A beginner’s guide to a vegan diet: Tips for getting started

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Use this beginner’s guide to a vegan diet to enjoy your new plant-based lifestyle while avoiding negative side effects that could see you returning to old habits.

Starting out on any new lifestyle path is always a challenge, but making the switch to vegan foods seems especially rife with complicated or conflicting information. What exactly are plant-based diets? Do you have to like tofu scramble? And is weight loss guaranteed? 

Here are our tips for making the transition as simple and enjoyable as possible.

Remember why you’re making the switch

beginner’s guide to a vegan dietWhether you are looking to get healthier or have an ethical leaning that is guiding you, switching to a vegan diet is a big decision. In your moments of feeling tempted by old habits or animal products that you used to particularly enjoy, it will help to focus on your initial motivation. Keeping a diary can help with this, as you may also uncover triggers for wanting certain foods.

Be realistic about your food choices

switching to a vegan dietYou’ll be waving goodbye to meat, fish and dairy, significantly reducing your chances of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease in the process, but it doesn’t automatically follow that you’ll be ultra-healthy. Processed foods are freely available for followers of a plant-based diet, with new meat replacements and alt-dairy products being released all the time.

If you are hoping to adopt a healthier lifestyle, you’ll need to be open to a more whole foods-based diet, with fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and healthy grains at the heart of most meals. If you take a look at the vegan food plate model, you’ll notice that it differs greatly from the traditional Eat Well food pyramid, meaning you’ll need to totally rethink your portion sizes of each food group.

Plant-based food is just as exciting and varied as omnivorous diet options, with the added benefit of being cruelty-free.

Go at your own pace

vegan challengeThe rule of thumb is that it takes two months for a new habit to become automatic, so don’t pressure yourself to be part of the ultra-healthy vegans club overnight. Some people will have been eating exclusively plant foods for much longer than you, maybe even since birth, so it’s important to focus on your own goals and realistic timeframes.

Short-term challenges can be a great way to ease into a vegan diet, such as Veganuary, which gives you the option to carry on after the 31 days are up, but with no obligation. It might be that you take the month to learn about some new foods and recipes that you enjoy, talk to other vegans and give yourself an opportunity to ‘try before you buy’. The most important thing is to not force yourself to press ahead with something you don’t enjoy or get any satisfaction from.

Supplements are key

b12 supplementIt’s true that you can get almost everything you need from a balanced vegan diet, but when you’re just starting out, supplements will help you to transition in a way that doesn’t affect your energy levels or general wellbeing.

If you download a food tracking app, you’ll be able to see the breakdown of all your vitamins and minerals, helping you to see where you need to be more vigilant. Cronometer is a good option and comes recommended by Earthling Ed — super vegan to many — who says he still uses it to make sure he is getting enough calcium and vitamin B12.

On the topic of B12, any beginner’s guide to a vegan diet should make it clear that this is the one essential vitamin that you can’t source through plant-based foods, so you will need to supplement it. Plenty of vegans simply add a high strength multivitamin to their morning routine, but you can also look to add nutritional yeast to your cooking. Don’t let the name put you off, as it is a tasty ingredient that is commonly used to add a cheesy taste to everyday recipes and just a quarter of a cup is more than seven times your daily requirement. A heaped tablespoon in mashed potatoes, soups or almost anything would be essentially imperceptible, but would be topping up your B12 levels.

Start with simple meals

plant based foodYou might be excited to start making new and adventurous meals, packed with ingredients that you normally walk past in the supermarket. And that’s great, but try to ease yourself in. There’s plenty of time for mastering homemade seitan and alt-milks later, both of which can take a little practice.

A great way to get started is with Buddha bowls, as they offer you plenty of scope for experimenting with vegan options that you are already familiar with and no two ever have to be the same. They also give you a chance to make more than you need of individual elements, which can be used for easy lunches and snacks. Flavoured couscous, roasted chickpeas and simple steamed veggies all work well and you can be add them however you like.

When you’re feeling more adventurous, you can start adding in food substitutes, such as plant-based egg alternatives and homemade vegan cheese.

Check out our Ultimate Guide to vegan cheese.

Always read food labels

vegan food labelsA good rule of thumb for everybody, but especially those just starting out with a vegan diet, reading food labels will help you stay on the right track. You’ll not only be able to ensure that you’re not accidentally eating any animal products, but you’ll also get a better understanding of what you’re putting in your body. Many new vegans actually start to identify potential former food allergies or intolerances when cutting out large food groups, with dairy often being a serious offender.

If you’re ever in doubt about an ingredient, look it up on your phone, or if you are more of an old school fan, the Animal Free Shopper is a pocket-sized book from The Vegan Society that lists thousands of vegan-friendly products.

Expect body changes

vegan body changesBeing vegan is good for you, the environment and the animals, but you should be prepared for inevitable bodily changes; not all of them pleasant.

In the first few days of turning vegan, you could experience headaches, less energy and potentially some trouble sleeping. This is perfectly normal and will pass quickly. You have to think of your new lifestyle as detox after a lifetime of different eating habits. If you’ve always been a big meat eater or a dairy fanatic, your body will naturally crave and miss those items, at first. The good news is that this will not last long and you should feel better than before.

You might also notice some weight loss, especially if you have moved away from processed foods towards a more whole food eating style.

Connect with your community

vegan communityThere’s strength in numbers and support in forums, so be sure to try and connect with your fellow vegans for advice, inspiration and when you need it, motivation. Social media is a fantastic tool for linking up with likeminded people from around the world with recipes, ideas and even the activist side of things all being easy to interact with, from the comfort of your home. A beginner’s guide to a vegan diet is all well and good, but nothing beats talking to a large community directly, so get involved.

Be kind to yourself

beginner’s guide to a vegan dietFinally, remember to take it easy on yourself. By even considering a vegan diet, you are embracing compassion and a healthier way of living, but nobody is infallible. It’s easy to get caught out by hidden ingredients and the vegan police won’t be knocking on your door if you do.

Becoming vegan is a journey that starts with personal motivation and keeps evolving. Who knows? This time next year, you could even be making your own tofu for the perfect breakfast scramble or considering trying a raw vegan diet.

Amy Buxton
Amy Buxton
Amy is a committed ethical vegan, raising a next generation compassionate human with her husband and their beloved dog, Boo. A freelance writer with a background in PR, she decided to use the COVID lockdown period to refocus her client base and has come to The Vegan Review as a senior writer and editor, before moving into her external content director role. "What we should be doing is working at the job of life itself" is Amy's mantra, courtesy of Tom from The Good Life.