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How to: Transitioning to a Plant-Based Vegan Diet

If you’re thinking about transitioning to a plant-based vegan diet, read on to learn from personal experiences on how to tailor the journey for yourself.

Nov 21, 2020

Before switching to a plant-based vegan diet three years ago, I always claimed that I could never go vegan. I saw a vegan lifestyle as one of restriction, starvation and social isolation. However, since my transition, I have tried countless dishes I had never even heard of on four different continents, found amazing friends and a new community. Reflecting on my own personal experiences, I wanted to share some tips that I wish I had to help me when I first went vegan.
Find Your Reasons for Going Vegan
A plant-based diet is beneficial for several reasons, varying from one person to another. Are you worried about the cruel treatment of animals in factory farms? Are you an environmentalist looking to support more sustainable land uses and decrease your carbon footprint? Maybe you are an athlete, hoping to better your performance and improve your health?
Research the benefits of veganism, and find what speaks to you. Veggie Might, the plant-based Student Interest Group at NYU Abu Dhabi, has resources that could help. I first went vegetarian when I was 14 because I hated contributing to the inhumane and cruel meat industry by purchasing from it.
At 16, I learned about the immense environmental and health impacts of a plant-based vegan diet. Although it originally started as a seven day test to see if my sensitive stomach would react better, my veganism is now a pillar of my identity. It exemplifies my deep concern for the environment and my efforts to reduce my carbon footprint, as well as a way to nourish my body and mind. It is even political, as I have learned about the grave mistreatment of workers in meat packaging plants.
Finding your purpose makes every step in the transition easier. I recommend journaling about this; on the hard days, it can remind you why you started. Having a true reason for the change makes the process easier to stick with.
Do Your Research
Along with finding your reasons, discovering how to live a healthy vegan lifestyle is also important. If you have heard horror stories of people who went vegan for a week but got really sick, rest assured this is not the norm if you eat a balanced plate. Learn about which foods have the nutrients you need, and eat a wide variety.
Photo Courtesy to Well + Good Creative
The goal is to have about half your plate filled with fruits and vegetables, about a quarter of it should be legumes, a quarter grains, and a little bit of healthy fats. I try to make sure I have at least one fruit, vegetable, grain and legume at each meal. For example, my favorite meal is brown lentils and rice, with a cucumber and tomato salad on the side and fruit for dessert. For breakfast, I will have oats with dates, nut butter, a banana and sliced peppers on the side. It might require a bit of effort to get used to knowing which foods are protein rich, which ones have iron and so on, but it is crucial to do so for your health.
Try Substitutes, but Don’t Live off Them
When I first went vegan, I went to the fanciest grocery store in Baltimore and bought vegan cheeses, special chips, ice creams — all foods I already missed eating. But now, I try to stick to whole foods, for both my wallet and my body. While the abundance of plant-based substitutes, like vegan burgers, sausages and cheeses can be enticing, making them a pillar of your diet can be unhealthy and expensive.
Substitutes are great for cravings, and can definitely be helpful when starting off, but my advice is to try new foods on their own. Lastly, try to incorporate whole grains, legumes, fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds into your diet without expecting them to mimic animal products. For example, do not expect lentils to taste like meat — they’re delicious as they are!
Start with Small Changes
If the prospect of being a vegetarian or vegan scares you, start small. There are different philosophies about which steps come first. Some people recommend starting by cutting out red meat for a period of time, then moving onto all meat, then eggs, and so on until you’re vegan. For example, over the course of two years, I went from eating meat to being vegetarian, to transitioning to mostly plant-based, and from there, I became completely vegan. Your timeline might look different
You could start by adding in vegan food, rather than taking out non-vegan food. One week, eat more fruits and veggies, replacing the space previously occupied by animal products. Or have vegan breakfasts all week, and then the next week have vegan breakfast and vegetarian lunch, then two vegan meals a day, and then go fully vegan. Regardless of the steps you want to take, what is most important is to start with changes that feel comfortable for you.
Look into your Culture for Familiar Foods
People frequently shy away from veganism because they view their cultures as meat-heavy and it seems impossible. While I would not deny that animal products are prevalent in some cultures, if you look into it, you might be surprised with the number of traditional dishes that are naturally plant-based. When I was living in Jordan, people would always ask me how I navigated the fact that so much of the local food is meat-based. When I listed the numerous dishes that were naturally vegan like hummus, falafel, fattoush and tabbouleh, my diet no longer felt strange for them.
Try thinking of which of your favorite dishes are already vegan or could easily be. A simple google search of vegan foods in a particular country can be a great start. There is no need to look for Western versions; instead, look at variations of what is normal for you.
Find a Community
You might want to find people who are already on a plant-based diet to help you transition, or you might want to find a friend who also wants to try it out. Personally, friends who were already vegan helped me read labels, create a balanced meal and try out new dishes.
On campus, Veggie Might is open to anyone interested in vegan and vegetarian lifestyles. There are also groups on Facebook where people can share tips, tricks and local finds. A quick “Vegan in X city” search will help you find a community in your city. Find people to ask questions, cook with and split dishes with around town.
Be Gentle on Yourself
The world needs a billion imperfect vegans, not a hundred perfect ones. It is okay if you need to start slow, or don’t want to be 100 percent anything. Take it slow if you need to, and if you slip up, don’t let it discourage you. Making any big change is difficult, but according to me, the benefits of going vegan outweigh the hardships a thousand times over.
Colleen Mader is a staff writer. Email her at
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