November 1 marks World Vegan Day. And if you’re considering switching to a solely plant-based diet you might be feeling apprehensive about the effects this choice will have on your lifestyle. Our resident herbivore, Harsha Poojari, gives us the skinny on her veganism journey and offers up some sage advice on how to adapt.
Going vegan is a lifestyle choice moving rapidly from the fringes to the mainstream. As we learn more about the implications of animal agriculture on climate, as our understanding of animals being sentient creatures evolves, and with alternative protein innovations booming, will there come a point where we look back on our carnivorous selves and wonder: “what the hell were we thinking?!”.
Putting the ethics and morality of slaughtering animals for human consumption to one side for a second, the science behind why switching to a plant-based diet can benefit the environment is compelling. Firstly, the livestock agriculture industry accounts for 14.5% of global emissions alone. Secondly, animal agriculture is also responsible for 80% of tropical deforestation. And thirdly, currently, 40% of the world’s land surface is used to keep the global population fed. But a whopping 30% of that is used not to grow plants and crops that can feed humans directly, but instead, to feed the animals we eventually eat. And if you need persuading further, this 2019 UN IPCC report says switching to a plant-based diet can help fight climate change. And that’s before we even touch upon the ethical issues surrounding the intensification of factory farming and over-reliance on injecting growth hormones and antibiotics to speed up production.
If you’ve reached a point where adopting a plant-centric diet is something you’re seriously considering, you might be feeling a little apprehensive at the scale of change and how that will impact your lifestyle. So here’s our resident vegan, visual editor, video guru and all-around excellent human, Harsha Poojari, to share her journey. Read on for some key insights into what you should consider, sound advice, and handy hints and tips that will help make your path to going vegan that little bit more accessible.
Is it best to go cold turkey or make a gradual transition?
“The reason why you’re choosing a vegan diet might determine the pace at which you make the switch. Initially I went vegan as I suffered badly with digestion issues as a child. I went cold turkey for 10 days and a lot of my issues cleared up. Then, upon reintroducing certain food groups like dairy, my symptoms returned aggressively. At that point, I was already vegetarian, but my body’s reaction to animal produce was so severe that I turned vegan immediately and I’ve never really looked back.
But, if you’re choosing a vegan diet as a broader lifestyle choice, a longer transition period will help in creating long-term change. On average it takes people one year to go vegan. I’d always recommend taking small, incremental steps over a longer period of time. Most people who go cold turkey give up relatively quickly and view their lapses as failures. But if you slowly cut things out of your diet one at a time, the change won’t feel as drastic. For example, if you start by cutting out veal and lamb, you probably won’t miss it. The next step could be cutting back on steak, and so on. If something feels like too big a change, like cutting the milk from your morning coffee, keep taking milk in your coffee until you can find an alternative that you enjoy more.
If you take small steps that feel effortless you are more likely to take big steps. And remember that your beliefs will become stronger after you start taking action. Which makes future action even easier.”
Will the reaction from friends and family make switching to vegan more difficult?
“In my experience, there are so many misunderstandings and false assumptions about veganism that can cause the people around you to struggle with accepting your choice. I personally feel very comfortable with being vegan, I’m happy discussing it with people, and I’m passionate about it. I’ve found ways to manage the confrontational questioning from others. I think it’s a case of understanding that for some reason, people will suddenly become very interested in your protein source. If I was eating McDonald’s every single day, no one would bat an eyelid. Yet choosing to be a vegan can upset people. My take is that it’s a different diet from the norm, and people don’t like deviating from the status quo. That said, I’ve also found that true friends and family have gone out of their way to be understanding and accommodate my decision.”
How will I ensure I get enough protein, vitamins, and minerals?
“Firstly, I’d recommend watching documentaries like Game Changers and Earthlings, educating yourself through blogs, and whatever other resources you can get your hands on. There’s so much information out there now that it’s easy to ensure you maintain a balanced, healthy diet. And it’s a myth that animal produce is the only available source of protein. Fruits, vegetables, beans, rice; they all contain protein. If you’re eating a balanced diet (because, yes, despite what people think, it is possible to be an unhealthy vegan!) you won’t need to take additional supplements either.”
Will going vegan be that much more expensive?
“Being vegan does not have to be expensive. I moved to Singapore as a student on a $400 a month budget and made it work. I shopped for fruit and veggies at wet markets, and staples like canned beans and lentils are cheap. They’re even cheaper if you buy them dried in bulk from a wholefood store. And there are lots of vegetarian and vegan options at hawker centres which make eating out cheap too. Sure, if you’re buying luxury alternative proteins like Beyond Meat then it can add up. But generally speaking and in my experience, I definitely don’t spend more than a meat-eater on food.
I’d also recommend doing some research by tapping into your local vegan community. HappyCow and abillionveg are great apps that will help you find vegan eats across various cities. And there are also multiple Facebook groups that are a great source of information. I’ve found that vegans tend to be pretty proactive and share their knowledge freely and widely.
I would encourage anyone who is apprehensive about the cost of becoming a vegan to not let that be a barrier. I’ve never found it to be prohibitive.”
How do you manage going to other people’s houses for dinner and being ‘that’ person?
“I’m not going to lie, this can be tricky to navigate at first. But this really can depend on how you approach veganism. I know some people who are a bit more flexible and feel comfortable eating what they’re given at other people’s houses. And that’s totally fine. The whole point of veganism is to reduce animal suffering and impact on the climate. Being flexible in your approach means you can still achieve that goal.
That said, I personally don’t want to consume animal products at all so this doesn’t work for me. I’ve found that typically people have a lot of questions but are completely open to being flexible. Usually, there’s always a veggie side dish regardless, so making a bit extra of that is the easiest way to manage it. Other times, I’ve also had fun helping friends prep for a dinner party and shown them how to adapt recipes so they’re vegan. I also bring my own dishes on occasion to eat and share. People are often amazed at just how delicious vegan food can be. My pumpkin pie is a favourite dessert among friends. On the whole, I’ve found people are more than willing to make an effort and aren’t mean about it. Plus they might learn a thing or two!”
Veganism is boring and there isn’t much choice
“This couldn’t be more wrong and is a total misconception! 20 years ago this might have been the case, but now this is such an incredible space of innovation and there’s so much variety. Like new vegan ‘meats’, mayonnaise, cheeses, I could go on. There really is so much on offer and it’s getting cheaper with scale. Obviously, there are still some restrictive elements to being a vegan. For example, if all of your friends are going to a steakhouse, it’s unlikely you’ll find something on the menu that’s suitable. But it’s definitely getting easier and there are so many restaurants that have vegan and vegetarian-friendly options. But boring? Definitely not.”
What happens if I start craving meat?
“I think it’s totally normal for people to have a wobble during their veganism journey. The important thing is to not beat yourself up about it. It’s OK to ‘cheat’. As I said, the whole point of going vegan is to reduce animal suffering and reduce your impact. You are doing that if you significantly reduce your intake of animal produce. A slip up here and there won’t change that.
When I first made the choice to go vegan, I found it really hard to give up cheese and eggs. And a year after I’d given these up, I ate a slice of cheese pizza as I was really craving it. But by then my tastes had changed and I didn’t enjoy it as much as what I remembered. Besides, it didn’t make me feel great. After that, it was easier for me to cut them out completely.
I also think it’s important to look for alternatives that you really enjoy. If you really love beef burgers, Impossible or Beyond are amazing substitutes. Or just have a burger if that’s what you need.
I’ve spoken to so many people who are convinced they hate soy milk but have only tried one brand. There are so many soy or nut milk varieties that all taste completely different – be open and keep trying things until you find something you do actually like. Then it’s easier to switch out what you’re used to for that product.”
Should I just give up if I crack and eat animal products?
“Of course not! If you think an 80/20 ratio would work best for you (where you eat vegan most of the time) then it’s worth doing. I have friends who eat solely vegan at home but allow themselves some flexibility if eating out. I think the point is that you keep going and it doesn’t mean veganism isn’t for you if you can’t commit 100% from day one. The whole point is to eat more plants. And if you can do that most of the time then, great.
Even if you don’t think you can go all in and be 100% vegan, think about the things that you don’t mind switching out. For example, vegan ice-cream is genuinely delicious. Next time you’re shopping, try a vegan alternative and see if you prefer it. Even the smallest steps can make a cumulative difference.”
Veganism isn’t just about diet
“It’s important to realise that veganism isn’t just about what you put on your plate. I personally choose to not consume any animal products. And that includes what I’m wearing and other products that I use.
When considering this, a good place to start is identifying where your consumption is highest and focus on that to start with. For me, beauty and clothing are the other two biggies. And in my eyes, it’s not worth killing an animal just so I can indulge.
There are so many beauty brands that still test on animals, it’s insane. But cruelty-free brands are really easy to find. This is a great website to check which brands still test on animals if you’re unsure.
With regards to clothes, I always steer clear of fur and leather. Most people don’t realise that leather isn’t a by-product of the meat industry. Many animals are bred specifically for their skin, which again just doesn’t sit comfortably for me. And there are so many companies out there creating innovative fabrics from pineapple, kombucha, apples and more that are incredible alternatives. But again, this is a personal choice and if you are going to buy leather products then I’d always recommend buying second-hand.”
Where’s the best place to get vegan recipe inspiration and general motivation to stay on track?
“The best piece of advice I could offer anyone considering veganism is to find a community. I’ve always found the vegan community to be super inclusive, particularly in Asia. Facebook is a good place to start, and Green Is The New Black also has an amazing conscious community Whatsapp group bursting with like-minded people (email [email protected] if you’d like to be added to this!). I have received the best tips, hints, and advice from other vegans I’ve met since living here.
There is also so much information available online that you won’t be stuck for inspiration or motivation. Instagram, YouTube, and vegan blogs are great for new recipes, and most mainstream foodie magazines like Bon Appetit and Food & Wine also have vegan sections. And if you live in Singapore, I would thoroughly recommend exploring Everyday Vegan, it’s a brilliant online (and soon to be physical) store selling essentials.”
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