How I Finally Made A Vegan Diet Work For Me

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In January of 2015, I broke a complicated bone in my foot, and it still hadn’t healed by December. That meant I wasn’t able to live the active lifestyle I was accustomed to. I felt out of shape and lethargic. My eating habits had spiraled out of control, a side effect of spending more time at home. When I got the go-ahead from a physiotherapist to start longer walks and return to weight classes, it was an ideal time to start fresh. So, I made a big change.

I knew I wanted to return to a plant-based diet, and this time I decided to go full-on vegan. I had tried this twice before, ill-prepared, and had failed within a few weeks. This time I had a few years of research under my belt.

Ten weeks into the journey, I feel amazing. People tell me my skin is glowing, I’ve slimmed down, and my energy is through the roof. I need less sleep and my mood is relatively stable throughout the day. I finally feel like this is something I can healthily maintain.

I don’t want to be sanctimonious. I’m not perfect. I have a favorite pair of leather boots. My own reasons for adopting a vegan lifestyle are some physical, some financial, some spiritual, and some ethical, but I realize that it’s not for everyone. I would never tell anyone how they should eat, or why. Some people's health doesn’t allow them to give up animal products completely.

No matter your choices, I challenge you to think harder about where your food comes from, to buy locally when possible and to cook more humanely raised (and hormone-free) animal products. Labels like “free range” don’t always tell the whole truth.

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If you are considering a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, or just want to adopt a less animal-centric diet, take these five insights from my journey into veganism as free wisdom for your own.

1. Research, research, research.

Going straight to veganism from an animal-heavy diet is not recommended. You can get everything you need without animal products, but you need to know what to eat, how to eat it, and where to find it.

With more people embracing plant-based lifestyles, it’s easier to find information about how to stay healthy and get the nutrition that you need. A quick Google search will bring up dozens of helpful websites. (I recommend Kris Carr as an entry point.) As with anything you read or hear, question it, compare information, read about other people’s journeys, ask questions. Pharmacists are great resources for insight on vitamins. On that note, you should always speak with your doctor before making major lifestyle changes.

Collect recipes in advance and learn about "healthy" and "unhealthy" fats. Start to build a stash of goodies like maca powder, hemp seeds, and spices. They last forever and can be added to all sorts of things. These items can be costly, so I recommend building your pantry in advance, bit by bit. If you research and are prepared, you'll be ready for the challenges that come with your lifestyle adjustment.

2. Accept that you'll have to cook.

I’ve never been a big cook. I can cook, but I don’t really enjoy it. It can be very hard to find vegan meal options on the fly. Even if you do, you have to ensure that your diet is diverse enough to meet your nutritional needs. I actually eat a wider range of foods now than I ever did before going vegan.

I’ve started to enjoy cooking—especially bowls of steaming vegetables, hot spices and sticky rice. They make it easy to combine multiple, nourishing ingredients. I pack a lunch bag each day with leftovers and snacks (like dates and almonds) so I don’t reach for junk food at the office, and I keep a vegan protein bar in my purse for emergencies.

Like any healthy diet, cooking and planning in advance are key to making good choices consistently. These steps also ensure that your grocery budget goes further. For example, a large vegan curry is cheap to make and can feed you for several meals.

Please remember, this is a lifestyle change, not a life sentence. If, during this process, you decide that you need a steak and eggs, or you find yourself in a rush and can’t find something vegan, don’t be hard on yourself. Just start again the next day. This is your choice and you need to do what feels right for you.

3. Relearn what you plate “should” look like.

I grew up in a typical household with a dinner plate that contained a meat, a starch, and a green or yellow vegetable.

The second time I attempted to go vegan, I fell into a common trap. I kept looking for replacements—veggie burgers, veggie meatballs, Tofurkey, etc. These things are great, and have their place, but they’re also generally soy-based (something I avoid) and, essentially, processed food. One day someone said, “Stop trying to replace one thing with another; if you’re giving up animal products, give them up.”

It clicked. I had to change what I thought my plate should look like. I eat lots of veggies and perhaps a homemade curry or a dish with some other spicy sauce. Sometimes I add rice, or maybe a potato. I still have a veggie burger here and there, but I focus on fresh produce, homemade healthy sauces, and legumes. Breakfasts are often smoothies—light on the fruit and heavy on the veggies and healthy fats.

4. Eating well does not cost more.

In fact, I save money. I am a single woman living on one income with a house, a car, student loans, etc. I don’t have a ton of money for groceries. A diet heavy on veggies, legumes, rice, etc., is quite affordable. My money goes much further. You can’t beat a bag of lentils for under $2. If I buy in-season items at the local farmers market, I pay half of what I would pay in a grocery store.

5. The guilt disappears.

This is where I might lose some of you, but there is no judgment from me. This is my decision, and I don’t begrudge anyone who feels differently. I still want to share with those who share my sentiment.

I grew up as an only child in mostly remote areas. This meant I spent a lot of time in nature, alone with my dog. Throughout my life I have worked with animals of all sizes, and always felt most at home close to nature.

When I was in the third grade, I pointed to a piece of my steak and asked dad what it was. “It’s a vein,” he replied. That was the first time I associated the food on my plate with the cows I visited a few doors down. I never ate much steak after that.

As an adult, I worked as a horse trainer in the South. One of my jobs was to feed chickens. I’d go in and play with hundreds of baby chicks every day, watch them grow and then watch the truck come and take them away.

These moments all combined to create a preference for boneless, skinless meat. I needed utter disassociation from my food and where it came from.

How many people think about where their food originated? How many kids think food actually comes from a grocery store?

Since I was a child, I have felt immense guilt about perpetuating harm to animals I loved, to the environment I cherish, and to my body by not questioning where my food came from. No more. I don’t just feel lighter physically, I feel lighter emotionally and spiritually.

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