10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Went Vegan

The commitment to officially say "I'm vegan" was a decision I deliberated about for a long time. Now that this once extreme lifestyle now feels familiar, I have just enough perspective to wish I could go back and give my pre-vegan self (or someone else in my shoes) a few pointers.
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How do vegans possibly do it?

Even after I became vegetarian, I turned this question over and over in my mind. I knew that I wanted to quit eating animal products but just couldn't imagine making it work. I had even tried a vegan diet for a month, only to learn in the process that I wasn't ready.

The commitment to officially say "I'm vegan" was a decision I deliberated about for a long time. In the end, it took two full years before I completely cut out eggs, milk, butter, and cheese. But when the time was finally right, there was no question about it.

Two and a half years later, now that this once extreme lifestyle now feels familiar, I have just enough perspective to wish I could go back and give my pre-vegan self (or someone else in my shoes) a few pointers.

So whenever they give us the promised time machines and jetpacks and I get the chance to go back and talk to that guy, here's how I'll help him prepare:

1. The jokes will never stop.

So get used to them, and understand that they don't necessarily indicate a lack of respect.

My dad's favorite line, when he tries some of our food: "This would be great with some meatballs!" It's a joke, of course, and the fact that he says it so often has itself become a joke.

But just about every family or friendly gathering yields a joke from someone who must think they're the first to make it. "Want me to throw a steak on the grill for you? Oh, that's right... ha ha ha!"

An uncle once presented me with a single piece of iceberg lettuce on a plate and announced, for everyone to hear, "Hey Matt, look. Dinner!" I actually smiled at that one.

Get used to the jokes. Laugh them off, or take the opportunity to explain how important your diet choices are to you. Up to you.

2. Giving up the cheese isn't nearly as hard as it seems.

I'm not saying that losing the cheese is easy. Life without cheese takes some adjustment, especially if you rely on it as an essential part of the few vegetarian dishes you can order in "normal" restaurants.

I thought I'd miss cheese as an appetizer, with a glass of wine or a beer. But it didn't take long to discover that when I replaced the cheese with nuts or crackers, these foods were just as satisfying for their saltiness between sips, and I felt a lot better ten minutes later.

I thought I'd miss cheese on pizza. I quickly found that cheeseless pizza wasn't nearly as good as the real thing, but it did the job, and over time, I came to tolerate (and even like) Daiya. Now, vegan pizza is just pizza in my mind, and I haven't lost a thing.

As it turned out the key to giving up that last bit of cheese -- which I clung to for months -- was simply deciding to do so.

3. Being vegan doesn't have to be more expensive, but it will be.

If you do the math, there's no reason eating vegetarian or vegan should be more expensive than eating meat.

At three, five, or eight dollars a pound, meat is one of the more expensive items you'll buy in the grocery store. So if you just replace it, say, with beans that cost a dollar per pound, you'll bank some serious coin.

And yet, I now spend one and a half times or twice as much as I used to on groceries. Why? Because being vegan has led me down the ultra-health-foodie road. I shop at farmers markets and co-ops and Whole Foods more than I ever did before I was vegan, and I pay extra for organic. Going vegan led me to learn more about food, to the point that I'm scared not to be hyper-selective and skeptical about what I buy.

I'm sure you've heard the adage by now: "Pay for it now, or pay for it later." The money we spend on the healthiest food possible is an investment in our future health that will pay off down the road.

4. Most of your meals will be one-dish wonders.

Believe it or not, this has been the toughest part for me -- I lost a lot of my interest in cooking when I cut meat and then dairy out of my diet. (I realize I'm in the minority when I say this; most vegan chefs I've talked to didn't discover their passion for food until they went vegan.)

Here's what happened:

First, vegan food took a little more work to prepare. Second, without meat or cheese to supply lots of protein and fat without carbohydrate, there wasn't the need to balance it with a high-carb side dish to keep this runner going.

So instead of making two or three different dishes for dinner, I shifted to one-dish meals: pastas, stir-fries, gigantic salads, smoothies, and a grain, a green, and a bean all in one pot.

It was a matter of practicality and simplicity, which, although less "gourmet," fit perfectly well with other shifts in my lifestyle precipitated by my change in diet.

5. You will impact many more people than you realize.

I didn't expect friends and family to change as a result of my decision. I didn't set out to change anybody.

But -- completely aside from this blog -- I've had at least a half dozen friends excitedly tell me about how they eat less meat now. Some have become pescetarian, vegetarian, and even vegan.

People notice, even when your approach to influence is of the "quiet" form.


6. Be prepared for a feeling of responsibility, and the compulsion to hold yourself to a higher standard than before.

There's a stereotype that vegans are skinny and weak. And it's a deserved one, because so many vegans have always been exactly that.

As the plant-based fitness movement grows, this is beginning to change. But keep in mind that even though you are aware of this shift because you're so closely involved in it, most people have no clue about this. To them, vegans are still skinny and weak, by necessity.

Of course it's your choice whether you want to play into this stereotype or make yourself a stark counterexample. For me, it has been the latter.

The reminder that I'm an ambassador (as anyone who is vegan is, wittingly or not) has been a big part of my drive to stay fit, to go after ultrarunning accomplishments and to make an effort to keep on at least a little bit of muscle, even when running and my body type make that tough.

The need to be an example goes beyond fitness, of course -- for instance, I try hard to be the opposite of the stereotypical "preachy" vegan, too. Many vegans find their identity in being preachy, which is cool, but it's not for me.

7. No matter how much you try to not make it a big deal, it's gonna be a big deal.

I haven't met vegans who are more laid back about it than my wife and I are. We don't try to get people to go vegan, we're supportive when people tell us they're eating more whole foods even when their diet is more Paleo than vegan, and neither of us is the type that enjoys debating about how anyone "should" eat.

And yet, even with such a relaxed attitude and an avoidance of anything that could be considered pushy, I'd estimate that after we went vegan, we started eating dinners with family and friends about half as much as before, maybe even less.

Being vegan is a big deal, whether you make it that way or not. Some people will think you're judging them and won't dare try to prepare a meal for you, even if only because they're afraid they'll do a poor job of it. Others just don't want to make the effort, and that's totally understandable. And while there's no reason we couldn't invite those same people over to our place just as often as before, I can see how a vegan dinner would be unappealing to less adventurous eaters, and as a result I think I extend the invitation a little less often than before (note to self: I need to work on this).

8. You will be pleasantly surprised at who your biggest supporters are.

The flip side of eating less meals with friends and family as a whole is that it will become delightfully obvious who thinks it's really awesome that you eat this way, who will go out of their way to make sure you've got something to eat at any event they host, and who will be eager to try your food and ask you intelligent questions about how you eat.

This has meant a ton to me. It's a new and wonderful quality you'll discover in people you already know well and love -- and when someone treats you this way, you feel recognized, respected, and loved in return.

9. Sometimes it feels lonely, but you are not alone.

I've never had a strong desire to "cheat" for pleasure. More often that desire has been rooted in convenience or not wanting to make a scene, and tiny allowances in these situations are something I recently decided to take more seriously and abstain from entirely.

But over the past two years, there have been a few points where I felt like I was alone in the way I chose to eat, and those moments were tougher than any fleeting desire for gustatory pleasure or convenience.

I've gotten through those times by reminding myself that I'm not at all alone. Thanks to the connections technology affords us, there is a huge and supportive community that will make you feel ecstatic about your choices, whatever they are. You only have to look for these people -- and sometimes, you don't even have to do that. (You know the joke about how to find the vegan at the dinner party, right?)

Long-term, it has been this connection with people of similar mindsets, in person but mostly online, that has made moments of doubt increasingly rare.

10. You don't have to get weirder when you go vegan, but you will.

The fun part. Being vegan has changed so much else about me, encouraging me to explore my uniqueness and pushing me towards and beyond the edges of what's considered mainstream ... from ditching the microwave to putting broccoli in smoothies to owning very few things.

There's no reason that I had to become vegan before I embraced weirdness. And there's no reason the choice to go vegan has to be the choice to go weird (outside of your diet). But for me, that's how it worked out.

And I love it that way.

Yay? Nay?

I've learned -- mostly from blogging about my journey -- that in many ways I'm not the typical vegan. So I expect that there will be plenty of agreement and disagreement with this post, and I'm looking forward to hearing it. Let me know what you think!

Visit Matt's website nomeatathlete.com for more articles like this.

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