More than eight years ago I discovered the tastiest “secret sauce” there is: it primed me for ever-more-frequent moments of delight, gave me tons of energy and a new sense of purpose, and canceled my writer’s block for good. You’ve probably heard the joke that goes, “How do you know someone’s a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you!” Guilty as charged, but here’s the thing: we blab about this lifestyle because it wouldn’t be right to keep this recipe for joy to ourselves.
I went vegan on a reforestation project run by hippies and wanderers in the spring of 2011, but I always feel a frisson of anticipation at #Veganuary-time all the same. Since its inception in 2014, more than half a million people from 178 countries have participated in the #Veganuary challenge—eating no animal products for (at least) the month of January—and that number will continue to climb as more humans recognize the health benefits of a plant-based diet, the appalling cruelty of the factory farm, and the devastating effects of animal agriculture on our natural world. Whatever your motivation for eating 100% plant-based this month, keep these pointers in mind if you find yourself wondering how you can make the switch for good.
Notice how society has programmed you to think (and not think) about food.
The livestock, dairy, and seafood industries want you to believe that an “alternative” diet is extreme, or at least impractical. They profit from the mainstream notions that animal suffering is unavoidable, that cancer and heart disease have nothing to do with the patient’s diet, that life without bacon isn’t worth living.
Meanwhile, your family and friends are following the cultural script handed down from generation to generation: real men eat steak and potatoes, we’re at the top of the food chain, drink milk for strong bones and healthy teeth. Show them the scientific evidence or undercover factory farm footage, and what’s the likelihood they’ll actually consider it? My doctor knows best, and he’s never told me anything about this. That’s only one farm, surely that doesn’t happen anywhere else. Most people live their lives from beginning to end without ever questioning the ideology behind eating and otherwise using animals, but guess what? These beliefs aren’t going to be any less wrong five or twenty or a hundred years from now.
Learn how to nourish yourself with meals that are simple, affordable, and efficient.
Make a list of your favorite dinners, identify the ingredients you’ll need to veganize them, and add those ingredients to your grocery list. Most of the time the tweaks you’ll need to make are much easier than you’d expect. You don’t need ham for a satisfying split-pea soup; just add a teaspoon of liquid smoke. Sub soy crumbles for ground beef in your next batch of chili, bake a pan of Gena Hamshaw’s no-fuss vegan cornbread, maybe pick up a bag of non-dairy shredded cheese, and you’re all set for dinner and plenty of leftovers. Batch cooking is particularly easy because you don’t have to worry nearly so much about ingredients “going off”; cook up a big pot of lentil and kale stew or chickpea curry and freeze some for later. Make nacho cheese sauce with nutritional yeast. And if you really want to ace Veganuary, learn how to cook tofu!
Find the vegans who inspire you most.
Just as an aspiring poet reads (and rereads) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and a middle-school basketball player tacks a Kobe Bryant poster over his bed, aspiring vegans can learn from someone else’s journey to better envision their own. One of my vegan heroes is comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, who explained in a 2004 interview that he became a vegetarian (and later vegan) after a horrifying experience of police brutality. Connecting his philosophy of non-violence with kindness toward animals was perfectly logical: if Gregory wouldn’t raise a hand to a human threatening the lives of him and his loved ones, then why would he kill a creature who would never hurt him?
Your vegan role model could be replanting large tracts of land razed for industrial agriculture, or organizing community gardens in urban “food swamps,” or operating a sanctuary for cows, pigs, and chickens rescued from factory farms. They may have defied a fatal diagnosis and now teach others how to eat to thrive. You’re only two or three Google searches away from the person who will inspire you most.
Make an “identity pact.”
“It’s quite easy for the most part to eat a plant-based diet,” Iye Loves Life tweeted recently. “It’s much more difficult to reinvent yourself as a person who believes at your core that other animals should not be exploited.” We all like to think we’re compassionate, open-minded, rational people, but what we choose to consume often serves as evidence to the contrary. Deciding to exit the Meatrix is one of the most powerful mindset shifts a person can possibly make, and you’ll have no issue staying vegan for keeps if you re-fashion your identity around authentic compassion.
What do I mean by “re-fashioning”? In Being ‘Indistractable’ Will Be the Skill of the Future, author Nir Eyal explains,
An identity pact is another way to change your response to distractions. Your self-image has a profound impact on your behavior. By taking on a new identity, you empower yourself to make decisions based on who you believe you are. Consider how people who call themselves “vegetarians” don’t have to expend much willpower to avoid eating meat.
Actually, it requires zero willpower to stay vegan once you’ve learned enough about meat and dairy production. You might say we’ve created and internalized a very simple system of checks that keep our identity in alignment with our values:
- It is not enough to call myself a compassionate person; I will not rationalize cruelty in any form.
- I am someone who will do everything I can to preserve this planet for my great-grandchildren.
- I want to be healthy for myself and for the sake of my loved ones, so I will not eat foods that promote cancer and heart disease.
- I practice logical thinking even when that logic contradicts cultural norms.
It’s this identity shift, this “reinvention,” that will catapult your personal growth more than any other lifestyle change you could make.
Remember that transformation happens one decision at a time.
To establish a new habit, we have to allow ourselves the time and space to learn and transition. As I’ve written in A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation, perfectionism is a convenient escape hatch for folks who simply don’t want to change. Do you want to be one of those people who say they can’t do something because they can’t do it perfectly? You can filch a slice of cheddar off an hors d’oeuvres platter at a Super Bowl party and go back to a plant-based diet immediately afterward (and someday, once you’ve learned enough about the dairy industry, you’ll cringe every time you lay eyes on a cheese tray). Keep in mind, too, that your tastebuds need a few weeks to regenerate; that’s how you’ll gradually lose the taste for the animal foods you once craved.
James Clear writes in Atomic Habits that every decision you make is a vote for the person you want to become, but don’t freak out if you cast a vote for the version you’re trying to grow out of. As with any new habit, it is possible to forgive your own slip-ups without forsaking your ultimate goal.
We vegans have a joke of our own, an alternative evolutionary scale of sorts: at the bottom there is Bacon or Die (ironic? Indeed!); next comes But I Could Never Give Up Cheese; and finally there is I Was the Person Who Swore I Could Never Give Up Cheese Who Now Happily Munches on Cultured Nut Products. “I can’t cite the specifics of your transformation,” Victoria Moran writes in The Good Karma Diet. “I only know how transformation works, and it works by acting yourself into feeling differently.” Reinvention has to happen one seemingly-tiny choice at a time if it’s going to stick, and in any given moment that one next choice is all you have control over. That’s why tweaking the usual “new year, new you” enthusiasm can be so effective: because thirty-one days feels much more manageable than “the rest of your life.”
You don’t have to do it perfectly. You don’t have to worry about what happens next month or next year. Just focus on learning and experimenting and thinking new thoughts, and #Veganuary will become the perfect launchpad for a kinder, healthier, more joyful and sustainable way of life.
Camille DeAngelis is the author of several fantasy novels, a travel guide to Ireland, and two books of practical philosophy: Life Without Envy: Ego Management for Creative People and A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation. She is also a vegan lifestyle coach certified through Victoria Moran’s Main Street Vegan® Academy. For more where this came from, join the comet party.