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What I Wish I Had Known as a New Vegan
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What I Wish I Had Known as a New Vegan

I‘d love to say that I made a brilliant job of transitioning to veganism or be able to advise others that it‘s simple to make the change overnight. Unfortunately I, and I suspect many of us, hit a few hurdles and encountered a few surprises along the way. Here are a few things which I wished I‘d known before making the decision at the start of 2003, which I recommend those thinking of turning vegan to bear in mind.

A gradual transition is not a bad one.

Waking up one day and realising that veganism simply made sense, I wanted to become completely cruelty-free immediately. Perhaps this is a laudable aim, but in reality, it meant that I cried over not having control of household cleaning products, agonised over whether to keep sentimental old cuddly toys made out of wool (which I eventually gave to charity) and felt immense guilt for not realising some lip balms contain beeswax. In some cases, one might choose to use up animal products in order to feel that the animals were not harmed in vain, or be restricted by one‘s living situation, and if a gradual transition is more practical, then that‘s ok.

The body needs time to adjust to a plant-based diet.

Some new vegans hope to lose weight immediately and are frustrated when they do not. Others lose a few kilos very quickly, then either stabilise or put a little back on; I fell into this category and was incorrectly assessed for anorexia, yet was fit enough to then become a professional sportsperson, so jumping to quick conclusions can be dangerous. One vegan I know had more energy within a week of giving up dairy cheese, whilst another had a few uncomfortable months until their digestive system became accustomed to an increased quantity of gas. How the body reacts depends on a number of factors, from metabolism rates to whether one eats very healthily or includes vegan junk food in their diet, but both new vegans and those tempted to criticise or body shame them would be wise to remember that adjustment to any diet, even a perfectly balanced one, takes time.

Others may not react as expected.

The expected-to-be-supportive friend might suddenly complain about no longer being able to go to their favourite restaurant with you. The accepting and understanding colleague may prove a week a week later that they actually don‘t know what vegan means. The lapsed Catholic relative may suddenly turn aggressively adamant that Jesus ate fish, and therefore so should you, whilst the strictly religious grandmother does not bat an eyelid. (No offense meant to Catholics; it‘s just one example of a scenario which played out with my family and it wasn‘t pretty.) Upon telling people that I was turning vegan, I received a range of responses, from the encouraging to the confused to the curious to the downright rude, and they weren‘t always from the people I expected to react in that manner. Not everyone deserves an explanation and nobody has the right to interrogate, but it‘s good to be prepared to answer the genuine, friendly questions as well as to anticipate that a bit of hostility might come your way.

It‘s OK not to be an expert, especially straight away.

Research is certainly required to take control of nutritional needs, learn which products have hidden animal-based components, and fight for your rights in certain situations (for example, in my experience many healthcare professionals are clueless when it comes to knowing which tablets have gelatine capsules, so making your own enquiries about liquid versions can be helpful). However, not becoming a walking encyclopedia of veganism overnight is not a sign of failure.

Looking back, I put myself under immense pressure to educate myself about animal welfare laws in places I had never been to and admittedly became a bit arrogant about my knowledge. Now, if I feel I need more specific information on one topic, I‘ll research it in a library or contact a vegan organisation, as I‘ve come to accept that the human brain cannot remember everything; there's already a lot to learn when cutting out animal products, and putting too much pressure on oneself can be overwhelming.

Basic nutritional information is important, but consulting a chart to remember which B vitamin is which does not make one a bad vegan, nor does an inability to deduce all ingredients from one taste of a purchased vegan cake (Yes, my mother-in-law expected me to do that once, but out of curiosity rather than as a malicious trick).

However, not presenting oneself as a fountain of all knowledge does not mean sitting back and letting opponents take on that role. If a determined meat eater starts talking down to you as if they are a qualified nutritionist when you know full well they aren‘t, then setting them straight is well and truly justified!

All in all, becoming vegan involves changes, and so some challenges can be expected. However, it‘s also an exciting time of exploration, learning, and even revolution, and with a bit of preparation and anticipation, the positives will definitely outweigh the issues in the end.

Image courtesy of Chris Marquardt used unchanged under the terms of the Creative Commons license.

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