How to Become a Vegan in 7 Simple, Healthy Steps
As a plant-based dietitian, I am absolutely blown away by the growing consciousness around how our food choices not only affect our bodies, but how they affect animals and the planet. I get so many questions about how to become a vegan, I thought it was high time to put my advice around a step by step approach to becoming vegan into a post.
Before we get started though, it’s important for you to know that we all have the right to choose the style of eating that feels good for us. Our cultural, ethical or religious norms, our ability to access safe and affordable food, and any current medical conditions will impact what is the most appropriate diet for us at any given time.
And regardless of how you eat, it is important to resist the urge to create shame or guilt around the food choices you make. Not only are guilt and shame poor predictors of long-term success, but behaviour change science suggests that sustainable change is typically self-motivated and rooted in positive thinking. So, think about how your new eating choices can help the planet…not about how your old eating choices might have created harm.
Our relationship with food and our bodies is AS important as the impact our food choices have on our body. So if you are curious about making change, treat yourself with as much compassion as you have for animals or the environment.
Sound good? Let’s get started!
My first piece of advice for a successful transition to a vegan diet?
Transition gradually and slowly to make sure it sticks.
With all of the incredible new vegan food products and restaurants out there, it has never been a better, easier or more delicious time to transition to a vegan diet. However, that doesn’t mean dietary change doesn’t take work. Ask anyone who has tried to change their diet (perhaps you have in the past?) – we make multiple food choices every single day, mostly on autopilot. When you go vegan, these choices now need to be conscious, requiring mental energy that isn’t always in ample supply in a busy and complex life.
Now, I know that if you have become newly aware of the realities of animal agriculture, or how animal agriculture affects the planet, that you might be extremely motivated to dive in, like yesterday. Harnessing that motivation to do good is a good thing! However, if you want to make this a lifestyle that survives beyond this wave of motivation, it’s worthwhile to take your time so that it feels like a joyful transition as opposed to a high pressure change. Eventually, these new ways of eating will become habit, and won’t require as much conscious effort. But until they do, be gentle with yourself!
How to Become a Vegan in 7 Simple, Healthy Steps
Understand your reasons for going vegan before starting a vegan diet
Why is this transition important to you? Is it for your health? For the planet? For the animals? Or all three?
Reasons for Adopting a Vegan Lifestyle
Your reasons are your own – and do not need to be justified to anyone else. In case you want to read more, I wanted to compile a few resources for you if you would like to read more about the potential benefits of a plant-based or vegan lifestyle. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I have included a couple of less biased sources (but bias exists in everything, including my selection of these resources) or ones that include graphic content of animal agriculture.
EAT-LANCET Commission report on Healthy and Sustainable Diets
Environmental Working Group Meat Eaters’ Guide to Climate Change + Health
Guardian Article on Environmental Impact of Animal Agriculture
Opinion on the Realities of Factory Farming
I have only one ask here: if your only motivation is hope that a vegan diet might trigger weight loss, reconsider whether this is the right time for you to go vegan. While evidence suggests that those eating a vegan diet may weigh less than omnivores, some people may gain weight in the short term as they learn to navigate the transition to plant-based foods.
What’s more, if you feel that weight loss is an important part of your health journey, I would suggest that your behaviour change start with a more holistic look at your eating behaviours and ensuring that you have a healthy relationship with food and your body (ideally with the support of a dietitian) before you attempt to make the transition to a vegan diet.
Evidence suggests that you are more likely to maintain your behaviours when those behaviours are in line with your beliefs and values…meaning that if you are making this change from an ethical or environmental motivator, it’s more likely to stick for the long haul.
Make it happen: Write your reasons for going vegan down and place it somewhere you’ll see it daily!
Identify which foods in your diet are animal-based
One of the most common slip ups I see on a vegan diet is that people simply remove the animal foods from their plate without replacing them with an equivalent plant-based source of nutrition. Making this mistake can leave you hangry, sluggish, constantly craving sugar, and deficient in nutrients while gaining weight.
To avoid this pitfall, keep a food journal for a couple of weeks. At the end of each day, highlight foods that are animal based (meat, dairy, eggs or foods that contain them). This will help you create a list of foods (and recipes!) for which you need to find plant-based substitutes.
Depending on how completely you want to eliminate animal products from your diet, you may also need to educate yourself on animal by-products in your everyday foods you may not be aware of, such as gelatin in candy or carmine food colouring. While I typically think you should tackle this only after you’ve mastered the bigger picture of vegan eating, this is a helpful resource for understanding non-vegan ingredients.
Make it happen: Start keeping a simple food record in a journal or on your phone notes right now!
Experiment with new vegan products and recipes that replace your daily staples
When you grocery shop, give yourself a little extra time to start exploring different vegan alternatives to your favourite animal-based foods that you identified while journaling.
Be patient and open minded here, as products can have a variety of flavours and textures. Just because you don’t love one vegan cheese alternative doesn’t mean you won’t love others! Generally speaking, you’ll need product and recipe substitutes for:
Make a list of your favourite meals and start testing out new vegan recipes until you find your favourites! Ensure that you have an arsenal of all of your favourite meals, from stir-fries to pizza to pasta and breakfast so that you aren’t left stuck without a plant-based option when you have a craving.
Make it happen: Each week, buy 1-2 new vegan alternatives to taste test and try 1-2 new vegan recipes!
Take a positive, additive approach and avoid an all-or-nothing mindset.
Before you start removing animal-based products for good, focus on what to eat more of…not what you’ll eat less of. For example, how can you eat more fruits and vegetables at every meal? How can you work in healthy and sustainable basics such as beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains so you need to rely less on hyper-processed alternatives?
Remember, you are trying to transition to a new way of eating – but your current way of eating is deeply engrained and habituated. When you focus on how to eat more healthy whole plant foods, you’ll naturally eat fewer animal products over time while avoiding a deprivation mindset that lead to guilt, shame or anxiety over food choices. What’s more, it is the healthy plant foods you eat (not what you avoid) that will have you feeling really energized…which further motivates you to keep going.
Modern Diet Culture has convinced most of us that an all-or-nothing mindset is critical to success; however, avoiding that trap is what will really help you succeed. Why? Because life happens. If you eat some chicken or cheese at a holiday meal, it does not cancel out all of the healthy, sustainable choices you’ve been making. What’s more, by mislabelling these choices as ‘failures’ you are MORE likely to give up on your positive lifestyle change entirely. Progress, not ‘perfection’…successful dietary change is not a straight path.
Learn everything you can about vegan nutrition
The basics of eating well don’t really change that much when you go vegan, as long as you figure out how to select healthy vegan alternatives.
Here are a few vegan nutrition basics to get you started:
- What a healthy vegan plate looks like: the easiest path to a balanced diet is to use the plate method. When you eat, aim to have half your plate fruits and vegetables, cover a quarter of your plate in whole grains and the last quarter in protein. Be sure to add a little bit of healthy fat in there too.
- Choose whole foods most often: I advocate for a more whole food, plant-based approach to a vegan diet. This means that you eat single ingredient foods such as oats, chickpeas or broccoli at least 80% of the time. When you begin your vegan transition, hyper-processed vegan cheeses and meats may make it a lot easier…so lean on them if you need to. However, over the long term, aim to make these foods roughly 20% of your intake and keep the focus on whole foods.
- Know where are you going to get your plant-based protein: it is 100% possible to get the protein you need on a vegan diet. However, I also find that we underestimate portion sizes when it comes to plant-based protein. We also underestimate the appetite-taming, blood sugar balancing and energizing benefits of getting enough protein.
- Take B12 and vitamin D…and perhaps a basic multi for three months: The only vitamins that every vegan needs are vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Vitamin B12 is not found naturally in plant foods, but is added to many staples such as milk alternatives and nutritional yeast. Vitamin D is a staple for ALL eaters; look out for a vegan D3 as most D3 is vegetarian, not vegan.Additionally, you might find it easier to take a simple multivitamin for the first 3, 6, or even 12 months of transition. This will help ensure that you aren’t missing any tiny micronutrient as you figure out the basics of healthy vegan eating. A healthy whole foods diet will give you all of the vitamins and minerals you need, but on the path to getting there, a little boost doesn’t hurt!
Make it happen: Buy yourself vegan vitamin D3 and either a B12 supplement or a basic vegan multivitamin!
Create your transition plan
As I’ve said, I advocate for a slow and gradual transition to a vegan diet. But you get to determine what that looks like for you. If you are super pumped, and have the time and resources to make this happen, perhaps a ‘slow’ transition for you is one month! Or, you might want to give yourself one year before you completely eliminate animal products. Or, perhaps being 90% vegan is where you want to be for now. It’s YOUR choice.
Some tips on how to create a good transition plan:
- Create specific, concrete goals and steps. For example, you can follow the steps I’ve laid out here, or create the steps that make the most sense for you. Break up the transition into concrete goals steps with a timeline, such as: I will eliminate dairy milk once I find the non-dairy milk that I like in 30 days. Then, you will need to plan to taste all the non-dairy milks before then. Or, I will 100% veganize my breakfasts by April 1. To get there, you will need to find vegan alternatives to all of your breakfast foods and recipes before then.
- Use up animal-based products and replace with plant-based ones. To reduce food waste, eat up, giveaway or donate (unopened) animal-based foods instead of throwing them away.
- Start with foods you don’t miss much. Be patient about eliminating foods that you crave often. Doing this will help build self-efficacy by eliminating the foods you care about the least. Not big on beef? Ditch that first. Cheese lover? Eliminate that last, perhaps even allowing for occasional use as you wait for cravings to naturally decline.
- Consider allowing flexibility for social meals or travel at first. Holiday meals, dining with omnivore friends and travel can all feel trickier when you are new to a vegan diet. If it helps you with the transition, work on being vegan at home first while you build confidence in navigating out-of-the-home eating experiences. Happy Cow can be a great resource for finding vegan eats when you travel!
- Sweat the small stuff last…and celebrate the wins often! With each new goal you reach, take time to celebrate and appreciate the work you’ve done. Life is long, and making even a small step in your desired direction is a big deal. You get to decide how you walk this path, and if smaller things like vegan by-products feel too overwhelming at first, go easy and focus on the big wins for now.
Make it happen: Choose the first three steps of your transition, and give them a timeline!
Seek motivation and support
Social and peer support is key to creating an environment that inspires and supports you to maintain your new lifestyle. If you are able to, working one-on-one with a dietitian can help you customize a healthy and sustainable path forward.
- Curate your social media feeds to create a positive and motivating place to scroll, filled with yummy vegan recipes and resources that keep you going.
- Ask your friends and family to support your new choices, and invite them to fun vegan restaurants, or host vegan cookbook club potlucks! Also, consider always bringing a vegan (protein-containing) dish whenever invited to a meal.