Despite my willingness to substitute poultry for meat and lamb, my avoidance (largely) of processed foods, I’m nowhere near becoming vegan. But I want to learn small ways to improve my diet.
More and more of us are going vegan. The environmental and ethical case for a diet free of all animal products, including meat, fish, dairy and eggs, is compelling. According to research from the University of Oxford, going vegan is the “single biggest way” to reduce your impact on the planet. And that is before you consider the ethical arguments against eating industrially farmed animals, which have an appalling quality of life and are often pumped full of powerful antibiotics that may pose a risk to human health.
But if you are a lifelong meat-eater, it is hard to know where to start. We asked some leading vegans for their advice for adults who want to make the transition.
Should you jump right in? Or is it better to dip your toe into a plant-based diet first?
“I don’t think there is a right answer about whether to do it immediately or not,” says Henry Firth, one half of the vegan social-media sensation Bosh!. “It’s about what’s right for you and what’s sustainable for your lifestyle.” Some experts suggest easing into veganism via a sightseeing tour of the world of vegetarianism, while others favour going cold tofu.
Katy Beskow, a longtime vegan and the author of three bestselling cookbooks, suggests a gradual approach. “The availability of vegan products means you can do it so much more easily than before. My advice is to replace products in your diet with alternatives step by step, be it milk, mayonnaise or yoghurt. That way, you won’t see a difference.”
How do I deal with negative responses from meat-loving family and friends?
Kill the haters with kindness – and delicious food. “You can make your meat jokes or tell me I’m going to die, but I’m comfortable with my decision,” says the author and columnist Isa Chandra Moskowitz. “Treat people with kindness, even if they are being jerks. And cook for them – you get to show them how yummy things are. It’s a really beautiful gesture that stops people from being aggressive and helps them to see that the food is good – and you’re OK.”
Be empathic towards people expressing negative attitudes. “I can understand when people have some negativity towards veganism because I was in that position once,” says the YouTuber, chef and author Gaz Oakley. “It was just fear of the unknown and not being educated on the matter.” Treat such encounters as a teaching opportunity – but don’t lecture people. “If I’m at a party and someone makes a little dig about veganism, it’s just about educating them and making them feel at ease. Say stuff such as: ‘I never thought I would be a vegan until I saw this or found out this.’ Don’t be judgmental or argue back. Just try to educate them as best you can.”
Humour helps. “I remember doing a TV programme once where someone asked me: ‘How bad are your farts because you’re a vegan?’” says the poet, actor and musician Benjamin Zephaniah. “I said: ‘Your farts smell of dead, rotting flesh. My farts smell like broccoli. Don’t worry about mine, man – think about yours.’”
How do I make sure I am getting enough protein?
“It’s the only time people ever ask you about protein, when you go vegan,” Beskow says. “Protein deficiency is a really rare thing in the western world. It’s just about combining protein such as beans, pulses, seeds and nuts. It sounds as if you’re eating rabbit food, but you’re not. You can just sprinkle a handful of toasted pine nuts over some pasta or add a can of beans into your chilli.”
Heather Russell, a registered dietician at the Vegan Society, says there is no cause for concern. “A common myth is that it’s difficult to get protein from plant foods. In reality, they can provide all the essential protein building blocks that we call amino acids. Good sources include beans, lentils, chickpeas, soya products, peanut butter, cashew nuts and pumpkin seeds.”
What about vitamins and minerals?
If you are going vegan, it is important to make sure you get enough vitamin B12 – commonly found in meat, eggs and fish – as without it, you will feel exhausted and weak. You can get B12 from fortified foods including “dairy alternatives, breakfast cereal, dairy-free spread and yeast extract”, says Russell. Alternatively, you can take a B12 supplement, which you can buy in most pharmacies and health-food stores. Russell also advises you think about your calcium intake. “Fortified plant milk contains the same amount of calcium as cow’s milk, and fortified yoghurt alternatives, calcium-set tofu, and a soya and linseed bread fortified with extra calcium are also really rich sources.”
Veganism seems expensive. How do I make a plant-based diet affordable?
Zephaniah hears this a lot. “I speak to single parents who say: ‘When I’m going down to the supermarket, you think I’ve got time to go and nip into a health food store and read all the labels? I’ve got three kids in tow!’” He tries to allay their concerns. “Basically, we want fruit, vegetables and lentils of various kinds. Forget about all the posh cuisines and all that stuff. That’s all right if you’ve got the money for it. But veganism, in principle, should be really cheap.”
If you are on a limited budget, steer clear of processed foods. “It’s a myth that vegan food has to be expensive,” says Firth. “In order to keep it cheap, though, it’s a good idea to avoid products that even say ‘vegan’ on them. So you’re not going to go to the expensive supermarkets and buy products in plastic that have been made in labs or factories; they’re going to be expensive. You’re just going to go back to basics and eat fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts and beans – and you are going to be incredibly healthy, as well as saving money.”
Do I have to give up going to dinner at other people’s houses?
That depends on whether you trust them to respect your dietary preferences. “If I’m going to a friend’s house who really respects my veganism and will make the effort to look after me, I will,” Zephaniah says. “But, on the whole, I don’t want people to bend over backwards for me, so I’ll say: ‘Let’s go out,’ or: ‘I’ll come round and you have your dinner and we’ll have some drinks.’”
A good approach for any well-mannered guest is to offer to bring a vegan dish with them. “By offering to bring some food, you’re contributing and you’re getting a chance to show delicious food to everyone who is not vegan, as well as taking the stress or annoyance out of the hands of the host,” says Firth. If the host prefers to cook, remind them of what you can and can’t eat – animal products have a way of slipping into things – so that they don’t accidentally put fish sauce in your curry. You may even want to suggest a recipe for them to try. But the most important thing is to have a frank conversation with your host before you turn up at their front door. “The one thing you don’t want to do is just turn up without having made a plan or had a conversation,” says Firth. “That’s going to annoy anyone.”
What should I do if I have a wobble and really crave some meat?
Breaking a decades-long attachment to the smells, flavours and textures of meat can be hard. Perhaps you are hungover and craving a bacon sandwich or at a barbecue when the smell of sausages wafts over to you. The good news is that nowadays it is easy to recreate the flavours and textures of meat in vegan food, whether it is a plant-based burger that bleeds like real meat, jackfruit “pulled pork” or seitan with the texture and crunch of fried chicken. “In my recipes and YouTube videos, often I recreate certain dishes, whether it’s vegan chicken, beefsteaks or turkey – whatever else I can veganise,” says Oakley. “You can get that same texture and taste when you’re vegan. You’re spoilt for choice these days. You can get chicken, ribs, bacon, steaks, burgers, sausages – everything is available. When I went vegan four years ago, those things weren’t there.”
What if I am not that keen on eating plants?
“Eat familiar recipes and replace ingredients with plant-based alternatives,” says Beskow. Take shepherd’s pie: “Instead of mince, you can use a can of green lentils. That way, you are getting some of your five a day because you have onion, carrot and celery, just as you would with any shepherd’s pie, but you’re hiding those lentils in there.” If you simply cannot eat your greens, do as parents of toddlers do and puree some vegetables, then bung them in a pasta sauce.
But you are going to have to get over your vegetable phobia at some point. “Vegan or not, you should be working vegetables into your life,” says Moskowitz. “I don’t know if it’s good to say: ‘I don’t like any vegetables, so I can’t go vegan.’ You’re going to have trouble actually living.”
Is it difficult to maintain a healthy weight on a vegan diet?
If you only eat salad, perhaps – but what a joyless life that would be. “Well-planned vegan diets can support healthy living in people of all ages,” says Russell. “They can provide all the calories and nutrients needed to hit nutritional targets and maintain a healthy weight.”
Being vegan doesn’t mean you are on a diet. Beskow urges converts to indulge in all their favourite treats from their pre-vegan lifestyle, in moderation. “If you are used to eating biscuits, you can buy lots of biscuits in supermarkets that are accidentally vegan … Have some crisps, enjoy your food – that’s what it’s all about. People see veganism as so restrictive and about saying no, but it’s about saying yes – but to different things.”
It is difficult to find vegan options where I live. How can I keep my diet varied and interesting?
If you are fortunate enough to have access to a garden or an allotment, get out there. Growing your own fruit and vegetables can be a great way to keep a vegan diet interesting. “I live in the middle of a field in Lincolnshire,” says Zephaniah. He has devoted a part of his garden to growing vegetables; in summer, he always has a glut. “I hardly have to go to a supermarket – I’ve got too much food. I have to give it away to the neighbours.”
Firth says: “You don’t need loads and loads of quirky ingredients. You can get a few base ingredients from your local shop and cook up thousands of delicious treats.” Most supermarkets, even in rural areas, will be able to cater to vegan diets. “I live in east Yorkshire and we don’t have any specialist vegan shops around us,” says Beskow. “But that’s OK because I don’t tend to shop in health-food shops or vegan shops anyway. Everything that I need is in the supermarket or the local market.” She advises following the Instagram account Accidentally Vegan, which uploads supermarket products that happen to be vegan.
What if my partner doesn’t want to go vegan? Will it affect our relationship?
Let’s face it: all couples do these days is eat food in front of box sets. But what if your partner is an avowed steak-eater? Will it affect your relationship? Not necessarily, says Moskowitz. “Find food you both like, eat separately, do whatever you have to do. There are lots of relationships where people have different political ideologies; most people have other things in common and that’s the reason they’re together.” Beskow’s fiance isn’t a vegan, but they muddle through: he doesn’t cook meat at home, but will eat meat when they go out for dinner. “I think it’s about making food you are both happy with, so they’re not missing out on anything.”
What about children? Is veganism safe for them?
Children can be healthy vegans. “It is possible to provide all the nutrients needed for growth and development without animal products,” Russell says. She advises parents to consult the Vegan Society website, which has detailed guidance on vegan diets for children of all ages, including infants, and can offer advice on which fortified foods and supplements it may be necessary for them to take.
What are your favourite very simple vegan recipes?
Bosh!’s Ian Theasby suggests a simple pasta dish: take vegetables, roast them in olive oil for half an hour, take them out of the oven and cover them with tinned tomatoes, then stick them back in for another 10 minutes. “What you are left with is an extremely tasty, really nutritious pasta sauce that will satisfy anybody.” Oakley suggests learning how to make a simple ramen. “Stir-fry some vegan protein, whether it’s tofu or vegan chicken, along with some vegetables. Get a nice vegetable stock, squeeze some miso paste in there, add some soy sauce and chilli, and throw in some noodles. You’ve got a quick ramen that takes you about 15 minutes.”
What if I slip up and break my vegan streak? Should I just give up?
We’re only human and we make mistakes. If you do end up eating some meat, take the time to rediscover why you went vegan in the first place. “Don’t get too down about it,” says Oakley. “We don’t live in a vegan world yet. It may even be out of your hands: perhaps you are given something that isn’t vegan. But refer back to the initial thing that made you go vegan. Get your real motivation and you won’t slip up.”
The crucial thing, all the experts agree, is not to beat yourself up about it. “Vegans aren’t perfect,” says Zephaniah. “We just think it’s worth it. We’re trying to do the most good and the least harm. And that’s the best you can do. So just keep trying.”