Vegan Starter Guide

By: Jacqueline Weiss

Even small changes to your lifestyle require some adjustments or purchases. You may be more motivated to drink water throughout the day with a reusable water bottle, or may be more inclined to hit the gym if you feel confident in a fresh leggings and bra set. Just as making changes in your environment can alter the way your day-to-day life operates, changing the food with which you nourish your body can do the same. Veganism is much more than a diet; it’s a lifestyle that involves not consuming any animal-based products. Being a vegan makes you far more aware of the food around you, and what you put into your body every day.

When I first cut dairy out of my diet in December 2015, it caused almost instant weight loss in combination with regular exercise, which I thought was great, considering that I had barely eaten that much dairy to begin with. Especially if you suffer from allergies, you’ll likely notice your sinuses are more clear, and there’s less mucus build-up in your nose and throat during peak allergy season. I also cut out meat cold turkey (excuse the pun) on a random day in March 2016 while out to lunch with my family. Eggs came shortly after because the texture also began to weird me out, and ta-da, I was a vegan!

What has made this transition a successful one for me has been finding alternatives to dairy and meat products that I crave and want to share. Finding the best alternatives for milk, butter, cheese, and yogurt to start, and adding in extras like ice cream, dressings, and other condiments will be key to your success in cutting out dairy. What works for one person might not work for you, so play around in your kitchen until you find your favorites.

Meat alternatives aren’t always pretty, but when prepared properly will have you not even thinking about the real thing. A few essentials: tofu, tempeh, seitan, and jackfruit. Soy based tofu is the most common, and can be transformed from otherwise bland cubes into spicy chorizo, hot dogs, and more. Just take a look in the frozen section of your grocery store. Tempeh, or fermented soybeans formed into cakes, is delicious and dense in protein, fiber, and vitamins. Seitan, sometimes referred to as a “wheat meat,” is high in protein and looks almost identical to meat when cooked. Jackfruit is truly amazing and can be used as an alternative to shredded meats in cooking thanks to its unique texture.

Nutrient deficiency is often one of the biggest pushbacks I hear about from vegan skeptics, i.e. that we don’t get enough protein, iron, or calcium, which non-vegans consume through animal based products. Skeptics beware, because you can consume most of these nutrients through vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. A few favorites: sweet potatoes, lentils, chickpeas, cauliflower, beans, beets, and nuts. These nutrient-dense foods are high in fiber and protein, and can be used in a variety of ways in your kitchen. One easy recipe: combine chickpea pasta, which is naturally high in protein, nutritional yeast as an alternative to shredded parmesan, which is high in vitamin B12, and pureed seasoned cashews for a mac & cheese that you won’t believe doesn’t have dairy!

Baking can be a challenge at first, given that so many delicious treats are loaded with butter, milk, and eggs, but thankfully, alternatives make it easy to still enjoy your favorite desserts without the guilt.

Eating out can be tricky as well, because there are usually many more vegetarian choices than vegan ones, most of which can be modified by subtracting the cheese, but you still have to beware of veggies cooked in butter, sauces that include milk or cream, or egg based fresh pasta. Be upfront with your waiter about your dietary restrictions and see what you can do to modify the menu to make it work for you.

Living in a big city like Boston has made it easy for me to find an array of vegan friendly eateries that I know and love, and I’m lucky that with my upcoming move to Los Angeles, I know there won’t be a shortage of options there. Don’t fret if your city doesn’t have as many easily accessibly vegan eateries; cooking and experimenting at home can be just as fun!