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Nil Zacharias

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The Quick Guide to Vegan Living

Posted: 08/15/11 02:30 PM ET

Most people are very intimidated by the idea of eliminating animal products from their lives. This isn't surprising, considering we live in a society that's largely built on the use of animals for food, clothing, as raw materials and also to test new products. Going vegan is like rejecting society itself, and that obviously doesn't seem like a lot of fun. To make matters worse, choosing to avoid animal products can have some perilous social consequences. That's just the way it is -- choose not to eat broccoli and you may illicit a polite chuckle, but choose not to consume animal products and you're likely to attract a barrage of concerned questions, pseudo-scientific opinions, or at a minimum, some eye-rolling. Not all of it is negative all the time, but it can make life seem like a bit of an obstacle course, where you're trying to do what you believe is the right thing, without simultaneously offending those that don't share your views. It's a tricky balance that can be enjoyable (if you're prepared!).

Assuming you want to give vegan living a try, or even if you've been doing it for a while, you should know that the recipe for enjoying the experience is planning and preparation, sautéed with a sense of humor.

If you dive head-first into eliminating animal products from your diet without learning the ABCs of plant-based nutrition, it's possible that you'll turn into a bitter "ex-vegan" very soon. There are a ton of myths associated with consuming a plant-based diet and that's why you have to be somewhat familiar with the basic facts. The research will not only help you make nutritionally sound choices, but will also give you the ammunition you need to respond to probing questions about your eating habits. Some people are genuinely curious, while others just want to prove you're wrong. Either way, you'll end up learning a lot about food and health, even if the health benefits are not your primary reason for choosing vegan.

Knowing your plant-based protein, calcium and supplement sources are just the beginning, but there's a lot more to living vegan. If you truly want to make food choices that minimize the negative impact on your health and the planet, try your best to buy fresh, local and seasonal produce. Luckily, there are currently numerous CSAs and farmers markets operating across the United States, so depending on where you live, this may actually be possible. Besides, indoor supermarkets are not known to be the most charming places to do your food shopping, so there's definitely no cause for despair here!

Another common misconception is that plant-based foods are restrictive in terms of choice and taste. We may all not live in towns or cities with a wide selection of vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants, but if you take the effort to prepare your own meals, there's no reason why eating vegan has to seem like a sacrifice. Make a list of items you can stock up your fridge and pantry with and go shopping. Making the leap from meat-eater to vegan can seem challenging, but meat substitutes can help soften the landing and finding a plant-based milk that's right for you (in terms of taste and nutrition) is also a crucial part of the process. Most people that give veganism a try actually end up broadening their food choices by discovering new cuisines, new foods and endless creative ways in which vegetables can be cooked, grilled, baked, sautéed or even consumed raw. Sooner or later you will realize that a majority of flavors you were probably accustomed to on a meat-centric diet didn't necessarily come from the meat and can be recreated with plant-based foods. In other words, it's not about giving up foods you love; it's about enjoying the process of discovering new ones and recreating old favorites without the unnecessary negative impacts of the animal products involved. Being a vegan and a "foodie" are not mutually exclusive concepts; on the contrary, most vegans don't just love food, they're obsessed with it!

At first, dining out and traveling vegan can seem like daunting tasks. Opinions may vary on this, but in general, as long as you are upfront about your food choices and the reasons for doing it, most people will do their best to accommodate your dietary habits. There's no reason to be apologetic, but that doesn't mean you can be all smug about it and expect a 4-course vegan feast honoring your commitment to conscious eating, wherever you go. Let's get real! If you want to be part of a small (but growing) minority that cares to be consistent about your food choices and its impact on people, animals and the planet, you will have to put in some effort. If you're invited for dinner, offer to bring something, or share a recipe. Before heading to a restaurant, look up the menu online (if possible) and even if the menu doesn't have vegan options, engage with the server and offer suggestions on how the chef can potentially combine ingredients from different dishes to prepare something for you. You will be surprised by what you can get by just asking. The same strategy works great while traveling, except you will probably need to do a bit more research beforehand, so you at least have some options in mind and some go-to snacks with you, in case the going gets tough. These days, mobile apps, guide books, vegan-friendly vacation destinations and online resources have made it incredibly easy to travel vegan in the furthest corners of the world, without ruining your experience of a new place or its culture. With the right amount of research and an ability to not take things too seriously when they go wrong (and they will), you will actually start to get excited by the prospect of overcoming the challenges and the joys of stumbling upon accidentally animal-free local foods.

If you can manage to eat vegan, extending that choice to other aspects of your life is even easier. For more information, check out these detailed guides, which include lifestyle tips and information on animal-free non-food products, ranging from clothes and shoes to household items.

The idea of eliminating animal products from our lives does not have to be a difficult one, provided you're willing to give it a try!


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