How to go vegan: 15 expert tips for a plant-based lifestyle

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  • Thinking about how to go vegan may feel daunting at first. There are many different factors to consider, from the food you eat to the clothes you wear. Fortunately, there is so much advice and support available now for anyone who is planning to adopt a plant-based lifestyle.

    The popularity of vegan diets has grown massively in recent years. A YouGov poll of 2,079 UK adults found 4% were planning to follow a vegan diet for January 2022. Commissioned by Veganuary, the study also found that over the last couple of years, attitudes towards being vegan have become a lot more positive, with 36% viewing it as an “admirable thing to do”.

    Studies show that people following a plant-based diet tend to have far lower carbon, water and ecological footprints than people who eat fish and meat. Plus researchers have also discovered that following a vegan diet can lead to fewer health issues. These include a lower risk of heart problems, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. As interest in the vegan lifestyle has grown, so too has the availability of vegan products in shops and supermarkets.

    Rachel Stone, from the vegan campaigning charity Viva!, says: “There’s never been an easier time to go vegan. There are so many easy swaps and foods for vegans available in supermarkets, a plentiful supply of vegan meals in restaurants and lots of information available on how to thrive.”

    How to go vegan

    1. Start with easy food swaps

    If you’re just easing into being vegan, the best thing to do is to start with some easy food swaps. Think about some of the meals you eat most regularly and whether you can make some simple switches for vegan products.

    For example, here are some easy swaps you can make:

    • Use Quorn mince instead of beef for spaghetti bolognaise
    • Swap your chicken stirfry for tofu
    • Buy vegan sausages and bacon for those weekend fry-ups
    • Change your milk for an alternative one like soya, oat, coconut or almond
    • Sprinkle nutritional yeast over soups, salads and pasta, instead of cheese

    Vegan campaigner Rachel Stone says: “Try out alternatives of your favourite products, whether that’s cheese, chocolate or chicken. People often say these are the three products they can’t live without. In fact, Viva! ran a campaign about this called ‘The Big 3’. But nowadays there are so many great alternatives that taste amazing.”

    If the prospect of going vegan feels daunting, start by doing one or two days a week. According to the organisation Meat Free Mondays, even just cutting out meat from your diet one day a week could save 3.55 chickens, 2.98 tennis courts of forest and add 1.67 days to your life expectancy every year. You can work out your own impact by using its impact calculator.

    Plus, if you’re not sure that you can instantly switch over to a vegan diet, you could start off following a flexitarian diet and then gradually reduce your meat and dairy intake over time.

    2. Eat a nutritionally balanced diet

    One of the most important things to think about when adopting a vegan diet is to make sure that all of the nutrients you would usually get from meat, fish and dairy are replaced.

    Registered dietitian Chantal Tomlinson, from The Vegan Society, says: “Nutritional planning is important for everyone. The Vegan Society works with the British Dietetic Association to show those who choose a vegan diet that well-planned diets can support healthy living in people of all ages. Being mindful of making nutritious swaps can help to ensure that we get all the nutrients we need and have optimal health.”

    According to The Vegan Society, in order to be balanced your diet should include the following:

    Fruit and vegetables

    • At least 5-a-day
    • Each meal should contain a source of vitamin C to boost iron absorption – pepper, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kiwis, oranges, strawberries, pineapple, grapefruit and orange juice
    • A rich source of vitamin A daily – sweet potato, butternut squash, carrot or spinach. Dried apricots, kale, cantaloupe melon and spring greens
    • Greens rich in vitamin K daily – Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, broccoli, spinach, spring greens, spring onions and kiwis

    Starchy foods

    • Opt for high fibre choices – oats, potato with skin, wholemeal bread, wholewheat noodles, brown rice

    Protein

    • Most of your meals should contain good sources of protein – beans, legumes, peas, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, soya alternatives to milk and yoghurt, peanuts

    Calcium

    • Eat at least two portions of calcium-rich foods per day. One portion – 200ml calcium-fortified plant milk, 200g calcium-fortified soya yoghurt alternative, 100g calcium-set tofu, 2 slices of soya and linseed bread fortified with extra calcium

    Healthy fats

    • Eat nuts and seeds daily – Sprinkle on porridge and salads or eat a handful as a snack
    • Eat a really rich source of omega 3 daily – chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds and walnuts. Try to use vegetable (rapeseed) oil as your main cooking oil

    Iron and zinc

    • Eat good sources of iron throughout the day – lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, raisins, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereal
    • Eat good sources of zinc throughout the day – beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, walnuts, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, wholemeal bread and quinoa

    Vitamin B12

    • Eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 at least twice daily – look for it in alternative milk products, vegan spreads, nutritional yeast flakes, yeast extracts and breakfast cereals
    • Supplements: take either at least 10mcg daily or at least 2000mcg weekly

    Vitamin D

    • Check NHS advice to see if you should take a vitamin D supplement

    3. Take a supplement

    While it is very possible to eat a healthy, balanced vegan diet, it is also important to ensure that you are regularly consuming all of the nutrients needed for a healthy body. This study into the health effects of vegan diets found that micronutrients, including vitamins B12 and D, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids are particularly important for vegans to include in their diet. It suggests that unless vegans are regularly consuming foods that are fortified with these nutrients they may need to take supplements. It also explains this could be the case with iron and zinc.

    Any deficiency of these nutrients could lead to long-term health problems. These include tiredness and shortness of breath, caused by an iron deficiency and cardiovascular and bone disease, from a lack of vitamin D.

    Registered dietitian Chantal Tomlinson says: “Vitamins B12 and D, iodine and selenium are nutrients that deserve special attention on a vegan diet. To have reliable intakes of these, one option is to use a vitamin and mineral supplement designed for vegans like The Vegan Society’s VEG 1.”

    4. Download an app

    One of the most daunting things when thinking about how to go vegan is knowing what you can and can’t eat. While it might take a while to get used to making food swaps, there are plenty of resources around to help you to plan. This small study of 17 obese adults, found that using an app helped participants on a weight-loss trial to eat more vegetables.

    VNutrition,a free app from The Vegan Society, is mainly aimed at new vegans and those trying out a vegan diet. Likewise Viva! has created its 30 day vegan app to help you understand what you can and can’t eat, with recipes, meal plans and nutritional information.

    An app for how to go vegan

    5. Ditch the leather, silk and fur

    While it’s important to think about what you eat when you decide to follow a vegan lifestyle, it’s also important to think about what you wear. Avoiding wearing clothes and shoes made from leather, fur and silk is an important step to take when you decide to go vegan.

    Everything from shoes, trainers and handbags can be made from leather. According to a report from Global Industry Analysts Inc, the Global Leather Goods Market will reach $297.2 billion by 2026. However, there are many other options you can wear. Vegan stylist Rebekah Roy told us: “As vegans, we always check the label before we eat something and we need to start doing that with fashion. If you’re not going to eat an animal, why would you wear it? There are so many great alternatives to wool, silk and leather. Switch silk and wool to Tencel and bamboo.

    Rebekah, founder of Bare Fashion, adds, “When you’re shopping for your next handbag, look for ones made from cork, cactus or Milo. There are also some great alternatives to leather footwear, from hemp to Gore-Tex to natural rubber and recycled rubber.”

    6. Read food labels

    When you’re first considering how to go vegan, sometimes one of the most difficult things to work out is what is and isn’t vegan. Some foods which you may assume are vegan can actually contain animal-based ingredients. These include products which contain milk powder, such as bread and crisps. That’s why it’s really important to check labels in supermarkets to ensure that there are no surprising ingredients. Usually, vegan products will have a ‘v’ on the packaging to highlight the fact that they are suitable for a vegan diet.

    Keep an eye out for the following ingredients on labels, which are all made from milk:

    • Lactose
    • Whey
    • Ghee
    • Casein
    • Calcium
    • Lactoglobulin
    • Lactalbumin

    7. Enjoy some vegan treats

    Adopting a vegan diet doesn’t have to be boring. There are so many great alternatives that once you get used to your new way of eating you won’t even miss meat or dairy.

    Vegan campaigner Rachel Stone says: “Have fun! There is a misconception that veganism is restrictive, but you often end up trying new dishes and experiencing new flavours that you never would have tried before.”

    Most restaurants have vegan dishes and even fast-food outlets have started offering vegan options registered dietitian Chantal Tomlinson agrees: “You can be kind to animals by choosing a vegan diet and still enjoy the odd bit of convenience food as part of a balanced diet. Just use food labels to keep an eye on added fat, salt and sugar. Of course, there’s now plenty of vegan versions of your favourite chocolate bars, such as Cadbury’s Plant Milk, and ice cream, with plant-based brands like Northern Bloc coming out with new flavours all the time.”

    8. Check out your local vegan cafes

    There are now so many vegan cafes and restaurants around and it’s a great way to try new foods and to get ideas for things you might be able to cook yourself. Find your local one and enjoy exploring the menu.

    According to research by Happy Cow, which helps people to find vegan food nearby via its app, the number of vegan restaurants in London quadrupled between 2015 and 2019 to more than 150.

    However, if you don’t have a local vegan cafe, make sure the things you order have a ‘v’ next to them on the menu. If you feel comfortable, you could also speak to your favourite local about including more vegan options on its menu.

    9. Look at hair and beauty products

    Something else to consider when adopting a vegan lifestyle is the cosmetics and toiletries you use. This area can sometimes seem confusing, as you need to understand not only how a product is tested, but also the ingredients it contains.

    In October 2021 The Vegan Society released its Vegan Beauty Takeover report. Key insights from the research showed that 97% of UK shoppers said they want more vegan cosmetics and toiletries. However, while 46% of shoppers said they felt confident in identifying animal-derived ingredients in their beauty products when tested only 3% correctly could.

    These are some of the ingredients you may not expect to be derived from animals:

    Collagen – A protein that can be taken from the bones, skin, ligaments and tissues of cows. Plant-based, ethical alternatives include soya protein and almond oil.

    Keratin – A popular ingredient to aid the strengthening of hair and nails. This protein is often derived from the hair and horns of various animals, most commonly farmyard animals. Vegan alternatives include plant-derived proteins such as hydrolysed wheat, soy and corn.

    Retinol – Considered a skincare superstar, retinol is often animal-derived. However, some synthetic versions are suitable for vegans.

    Shellac – Lac bugs’ shells are used to create the hard-wearing, shiny finish for nails.

    If you are unsure of which products are vegan, look out for The Vegan Society’s trademark – the word ‘vegan’ with a sunflower growing out of the ‘v’. This trademark confirms that the organisation has ensured those products are free of animal use at every stage in the process.

    10. Do your research

    There are lots of resources around which can help you to follow a vegan lifestyle. These range from nutritional guides to recipe books and documentaries to podcasts. Understanding the ethical, environmental and health reasons for adopting a vegan lifestyle will help you to make decisions about your diet and explain your choices to others.

    Here are some documentaries you can begin by watching:

    • Eating Our Way to Extinction (2021) – Looks at the impact our daily food choices have on climate change
    • Seaspiracy (2021) – Looks at the environmental impact of the fishing industry
    • Cowspiracy (2014) – Looks at the environmental impact of the farming industry
    • Land of Hope and Glory – Focuses on farming practices in Britain
    • Forks over Knifes (2011) – One of the first vegan documentaries to cause a big stir. It looks at how the food we eat contributes to diseases affecting us.

    11. Tell your friends and family

    When you are first starting a vegan diet you will need the support of family and friends. This will make it easier when you visit them in their home or go out to dinner with them. Begin by explaining the kinds of swaps you will be making and how they can support your new diet. Be sure to take things like your alternative milk with you if you are popping around for a cuppa.

    A large-scale 2020 study showed that people who receive support for their resolutions are more likely to stick to them than those who do not. By getting your family and friends on board you are more likely to stick to a vegan lifestyle.

    12. Accept that you may have cravings to begin with

    Of course, it’s normal to crave something when you can’t have it. But this will gradually fade over time. You can also help to reduce cravings by replacing the things you miss with vegan alternatives. A 2020 study found food cravings at the beginning of a new diet are normal. However, once you find ways to introduce new foods into your diet you should find that the cravings disappear.

    Registered dietitian Chantal Tomlinson suggests these tips to veganise dishes:

    • Swap the cheese on pizza for vegan cheese and top with lots of vegetables and olives
    • Swap meat, fish or paneer in a curry for chickpeas or lentils
    • Avocado or hummus can be used instead of mayonnaise in salads, sandwiches or on toast
    • Dairy-free spread and soya milk can be used to make mashed potatoes creamy
    • Garlic bread can be created using dairy-free spread or olive oil
    • Dairy-free spread and other vegetable fats can be used in baking, and there are many foods that can replace eggs, including banana, jam, apple sauce and tofu
    • A lot of ready-made roll-out pastry is accidentally vegan. If you glaze it using soya milk, the dish can easily be turned vegan.

    Video: How to make a vegan burger

    13. Embrace new foods

    When thinking about how to go vegan, don’t be afraid to try new foods. There may be lots of vegan substitutes that you haven’t heard of before, so make sure you step out of your comfort zone. Vegan campaigner Rachel Stone says: “Don’t solely rely on meat alternatives. It can be tempting to replace meat with vegan alternatives such as vegan chicken or veggie sausages, but it’s important to also learn new recipes that don’t rely on these. Tofu, tempeh, lentils, beans and nuts are all great sources of protein, and can add rich flavours to dishes.”

    These sources of protein are also filling, so you should find that you feel satisfied after a meal, rather than hungry.

    14. Pick up a recipe book

    One of the trickiest things, when you start following a new diet, is knowing what to cook and following a vegan diet is no different. Take some time to read through some recipes so you start to get an idea of meals you like the sound of and what products are commonly used to replace typical meat and dairy ones.

    Here’s a list of the best vegan cookbooks and we have plenty of vegan recipes available here too.

    15. Try a 30-day pledge

    If you’re not sure about immediately committing to a vegan diet for life, why not try a 30-day pledge? Research has shown that it takes around a month to form a new habit. So this will give you a good indication of what life as a vegan will be like. This study by University College London found that forming habits is most important in the ‘learning stage’ of developing a new habit and there is usually an initial acceleration that slows to a plateau after an average of 66 days.

    This year the charity Veganuary, which encourages people to try going vegan for a month, saw its highest-ever sign up for the month of January. More than 629,000 people signed up from 228 countries and territories, compared to 582,000 in 2021.

    Rachel agrees that even just trying it for a week can be a great introduction to a vegan diet. She told us: “Go vegan for just one week initially, and you’ll be surprised at how simple and delicious a plant-based diet can be. Our V7 guide, which provides meal plans for a week, is perfect for beginners, and contains lots of recipes and tips.”