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?