Cheat Your Way to a (Just About) Vegan Diet

Most fledgling vegans seem to fall in to two categories: Either 1) they give up animal products cold turkey and become militant ingredient-checkers, or 2) they repeatedly break down and gobble up animal products at the first hint of a craving. Many of us find ourselves swinging back and forth between these two extremes. I can tell you from personal experience that the grass isn’t so green on either side.

Props to you if you have the strength, dedication, and will power to go perfectly and happily vegan in one fell swoop, but most of us are going to experience some anxiety/sense of loss at the thought of giving up many of our favorite foods at once and FOREVER. As I’ve posted about before, these feelings often hold people back from giving a plant-based diet a try. We all have that one special food that we can’t imagine giving up. I ate so little meat to begin with that eliminating animal products from my day-to-day diet was a non-issue for me, but the idea of never, ever, again getting to taste seafood or parmesan cheese seemed unfathomable.

Seeing veganism as a permanent, irreversible, all-or-nothing life change can make it seem like an enormously daunting task. (That’s how it felt for me, at least.) I prefer to treat the transition to a plant-based diet as an easily personalized, always modifiable process that you can take at your own pace and tackle on your own terms.

Obviously, the experience of going plant-based is different for everyone, but here’s the 2-part method that allowed me to avoid these common pitfalls and maintain a diet that is essentially plant–based:

1. Especially in the beginning, DON’T feel like you have to commit to giving up animal products forever.

Like I said, I was a big fan of seafood and fancy cheese before I went plant-based. I discovered it was completely painless to cut these products out of my regular diet– I didn’t even miss the shrimp in my weeknight Chinese carry-out or–once I found my beloved nutritional yeast–the parmesan cheese on my spaghetti. I did, however, experience a powerful pang of sentimentality at the thought of never again being able to participate in my family’s New Year’s Eve crab feast or never being able to eat pasta without worry if I ever made it to Italy.  I decided to give myself permission that if someday in the future the nostalgia and/or longing grew too overwhelming to bear, I would allow myself to cheat, but in a controlled way (see Item 2). I rarely if ever experienced the impulse to cheat, but knowing that I didn’t necessarily have to make a lifelong commitment gave me a huge sense of relief and the courage to take the leap. It turns out that I’ve only ended up cheating once–with wild caught crab from a shack overlooking the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. In the end, it totally grossed me out to the point that I’m not sure if I’ll ever do it again, which I think was a better outcome than me having turned down the crab and then later obsessing over how much I miss seafood.

2. If you’re going to let yourself cheat, DO limit it to clearly defined special circumstances and categories of food. 

While it is important to be forgiving of yourself as you transition to an essentially vegan lifestyle, it’s also incredibly easy to unintentionally slip back into your old diet. Now, any step towards a plant-based diet, no matter how small, is a positive in my book. But if your goal is veganism, then you have to compartmentalize and contain your animal-product consumption or you’ll be back to a Standard American diet before you know it (and you’ll also never get the chance to impress yourself with your vegan cooking creativity. See Item 3.)

Everyone’s personal guidelines will be different and based on their own values and relationship with food, but mine are something like this: I keep 100% vegan at home, order food that appears vegan at restaurants, and will never, under any circumstances, eat vertebrates.  I do, however, look the other way when it comes to a barely detectable amount of dairy in food prepared by someone else, and will order an egg or bivalves a couple times a year to keep my B12 levels up. I also haven’t completely closed the door to the idea of consuming cheese or seafood on rare, very special occasions (i.e. once in a few years) where the food is central– such as while visiting Paris or on a trip to a seaside village. Sure, there are times when a cheesy dish on a local restaurant menu sounds absolutely delicious and it would be easy to deem the situation a “special occasion,” but I remind myself of my rules, stick to them, and happily order a vegan dish.

3. DO genuinely push yourself to avoid animal products. Even if a food is on your once-in-a-while list, then still make the best effort you possibly can to avoid consuming it.

Going vegan is like training for an athletic challenge: if you don’t push yourself and exercise, you’ll never build the strength and skills you need.

My first week of going plant-based, for example, my husband T had some eggs in the fridge and I was seriously craving a Mexican-style scramble. Because eggs were then in my “sometimes” category, I was literally thisclose to just frying up a couple. T, always one to follow the rules, gently questioned if I was sure I was ready to give in so easily. At the time, I was pretty annoyed with him to say the least, but I decided to scour our cabinets for something else I could make for breakfast. Eventually, I found a can of white beans, which I smashed up and fried will all the same seasonings (chili powder, cumin, chipotle sauce) I would have used on the eggs, then served them up in a corn tortilla with avocado. The end product was delicious, every bit as satisfying (and protein-packed) as the eggs would have been. If I hadn’t pushed myself, I never would have realized how easy it was to scratch my itch with a plant-based food.

What do you guys think? Are you comfortable with the idea of cheating and establishing your own plant-based diet guidelines, or do you prefer to follow concrete rules?

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7 thoughts on “Cheat Your Way to a (Just About) Vegan Diet

  1. I suppose it depends on your reasons. A couple of years into being vegan I did have some slip-ups with dairy, but when I thought of the awful things I knew about the dairy industry they trumped any fleeting pleasure I might get from a bit of milk chocolate and I’ve never knowingly eaten dairy since (that was in about 2000). However, I don’t ask about shared frying oil if out in a mixed restaurant, and if it would be very awkward socially if I made enquiries, like for a wedding toast, I will drink alcohol without knowing how it’s been filtered. Everyone has to draw their own line of comfort.

    Curious about the B12 thing. Are you anti-supplements? It’s my understanding eggs aren’t a great source of B12, a large egg being about 7% of the daily recommended amount. Not sure about bivalves, but if you’re only having them twice a year I’d think you might be better taking a regular supplement or fortified foods.

    • Thanks for your comment! I agree that it’s all about finding your own line of comfort, and I think that line can shift over time. And this reminds me that I want to reiterate to readers that, given where my personal comfort line falls at this particular moment, I don’t consider myself to be a true vegan and don’t describe myself as such, hence the “just about” qualifier that I often use.

      With regards to your question about B12– I haven’t been taking supplements, but use a lot of fortified products like nutritional yeast and non-dairy milk. I’m somewhat uneasy with the idea of artificially synthesized vitamins, though, and I’ve read that it’s unclear whether our bodies process them in the same way as when we consume them as part of our diet. From what I understand, bivalves like oysters and clams have about 4x the daily value of B12. Eggs do have a lot less, but they’re still a decent source of the vitamin (I’ve read the daily values are somewhat arbitrary). Basically, my goal is just to make sure that I’m getting at least some naturally occurring B12 in my diet.

  2. Great article! I agree, even as a life-long vegetarian I found the step to going completely plant-based really daunting. I would definitely reinforce your point about not making it about forever. I spent about 3 months ‘preparing’ to go vegan and phasing out dairy + eggs and found the whole concept quite daunting, and then once I made the switch it all became so much easier, I’m not saying I’ll be vegan in 3 months or 3 years but I know for right now it’s the right decision and that helps make it so much easier. Another tip I used was watching documentaries about the industries, and I had to look away so many times out of shock and disgust, so from then on I decided if I was ever tempted enough to eat dairy/eggs for pleasure (I say pleasure as at the very beginning I had a couple of pre-planned days where vegan wasn’t an option) I would make myself watch them, as I should at least know what the animals go through, the ‘head in the sand’ attitude from a lot of meat-eaters I know is extremely frustrating – at least make yourself fully aware of the animals situations and then decide which diet suits you.

    I think for any potential vegans out there – try it! Talking about it and planning it is all much more stress, just jump in and see how you do, it’s not a life-sentence, just go day-to-day. And even aside from all the ethical reasons, I swear my skin and hair have never looked so good! :)x

  3. Really great advice. I agree, taking the plunge as a black and white “do it or die” is probably a recipe for failure.

    It’s about gradual change, and giving yourself permission to eat certain things sometimes. I found when I gave myself permission, I wound up not even eating those things anyway…

  4. THANK YOU for saying what needs to be said on my and my vegan friends’ behalf. So many times we have felt ‘shamed’ into avoiding that mini cupcake (made with egg) at a party, or a slice of cheese on a cracker at a business meeting…Living vegan is being human, but we were born human first, and shouldn’t have to cruise through life as ‘vegan obsessives’, checking every label and questioning every ingredient. I, too, follow your general code of conduct, and I stopped feeling guilty about it years ago. I prefer eating NO animal products, but the world I live in isn’t perfect; so, neither am I. But I do the very best I can to avoid animal products (clothing and accessories too) at all costs.

    And I’m 99.9% certain none of my vegan friends check to see which wine and which beer is made without isinglass. I just know they don’t. But they’re still awesome folks.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, beatlebird. I would guess that there are many vegans and vegetarians out there who bend the so-called rules but are afraid to admit it publicly for fear of being alienated by their community. The more open we can all be about the realities of our diet and the real world compromises we all make, the more inviting and approachable our lifestyle will seem to others, and the more positive and sustainable it will feel for those of us who are passionate but imperfect.

      And P.S. I’ve always been curious how many vegans really check for isinglass. I definitely don’t!

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