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Becoming a Vegan

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Woman with Vegan SandwichThinking about becoming a vegan? It’s a great lifestyle choice that will make you healthier! A plant-based diet will give you more energy too – the only thing you have to lose is a little weight!

And you’ll be in distinguished company! There are many famous vegans from Ellen DeGeneres, to Coretta Scott King, to Alicia Silverstone, to Albert Einstein. These enlightened folks came to realize that the best way to achieve personal health and harmony with the planet, was to become vegan.

Before we get to the logistics, be sure to check out the Why Vegan? page to understand the consciousness behind the vegan lifestyle.

If you are considering becoming a vegan, you will undoubtedly have questions about how to start, and concerns about possible problems that might arise.

The biggest questions for anyone who is considering becoming a vegan are:

Let’s take them one at a time.

How will I get my protein?

One of the biggest myths out there is that we need to consume meat and dairy every day in order to meet our protein requirements. This myth has been largely spun by the the meat and dairy lobbies in Washington, and by the USDA, whose job it is to look out for meat and dairy farmers.

If you are considering becoming a vegan, then you are probably already questioning that myth. Think about this: People eat cows and chickens and pigs for the protein, right? So where are the cows and chickens and pigs getting their protein?

The answer is that it’s not about really about protein – it’s about amino acids. There are 21 amino acids that serve as the building blocks for all proteins needed by humans. Of the 21, eight are considered essential because we do not manufacture them ourselves – we can only get them through our food.

Amino acids are present in plenty of plant foods, particularly legumes, grains, greens, fermented soy, quinoa, and hemp seeds. Many of these are not "complete" proteins so vegans use many yummy recipes to combine foods – usually a bean with a grain – to make a complete protein.

For more information on vegan protein and a crash course on vegan nutrition in general, check out the vegan food pyramid.

Now, many vegan and vegetarian web sites will tell you that soy is the best source of protein for a plant-based diet, but in fact this is not true! Processed soy is actually quite bad for you – soy should only be eaten in feremented form, and then only in small quantities.

Click here for more information about the dangers of processed soy.


How will I get my calcium?

When you’re thinking about becoming a vegan, the calcium question is another one that often looms large. There is a huge myth, circulated and funded by the dairy industry, that milk and milk products are the best source of calcium. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Problems with Dairy Products:

  • Consider this: We are the only species that drinks milk as adults – and not even human milk – the milk of another species!
  • Dairy products are mucous producing, especially in the intestines. Excess mucous in the intestines blocks the body’s ability to properly digest and absorb food. This causes acidic buildup and promotes respiratory problems and allergies.
  • Because almost all our lactose processing enzyme (lactase) disappears after age 2 or 3, the lactose in dairy creates acidic conditions in the body that viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells thrive on.
  • The primary protein in dairy, casein, contains an opiate similar to morphine – ever felt addicted to cheese? You are!
  • The great irony about milk is that its high protein content actually pulls calcium out of your bones.

Calcium from leafy greens has a greater bioavailability, meaning it’s easier for the body to absorb. Greens, particularly from the Brassica family (broccoli, turnip greens, kale, collard greens, mustard greens) have loads of calcium and can be easily consumed in delicious green smoothies!

Vegans also get calcium from seaweed (just throw some dulse in a green smoothie), nuts, and seeds. For the sweet tooth, bioavailable calcium is found in high numbers in dates and oranges. For more information and suggestions, check out the Vegan Food Pyramid.


How will I get enough Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D?

Vitamin B12 – Anyone who is wondering how to become a vegan generally has concerns about this, although becoming a vegan does not mean going without essential nutrition.

Although most people think that we get Vitamin B12 from meat, that’s not quite accurate. Vitamin B12 is manufactured by "friendly bacteria" in our intestines. These bacteria are often present on meat products, but they are equally present on unwashed vegetables.

Now I know the idea of eating unwashed vegetables doesn’t sound very appetizing, and becoming a vegan does not mean you have to do this! Frankly, with all the e-coli outbreaks there have been recently, it’s not very safe.

The best ways to get enough Vitamin B12 are to take a good supplement and to include nutritional yeast in at least one smoothie a day. I recommend the KAL brand. It’s loaded with vitamins (including B12 and the whole B spectrum), it’s vegan, and you can put it in anything – soups, salads, mashed potatoes, you name it!

Vitamin D – In our culture, the concern over skin cancer has caused us to become sun-block crazy. Our over-use of sun-block has caused widespread Vitamin D deficiencies among vegans and meat-eaters alike.

The optimal way to get enough Vitamin D is to spend about half an hour a day in the sun, preferably before 10 am or after 4 pm. Of course, this isn’t always possible when you are busy, or during the winter. Vegans take Vitamin D2 supplements rather than Vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 is extracted from the lanolin of sheep and is therefore not considered vegan.


Transitioning to a Vegan Diet

When you are considering becoming a vegan, it is probably best to do it in stages primarily because this transition can mean some detoxing symptoms. Taking it slowly and gradually, will allow your body to adjust more comfortably.

Below are the three recommended transition stages. I would suggest spending about two weeks at each stage.

Stage 1

Cutting out Meats (Lacto-Vegetarian)

During this first step toward becoming a vegan, you’ll need to focus on some new protein sources. You may also need to spend some time rethinking the "meat, starch, vegetable" set-up of a typical meal. Here are some substitution ideas:

  • Hemp – eating a bowl of 3/4 cups hemp hearts with some coconut milk drink (try the So Delicious brand – Awesome!) or rice milk sweetened with stevia or a little turbinado sugar will meet almost your entire daily protein requirement.
  • Legumes and Lentils – These can be sautéed with veggies or sprouted raw and served in salads and soups. See these meal tips for a quick bean recipe.
  • Seitan – This is processed wheat gluten that can serve as a meat substitute. Personally I don’t feel that it’s very healthy, but some people like that it really looks like meat, especially in casseroles and with sauces. Don’t use if you have a wheat or gluten allergy.
  • Quinoa – The other complete plant protein! Quinoa is great because you can use it as a grain, but it’s really functioning as your protein serving. So you can put sautéed veggies over it, or create a casserole around it and it will give you a complete serving of protein!
  • Tempeh, Miso and Natto – Although the flavor takes a little getting used to, you can marinate tempeh and serve it as a "meat course", on sandwiches, or in a stir-fry. Natto works well as an alternative to beans, and Miso is wonderful in soup and in vegan sushi. Please note – these are the only safe forms of soy because they are fermented! Do not use tofu as a meat substitute! For information on the dangers of processed soy, click here.
  • Nuts and Seeds – Add these to salads or munch on them between meals. Careful though – they are high in calories!
Stage 2

Cutting out Dairy and Eggs

This is the hardest stage for anyone who is becoming a vegan. The casein in dairy products makes this stage a lot like drug withdrawal.

When you give up dairy, you may experience detox symptoms such as fatigue, aches and pain, and diarrhea. They are unpleasant, but they will pass and will serve to show you how toxic your body was with all that dairy!

Some good dairy substitutes for this stage are:

  • Coconut Milk or Rice Milk – My top choice of milk substitutes is So Delicious brand coconut milk drink. It is a one-to-one substitute in recipes and it actually does not taste like coconuts. I love it on muesli and cereals. I make everything from vegan pancakes to vegan mashed potatoes with it. Notice that I’m not recommending soy or almond milk. Processed soy is actually not good for you. Read about it here. Almond milk is not terrible for you, but it is very high in oxalate and can cause kidney stones, so use in small amounts.
  • Earth Balance Organic Spread – This is a great substitute for butter and now they have a soy-free product!! So exciting! Make sure you get the organic kind, rather than the natural – the natural kind has GMO bean oils.
  • Flax Gluten or Apple Cider Vinegar – To replace eggs in vegan baking. Take 1 tbsp of flax seed and one cup of boiling water per egg that you want to replace and whip them briefly in a blender. This releases the flax gluten and creates an egg-like consistency. You can create the same thickening effect in baking products by adding 1 tsp of apple cider vinegar to your coconut milk and letting it sit for a couple of minutes until it curdles. Works like a charm.

You may want to take longer than 2 weeks at this stage because of the detox and the withdrawal. At first you will experience a lot of craving for dairy, but you will notice over time that your cravings do subside and you may get to the point where you don’t even want it anymore!

Stage 3

Cutting out Sugar

Yes, I know this comes as a sad shock to many, but sugar is not vegan. Sugar is refined by filtering the cane through the charred bones of animals – gross!

Chemical substitutes are no better – they cause all kinds of health problems from brain lesions to cancer.

There are a number of great sugar substitutes though, that vegans can use. These are much healthier and some are even lower in calories with lower glycemic indices.

Before you panic, thinking that becoming a vegan means you’ll never be able to satisfy your sweet tooth again, check out the natural sugar substitutes page, the vegan desserts page, and the raw desserts pages.

Veganism is a fabulous lifestyle choice and if you take your time with the transition, it should be a great experience. You will feel better, sleep better, and probably lose weight in the bargain!