritionist/any kind of expert.

Breakfast: Green smoothie (usually apple, banana, carrot, kale, orange juice and/or white grape juice, nuts, and flax) and toast; Greek yogurt with muesli and berries; oatmeal with whatever; beans, mushrooms, and toast. If you're a cereal person, you might be able to get away with just switching to a soy/rice/nut milk.

Lunch/dinner: Grain + green + bean combinations abound (tonight is brown basmati, chard, and cannellini beans); myriad soups with homemade bread; tofu tikka masala with peas; quinoa + tofu + random veggies. Lentils are good, and cook up quickly... you can toss them in rice to make a sort of pilaf.

Snacks (I know, you didn't ask, but...): Popcorn with nutritional yeast is quick and tasty. I also love cooking up a batch of chickpeas (dried is cheaper than canned, although more work), coating them in olive oil and garam masala, and baking them for a bit. Also, kale chips are tasty and have a delicate but satisfying crunch.

As a general tip... as noted by others, definitely consider "veganizing" things you already make regularly as a starting point. That said, I am a vegetarian who loves a good steak, and the most significant part of the transition for me was reframing my thinking about what makes a meal. Sure, I'll cook up a tofu steak sometimes, but dinner doesn't always have to have a meat-like focal point. (Which is good, because a lot of the meat substitutes are just awful.) Once I stopped thinking about how XYZ was different from ZYX and starting thinking "Hey, I still like XYZ for what it is," I had an easier time of it. In short: meat substitutes will not taste/feel like meat. Don't expect them to. But some of them are okay once you get out of that mindset.

Finally, on preview: Yeah, the social part might well be the most difficult. Getting people to understand my not-too-strange diet has been surprisingly challenging. ("No, Mom, not even chicken." "Oh, look, there's bacon hidden in this cabbage...") It helps it you're willing to be flexible when eating out (consider ordering a couple of starters instead of an entree; I also carry around some trail mix basically always) and patient with your loved ones. If I'm going to a family gathering that I know won't have much for me, I make sure to eat a bit before and again after; I don't expect people to cater to me, and I figure I'm there more for the company than the food anyway.
posted by cellar door at 12:02 PM on July 7, 2014

Oh yeah, the social stuff is tricky but I find being easy going, flexible, and not a big distraction to others makes it not so bad. When going out, I make do with appetizers and salads. If I'm in a smaller group it's easy to say, "Hey! Nothing on the menu really works for me, can we go somewhere else." I think this works because I only do it when there's really nothing on the menu for me and there are alternatives around. Otherwise, I go with it. My family has for the most part gotten it, my friends are pretty good, but I don't expect them to remember me and my diet all the time. It's great when they do, but I also recognize it's not all about my eating. Like my best friend's wedding next month probably won't actually have any food for me, but that's fine. It's not my wedding and I'll bring snacks and get a burrito at the end. I have a good friend who's also vegan attending the wedding and he's already complaining about the lack of food options. Yeah, it sucks but it happens a lot. You learn to deal with it, and really it's not that frequent so not that big of a deal.
posted by kendrak at 1:51 PM on July 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Pescetarian here though in truth I'm 90% vegan, but I tried 100% vegan for awhile and found the Skinny Bitch cookbook very helpful for transitioning (and laughing my way through it.)
posted by bearwife at 3:03 PM on July 7, 2014

When I was vegan I had to spend a lot of time preparing food. There are more pre-made vegan foods now, but you still need to budget time for food prep.

I was also hungry all the time and ate a lot of junk food. I knew a number of other vegans who were junk food junkies. I think it's hard to get enough calories, and then you end up hungry and making less healthy food choices.

So if your goal is health-related, make sure you always bring healthy snacks everywhere, eat lots of high protein and fat foods (nuts and nut butters are awesome), and eat big meals.
posted by latkes at 6:15 PM on July 7, 2014

The best and easiest way to become vegan (or anything else) is a little at a time. Sneak up on it.

Find one vegan recipe, one meal, that you love to eat and would love to eat even if you weren't looking for vegan food. Maybe something yummy you ate at a vegan restaurant. Start making that meal at home until you can make it without thinking about ingredient acquisition and proportions and cooking times and so on. Become a natural at cooking the basic ingredients (rice? tofu? certain green vegetables?) of just that one meal, which might be a main dish and a side and a salad. Become an efficient make of rice or beans or whatever, so it's no big deal to cook for yourself. How often you eat it depends on you and your need for variation. One meal a week? A couple of meals a week? Every day for lunch with some incidental variations (rotating greens?)? You might come up with a recipe that you can scale up, so that you're cooking and freezing one big pot of something Sunday afternoon and then eating it for lunch throughout the week at work.

All the rest of the week, feel free to chow down on as much meat as you normally would. Track and attack and kill and devour wild animals barehanded. Snack on raw monkey brains. Eat fistfuls of wriggling insects. Go cannibal.

But for one or two or seven meals a week (depending on how often you eat this vegan recipe) you are a vegan, and maybe people are happy when you make your X meal because they also love it. Make it a new tradition. Invite people to share it.

And after a few weeks or months or whatever you're ready, learn another vegan recipe. Master it. Adopt it. Incorporate it into your weekly meals. Don't mix it with meat and turn it into just another meat meal. Now you're twice the vegan you were, and you're eating that much less meat. (And so are the people you cook for.)

Keep going down that road for as long as it takes to get to zero meat, but don't give up if you never quite get there. All the good reasons for being 100 percent vegan also apply to being 90 percent vegan and 50 percent vegan and 25 percent vegan and 10 percent vegan.
posted by pracowity at 12:20 AM on July 8, 2014

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