6 Things I've Learned After Being Vegan for a Decade
And no, I've never been protein deficient.
The acceptance and options for vegans have changed drastically over the past decade. We've moved on from the time of vegan 'cheese' being synonymous with orange plastic to now, when plant-based gourmet cheese companies are sprouting up like weeds. Along with the large increase in vegan food options, more and more people seem to be aware (and accepting) of the lifestyle, meaning that more often than not you can tell a waiter you're vegan and won't just receive a blank stare or plate of naked lettuce.
In these 10 years*, I'd like to think I've learned a few things about veganism. I've experienced everything from dealing with naysayers to grappling with cravings for non-vegan foods. While this is by no means an extensive list of vegan advice, and it's highly personalized to me, it might help anyone who's looking to jump into the lifestyle:
The First Year Is the Hardest
My first year as a vegan was a serious struggle. I was vegetarian for a year previously, so giving up meat wasn't an issue, but I was really missing one thing: cheese. As I opened up about my new dietary choices, I thought I was going to pull my hair out at the next person who said "Oh, I could never live without cheese." Yeah, me too, buddy. I was worried this desire might be a frustration for the rest of my life (something which I was really not looking forward to), but I'm happy to say that after about a year my brain's view seemed to 'reset' itself. All these foods that I thought of as "I can't eat this" turned into "I won't eat this". Although, in theory, I knew that cheese, bacon, and lot of other animal-based foods tasted good, I'd outright lost all interest in them. Instead I began to equally enjoy dishes like nutritional yeast macaroni, seitan burgers, and tofu lasagna. While the time period of change is always different for everyone, just keep in mind when you're struggling that both your thoughts and tastes will eventually evolve.
Vegan Doesn't Always Equal Skinny
It's a common misnomer that all vegans are skinny. This simply isn't true. Take one glance at a room full of vegans and you'll find we come in every size, shape, and color. A lot of the time when you read about someone's experience after going vegan, they'll tout a significant weight loss and usually a boost of energy. While this may happen for some people, especially if they were eating a particularly poor diet lacking in fruits and veggies beforehand, veganism doesn't always lead to a lower body weight or some life-changing energy boost. Some vegans, myself included, have even heard the phrase "But you don't look like a vegan." Hey, just because I'm not carrying around a glass of wheat grass juice while wearing a coconut bra and rocking a six-pack doesn't mean I'm not vegan. Everyone's body is different, even in the vegan community.
People Are Naturally Curious About Vegans
Once someone knows you're a vegan, you can anticipate being bombarded with several questions. Usually these are coming from a place of curiosity, not judgment, so it helps to breathe deeply and try to be patient answering the same thing over and over again. The most common ones I've received are: "Where do you get your protein?", "So what do you eat?", and "Can you eat animal crackers?". Because of this, I have nearly scripted replies to all three. I've found that as long as you answer nicely and honestly, this will satisfy most people. Though occasionally you'll encounter an individual who would rather pick a fight than have an open discussion, which is why it's always important to know when to walk away (and save your breath).
Sometimes You're Going to Want a Burger...
...or some other non-vegan food. There's nothing wrong or "bad" about wishing you could eat some of the dishes you grew up with; it's natural to crave things that are familiar. This is why I've gone to great lengths to 'veganize' some of my favorite dishes—ranging from my mom's chili to my grandmother's sage dressing—by swapping in vegan ingredients and playing around with the recipes. There are also a plethora of vegan substitute items available in most grocery stores to quell any cravings. Items like almond milk cheese, seitan 'meat', and coconut milk creamer line the shelves as alternatives for plant-based customers. While some vegans abstain from meat and cheese alternatives on principle (since it's reminiscent of the foods they refuse to eat), these products are still wonderful options for any vegan who doesn't want to give up classic dishes that they love.
You'll Be Regular—REALLY Regular
It's TMI time. At a music festival one summer I saw a stand selling shirts, one of which read "I'm vegan!" in large letters, while a tiny line underneath proclaimed "Which means I poop three times a day." I laughed until tears welled up from the truth behind that stupid t-shirt (and I thoroughly regret not buying it). If you're eating a well-balanced vegan diet, you'll be eating a LOT of fiber from natural sources like fruits, veggies, and grains. And this means that fiber will help in making your bowel movements very regular. Ask any vegan how often they go, and I pretty much guarantee it will be more frequent than the average person. This isn't a downside, in my opinion at least, but it might be wise to sign up for a Sam's Club or Costco membership for the toilet paper alone.
Vegans Are a Diverse (and Mostly Lovely) Group
We vegans sometimes get a bad reputation, and most times it's undeserved. It's just a fact of life that almost every group of people has radicals, and sadly those are usually the most outspoken of the lot. I'm all about occasionally doing a vegan demonstration and getting the word out about this lifestyle, but I think more people are turned towards veganism by seeing day-to-day examples of it instead of having someone scream at them on the sidewalk about being a murderer or splashing their outfit with red paint. I've found that most other vegans have this mindset as well, and we're not all nature-loving hippies or plant-based foodies. I've met vegans who have ranged from stay-at-home homeschool dads to pierced up punk rockers to mild-mannered librarians. Our diversity and our bond over the desire to live a cruelty-free lifestyle are some of the greatest things about the vegan community.
*Note: A little rounding up may have happened here. I'm technically four months away from my 10 year vegan anniversary at the time of writing this, but close enough.