By Carol Williams for Elephant Journal.
I never believed that a change in my diet could have such an impact on my life.
Having been a vegetarian ever since I turned 16, I didn’t expect that cutting out all animal products would help me learn new things about myself and those who are important to me. Switching to a vegan diet proved to be not only challenging to the body but to the mind as well.
While being vegetarian is somewhat more accepted, veganism seems to distance one from everything that’s good in life—like pizza nights with friends.
Fortunately, I live in a city which caters to all culinary preferences imaginable, so becoming a vegan didn’t really affect this part of my life—but to trying to convince a non-vegan to eat a chickpeas burger or a seitan sausage proved challenging.
I never expected that the things we eat could affect us socially to this extent. But that’s just one thing, atop a mountain of unexpected changes, powered by my turn to veganism. (One way to get healthy gut bacteria is from Kombucha. Learn more about it in Mamamia TV’s video below. Post continues after video.)
Here are some things I learned along the way, that I wish I had known before going vegan.
Transitioning to veganism doesn’t need to happen from one day to another.
Research tells us that the more gradually people transition to veganism, the more likely they are to stick to it. I expected that vegetarians would have it easier, since they’re already used to making conscious dietary choices every day, but I still happened to be pretty dedicated to good cheese and delicious honey.
I wish I had known that one can take weeks, or even months, until becoming fully animal-product free. Making a few huge dietary changes all at once overwhelmed me. Later I learned that it’s best to break the transition up into sporadic big changes and regular small transitions.
In the end, it’s all about our comfort. The changes we make shouldn’t feel oppressive or difficult to adjust to. (Post continues after gallery.)
Small changes are equally valuable.
When transitioning to veganism, I was convinced that it’s only the big changes that count. Fortunately I had a fellow vegan recount me her story—emphasising how small changes, like choosing one meal a week to be completely animal product-free, make up for a larger transition.
For me, it was ordering vegan meals at restaurants. I was used to vegetarian dishes, so it took just a bit of extra effort to choose one which contained no animal products at all. This is where I managed to build my strength of conviction—I showed myself that vegan felt good and ordinary.
I wish I had known that if a particular change feels difficut (for me, it was setting aside mozzarella cheese and my favorite honey), it’s alright to leave it aside and try something different instead. It’s not worth to fight with ourselves because it only makes the transition more challenging and less pleasant.
Veganism won’t make you “healthier”.
This is a major problem I later learned affects many people who transition to veganism. I couldn’t possibly imagine myself resigning from the pleasure of the melted cheese gracing my weekly pizza. When considering veganism, the health benefits looked like a real perk. Needless to say, it didn’t happen, and it made the first few months of my transition harder than I expected.
I later learned that while vegans, as a population, are generally slimmer—a vegan diet simply doesn’t guarantee you’ll be healthier. It mainly depends on what else I was changing about the diet. Transitioning to a diet high in processed vegan foods (who said that French fries with ketchup aren’t a good substitute of pizza?) only made me feel miserable.
Eating well, being healthy and feeling great are all signs that a particular diet works well for our bodies. But what to do if that’s not the case? I expected that switching to a healthy, varied, whole foods based, vegan diet woud do wonders to my health. Well, guess what? It didn’t.
It didn’t work for me, because essentially, every one of us is different and has different dietary requirements. I became easily fatigued and had problems sleeping through nights. I stopped performing well in my yoga workouts, and I just felt off—never quite there with my mind and body.
My colleague advised me to consult with a doctor. I had a blood analysis done, and it turned out that my iron levels were way too low. I had to take supplements and introduce many more sources of iron to my diet. This is how I learned that a vegan diet isn’t healthy on principle, but it needs to be negotiated with our bodies.
There will be jokes.
I wish someone told me that veganism provokes a social reaction. Being a vegetarian, I would receive a snide “salad-eater” comment once in a while, but becoming a vegan proved much more challenging. On every family gathering, there would be someone ready with a line like, “Let me put a steak on the grill for you. Oh, wait—hahaha!”
Fortunately, I happen to have understanding friends, who are able to find more interesting things to talk about and laugh at—but I still remember how, early on, one of my best friends placed a dish with a leaf of salad on it and shouted, “Darling, dinner’s ready!”
I finally understood that those reactions don’t come from lack of respect. They actually provide a great opportunity to laugh them off, and explain the importance of my dietary choice to others.
Personal choices impact others—in a good way!
This is the most positive thing I discovered about turning to veganism. I never expected others to be affected by my decision—other than, perhaps, my favorite pizza place on the corner.
I never wanted to change anybody—but I did. I’ve had at least a few friends tell me that they eat less meat now. Some of them have turned to vegetarianism. One of them even tried veganism for a month. Even though I didn’t plan to influence others, they did notice the change, and this made them rethink their own dietary choices.
All in all, becoming a vegan has taught me a lot of things—including that I should be responsible for my choices, and hold myself to a higher standard than before.
There are many stereotypes circulating about vegans, but things are beginning to change. This isn’t to say that transitioning to veganism isn’t still challenging—but judging from my personal experience, I can wholeheartedly say that this kind of challenge is definitely worth it.