If wondering how to start a vegan lifestyle brought you on this page, that’s awesome! All great journeys begin with a question and some of our most rewarding experiences stem from the desire to make a change.
But, before we get there, let’s start with the beginning:
What Is a Vegan Lifestyle?
Coined in 1944, in England, by Donald Watson, the co-founder of the Vegan Society, the term vegan originally meant “non-dairy vegetarian”, and later became “the doctrine that man should live without exploiting animals”
Thus, a vegan lifestyle is “a way of living which seeks to remove, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing, research or entertainment.”
Why Go Vegan?
Health is one of the primary reasons more and more people switch to a vegan lifestyle, and, according to recent studies, they’re on to something: a balanced plant-based diet significantly lowers the risk of life-threatening diseases, and comes with many additional benefits such as increased stamina, younger looking skin and improved mood states (peer reviewed sources here and here).
For many of us, however, the horrors of industrial farming and its extensive toll on the environment are the main incentives for going vegan.
There’s no denying that animals, both wild and domesticated, have played an important part in our evolution as a species, shaping the way we eat, look and live. But all these came at a cost.
Treated primarily as a source of food, clothing and entertainment, they have become the collateral victims of our evolutionary path – a pattern that’s needlessly perpetuated today through factory farming and excessive consumerism.
Needlessly, because what was once essential to our ancestors’ journey from primitive hominids to Homo Sapiens is no longer necessary for their 21st century descendants to survive and thrive.
Whatever the meaning of life may be, one thing is obvious: we didn’t get where we are today just so we can establish ourselves as the most ferocious predator on the block.
Our intellect and capacity for compassion – the very things that make us human, call for us to rethink the way we treat animals and the impact we have on the environment.
The next stepping stone in our evolution may very well be the shift from the paradigm of exploitation to an ethical one, in which all sentient beings are no longer collaterals but companions that equally enjoy their right to freedom and life.
Going Vegan for Beginners
As with every lifestyle change, it all starts with a thought: “What if?”.
If we entertain it in our heads long enough, a wonderful thing happens: the thought, no matter how impractical or outlandish might seem in the beginning, becomes a possibility.
In other words, we go from “What if?” to “Let’s give it a try!”.
Veganism is no different, and, thanks to the myriad of options and resources available nowadays, it’s not difficult either.
At the same time, we have to keep in mind that going vegan is not just about ditching certain foods; it involves a series of lifestyle changes that starts with what we eat and continues with the things we use, wear, and shop for on a daily basis.
How to Start a Vegan Lifestyle: a Step by Step Guide
1. Raise Your Awareness
I’m willing to bet that, right now, you’re probably thinking “ What’s awareness gotta do with veganism?”. Oh, but it has!
I’m aware (no pun intended!) this concept has been somewhat overused during the last couple of years in all sorts of contexts, some crazier than other, however, awareness is more than a spiritual or marketing buzzword; it’s actually a powerful instrument that leads us to a greater understanding of ourselves and of the world around us.
The last couple of decades, with their invaluable discoveries and wonderful innovations, have brought us the world at our fingertips, literally. We now live longer, travel faster, and communicate more efficiently than ever.
At the same time, paradoxically, we know less about the food we eat and the things we buy than we did, let’s say, 20 years ago.
Even with so many ugly truths poking their heads above the surface, such as the inhumane practices within the food, fashion, and beauty industries, some of us don’t want to know.
But we should, because the very things we’re comfortable ignoring now will ultimately claim the highest price: our health, the environment, and the wellbeing of all the living creatures we’re sharing this planet with.
I’m not gonna go all Monty Brogan on you and start a rant on all the shortcomings of the modern age. On the contrary, I actually think we should be grateful for the countless perks of living in the 21st century.
Still, this doesn’t change the fact that ninety percent of the time we’re on autopilot, without having the desire – or the time – to investigate how our food and most of the things we use on a daily basis are being made.
By simply placing our attention on these matters, we get the chance to learn more about them and to discover healthier, more ethical alternatives.
There are many great documentaries, films and books on topics such as modern-age factory farming, food production and animal exploitation, but perhaps the most influential ones are Food, Inc. and Earthlings.
Food, Inc. is an Oscar nominated documentary that takes the viewers through an in-depth exploration of the modern American food industry. Unveiling some of its most unorthodox practices and how profits are put before consumer health, worker safety, and the environment, Food, Inc. argues that industrial farming is not only inhumane, but also unsustainable from an economic and environmental standpoint.
Earthlings, also known as the “vegan maker”, is a high-impact documentary that reveals, in a very powerful way, the unimaginable suffering endured by animals within some of the largest industries on the planet. By far the most comprehensive film ever produced on the the topic of animal exploitation for economic purposes, Earthlings calls into question our behavior towards other living beings, while making a strong case against speciesism – the assumption of human superiority leading to the exploitation of animals.
If you’re willing to watch it, be prepared: both the trailer and the documentary contain some very graphic scenes of animal violence.
These two documentaries may be a hard pill to swallow, especially for those of us who are still unaware of how (most) of our food, clothes and everyday products are being made. At the same time, they will also inspire a new level of responsibility and commitment since it’s much easier to make and maintain a lifestyle change when you know exactly why you do it.
2. Find Your Motivation
Speaking of why, nothing fuels change and accomplishment as much as motivation, and when I say motivation, I’m not speaking about sheer desire or idealism; I’m speaking about that inner force that drives you towards a goal and keeps you going when things get tough, not matter what.
That’s real motivation, and its spark is the very fabric of your being.
So, before moving on to the next step, ask yourself this question:
Why do I want to become a vegan? Is it because I want to lead a healthier life or because I’m concerned about animal cruelty and exploitation?
If you answer it honestly, without negotiating yourself into comfortable half-truths, you’ll get a clear picture of your choices, habits, strengths and limitations.
Since the goal here is to go vegan the right way – and stick to it – this will help you outline an approach in tune with the way you work, making the transition as easy and as comfortable as possible.
3. Learn About the Basics
This step is about familiarizing yourself with veganism, from its purpose, values and benefits to nutrition and lifestyle implications .
Although you could figure out how to start a vegan lifestyle on your own, without doing too much reading, expanding your knowledge of the subject will definitely give you an extra boost of motivation and know-how – after all, the best decision you can make is an informed one.
The basics of veganism and plant-based nutrition
When it comes to the basics of veganism, from the way we shop to what we cook and where we dine out, a great resource for beginners (which is also free) is Erik Marcus’ first edition of the Ultimate Vegan Guide. This book is an excellent crash course in veganism, allowing readers to learn, in just a few hours, things that would otherwise take weeks or months to discover on their own.
Adequate nutrition is especially important for vegans, although, let’s face it, many omnivores and vegetarians could also use a little bit of extra knowledge on the topic.
Since a deficient nutrient intake is the underlying source of many of our health problems and the primary reason for why so many diets cause us more harm than good, it’s important to learn how to feed ourselves properly.
Sometimes, stress and convenience make us do – and eat – crazy stuff, turning omnivores into fast-fooders, and vegans & vegetarians into starchatarians. These are not healthy eating habits and the best way we can avoid falling into their trap is by actually understanding our dietary needs.
For this purpose and much more, Jack Norris and Virginia Messina’s Vegan for Life is your go-to book, providing essential information on plant-based nutrition and covering vegan “hot topics” such as vitamin B-12, calcium and protein intake.
Animal-derived ingredients and byproducts
Finally, here comes the most important part of the research stage: getting to know the animal-derived ingredients found in our food, clothing, and in most of the things we frequently use.
The basics are somewhat obvious and easy to figure out: there’s meat, dairy and eggs on one hand, and then there’s leather, fur, silk and wool on the other.
However, if you’re willing to take things further, you’ll find out there are tens of animal-derived ingredients which are not so easy to detect and avoid.
That’s partly because most of these ingredients go by chemical names which don’t betray their animal origin, while others can be sourced from slaughterhouse byproducts as well as plant-based protein and fat, making their origin uncertain.
The solution to this conundrum?
When it comes to food, don’t focus on the origin of obscure ingredients, just eat less processed foods and more natural ones such as fruits, veggies, grains, rice, beans, nuts, and so forth.
What about our personal care products, cosmetics, and other household items? How are we supposed to know which ones are truly vegan-friendly and cruelty-free?
You could start by reading the products’ labels and looking for the ones that have the “Certified Vegan” logo, the CCIC (Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics) leaping bunny logo or PETA’s cruelty-free bunny logo.
Here comes the tricky part: some products may be labeled as “Cruelty-Free” or “Not tested on animals” but, unfortunately, these terms are not regulated, which is why you should check out the shopping guides provided by the CCIC and PETA to learn which brands truly live up to their claims.
At the same time, keep in mind that that vegan and cruelty-free don’t always mean the same thing: cosmetics that are not tested on animals may contain animal byproducts while an all-vegan ingredients list doesn’t guarantee a cruelty-free brand policy.
Having said that, it’s still useful to learn about the animal ingredients that are most likely to show up in everything we consume, from food and drinks to cosmetics and personal care products – which is why I created an Animal Ingredients infographic that you’ll find at the end of this article.
4. Choose Your Approach
A lot of people try to go vegan overnight by eliminating all animal-derived products from their plates and from their homes.
Although this approach might work for some, it is also the most difficult to follow through, and the folks who go down this route are less likely to remain vegan in the long run.
The change is simply too sudden, and there’s a lingering feeling of sacrifice and deprivation – two pesky emotions that will eventually sabotage even the strongest character.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, a gradual approach to veganism is easier and much more sustainable, and the good news is there’s more than one way you could do it.
First, consider what kind of vegan you’re aiming to be:
- An ethical vegan, which means avoiding all animal-derived foods and products for ethical reasons;
- A green vegan, which is similar to an ethical vegan but the motivation is to reduce the carbon footprint;
- A dietary vegan, which means switching to a plant-based diet without focusing on animal-free clothing or products.
Then, choose your approach:
- The full Monty
However hardcore it may seem to unacquainted taste buds, transitioning to the full (plant-based) Monty is actually easy, especially if you have the right attitude… and the right tricks up your sleeve.
Besides making gradual changes such as, let’s say, eating less red meat, and alternating big ones with smaller ones, like going for non-dairy milk or vegan dressing, you can also use the power of curiosity to fuel your new dietary choice.
This is actually a very useful trick, and it involves discovering and experimenting with as many new vegan foods as possible. By making this your main focus, instead of simply trying to eliminate the foods you’ve been eating for years, you’re basically creating new eating patterns, which will eventually overwrite the old ones.
In a practical context, this strategy makes a lot of sense: if you were to go to the store right now, hell-bent on not buying meat, eggs, and dairy, you’d most likely end up feeling deprived and confused. On the other hand, if you were to go shopping with a few vegan foods or recipes in mind, you’d feel curious and excited about trying something new, creating a different experience altogether.
- Part-time vegan
If making a 100% commitment to veganism would be too much on your plate, you could take a part-time approach: Meatless Mondays with a vegan twist or Mark Bittman’s “Vegan Before 6” strategy (where he follows a vegan diet until dinnertime, and then eats whatever he likes) are a good way to start and can easily get you past the halfway point towards becoming a full-time vegan.
- Just for a test-drive
Some people find switching to a vegan lifestyle easy but they’re worried about having to stick to it for the rest of their lives.
If this is also your case, you can take the pressure off by going on a vegan test-drive.
Whether you try it for two weeks or for a whole month, at the end of your experiment you’ll be in a much better position to evaluate how well a lifelong commitment would work for you.
And the best part? Research shows that it takes about 21 to 30 days to form a lasting habit. Thus, the chances are that, by the end of your test-drive, you’ll already be accustomed to being a vegan.
Here’s an idea: since we’re in January, why not take advantage of it and make the Veganuary pledge? Just give it a try and see how it goes!
5. Tweak Your Shopping
Changing your attitude towards the foods you eat, the clothes you wear, and the products you use also involves changing the way you shop. This is a great opportunity to upgrade your shopping skills and learn how to get more bang for your buck
Now, before going on your first vegan shopping trip, you should create a meal plan for the entire week, or for at least a couple of days. It’s easier to know what to buy when you know what you’re going to eat, right?
Next, write down your shopping list including only the items required by your meal plan and those that are an absolute necessity. This way, it will be easier to stick to a budget, and to avoid foods that you don’t really want to splurge on.
Good quality vegan foods are rarely found in typical supermarkets, even though nowadays many of them have a wide array of vegan products, a natural foods aisle, or even an entire section of the store devoted to healthier foods.
So what are the best places to shop for vegan foods and cruelty-free items?
Well, for basic vegan staples such as beans, rice, pasta, tomato sauce, soymilk, and nuts, a natural food store is your best option, especially if you’re buying in bulk.
Many natural food stores also have great selections of frozen foods and vegan delis, but due to their high quality and most probably organically-sourced ingredients, be prepared to pay more than on their regular counterparts.
For fresh fruits and vegetables, you should look for a farmer’s market or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in your area. There’s at least one of them that’s nearer to you than you think. You can check out this directory from LocalHarvest.org or the one maintained by the USDA and see for yourself.
If you happen to live close to a Trader Joe’s, you’re in for a treat: they are famous for selling all kinds of vegan items at really affordable prices, and they even publish a regularly-updated list of all their vegan inventory.
And if you’re seeking to try as many new vegan foods as possible, don’t forget online vegan stores. They carry all sorts of great vegan items, from energy bars to to hot cereals, cookies and nutritional yeast, which can be tough to find locally.
Check our Vegan Pantry page for a frequently updated collection of our favorite staples & more!
For vegan & cruelty-free cosmetics and cleaning products, the chances are your local grocery store, drugstore or supermarket carry at least one brand of each. Don’t forget to check PETA’s cruelty-free brand index beforehand, to make sure you won’t fall for unregulated claims or shady marketing strategies such as greenwashing.
FAQ: What about the items we already own and which are made of, or contain, animal-derived ingredients?
Most vegan advocates suggest getting rid of them as soon as we decide to make the switch to a vegan lifestyle.
However, as a Zen buddhist and a green living supporter, I don’t.
Instead, I recommend using those things with gratitude until the end of their life cycle, when we can replace them with vegan alternatives without generating unnecessary waste.
6. Get Cooking
The biggest mistake you could make as a new vegan – and the most tempting one – would be to throw yourself head first into demanding recipes and sophisticated dishes.
Instead, you should go for quick and easy meals that you can prepare in 30 minutes or less.
As soon as you get the hang of basic vegan cuisine, feel free to move on to more complex recipes, but make sure that your first cookbook is suitable for the simplest and most hassle-free meals.
There are plenty of cookbooks perfect for getting started with vegan cooking and here are three of the most popular ones:
Even if you’re new to cooking, no need to worry, you can still eat an incredibly diverse vegan diet without ever following a recipe. All you need to do is to master the preparation of these five basic foods: smoothies, sandwiches, salads, stir-fries, and grilled veggies.
Which brings us to the subject of kitchen outfitting. Cooking the foods you enjoy is in itself a rewarding experience and having the right kitchen tools can certainly make it all the more enjoyable.
Since vegan cuisine will present you with all kinds of food preparation possibilities, it will be worthwhile to invest in basic kitchen equipment such as blenders, mixers and slow cookers, all with a price tag of under $20.
However, if you’re willing to spend more, you should do so on a good quality knife and a high-end food processor. These two items will be a valuable addition to your kitchen as they will totally transform the way you cook.
7. Connect with Like-Minded People
Whatever the approach you’re taking, there’s nothing like talking to other vegans to make your transition even easier.
In the long run, being a part of a community that shares the same values and goals will help you stay on track and make you feel supported in your choices, however bold or challenging they may be.
Facebook and Meetup are great for finding and connecting with like-minded people, both online and offline.
And when it comes to good ol’ fashion socializing, gatherings such as Vegan Drinks and big regional vegan festivals are increasingly popular world-wide. To find about the ones organized in your area, you can check out Vegan.com’s directory of international vegan events.
8. Don’t Give Up
Knowing how to start a vegan lifestyle is, first and foremost, knowing that the whole point of it is to make it a lasting and satisfying lifelong change.
Don’t beat yourself up over slip-ups and certainly don’t use them as an excuse to break your commitment entirely. Because in every slip-up there’s a lesson you can take away: maybe you’re not 100% sure about your motivation, or perhaps your diet needs more variety.
Whatever it is, give it some thought and keep experimenting until you’re 100% satisfied with your vegan lifestyle.
Although veganism has been around (officially) since 1944, it’s still a relatively new concept to a lot of people, and many regard it as nothing more than a culinary eccentricity. This is why veganism is, for most of us, a learning curve and an experience way out of our comfort zones.
The upside is all the discoveries that come with the experience. It’s like finding an adult-sized culinary Narnia, and I’m not even joking.
With thousands of recipes from around the globe, delicious ingredients, and amazing new dishes to try, a vegan diet is anything but boring. In fact, most vegans eat a much more diverse and interesting diet than omnivores and anyone who’s been a vegan for more than a few years will attest to that.
As long as you’ll keep your curiosity alive and your mind open to new experiences, you’ll discover many exciting things not just about food, but also about the wonderful world we live in.
Now, let’s make a quick recap of the main points in this article:
- Educate yourself about the realities of industrial farming by watching the best documentaries on the topic;
- Find your motivation for going vegan;
- Learn about the basics of an optimal plant-based nutrition;
- Get to know the animal-derived ingredients and byproducts in your life;
- Find the right approach for you and give it a honest try;
- Learn how to shop like a vegan pro;
- Start with simple vegan recipes and develop your cooking skills as you go;
- Learn how to make stir-fries, soups, sandwiches, smoothies, and salads.
- Don’t be a perfectionist. Anyone can slip once in a while, especially in the beginning, and a momentary lapse is no reason to throw in the towel.