There are a lot of misconceptions about veganism and what it entails, and one of the most common ones is that to get started only requires eliminating all known animal products from your life. There is, however, more to it than that; and registered dietitian Jessica Kotlowitz tells us more about making the change.

Becoming vegan is a gradual process

To people who are considering going vegan for the first time, the most plausible step is to eliminate meat and meat products from your diet and lifestyle; but this might not be the most practical and effective way to start.

According to Jessica, it is completely safe to go vegan overnight from a physiological point of view. However, "psychologically, going vegan can be quite an adjustment so depending on your current levels of stress, your support system and your time availability, it may be better to slowly transition to a vegan diet,” Jessica says. 

Although it is okay to give up meat and meat products on impulse, the immediate and drastic change in your diet makes it difficult to adapt to the lifestyle. This is because it's hard to suddenly have to live without animal products, especially if you've grown accustomed to consuming them. 

Ashlynne Pringle, who wrote a piece about transitioning to a plant-based diet, has been vegan for three years and she admits that she gradually removed meat and meat products from her lifestyle instead of doing it all at once. 

"I decided to become vegan three years ago in matric. I have to admit the transition was not easy as I had just discovered hot wings," Ashlynne shares. "I didn’t cut all animal products out immediately though because it’s a big lifestyle change and I knew that would probably make it too difficult. So taking it one day, one animal product at a time made the changeover much smoother." 

As with most new lifestyle choices, the key is to adapt to it gradually as opposed to instantly. 

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A life without meat and animal products is possible

A challenging aspect of becoming vegan is knowing what you can consume and actually enjoy. Most people are under the impression that there are no real variations to what you can eat as a vegan, but there is just enough food to nourish you as there is in a meat-based diet. This is where doing your research before becoming vegan is important. 

"Most people believe that it must be really difficult to give up animal products and that vegans must crave or hanker after animal foods. This is usually not the case. There are over 20 000 edible plants on earth so a vegan diet has plenty of variety and most vegans thoroughly enjoy their diets and do not feel like it is a sacrifice," Jessica explains.

While most people presume that vegan diets are less healthy than other diets, there are health benefits that come with plant-based diets. "Vegans have been shown to have the lowest BMI out of the whole population and have also been shown to have the lowest risk of diabetes and heart disease (two of our biggest killers!)," Jessica notes. "In addition, veganism can help to prevent other diseases such as high blood pressure, kidney disease and certain cancers."

Jessica goes on to explain that there are no side effects to giving up meat, but some people might find that their digestion takes a bit of time to adjust to the extra fibre on a vegan diet. "Some people initially find that they are more hungry on a vegan diet but this is usually due to not eating enough calories or not knowing how to eat a balanced diet without meat," she says.

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When you're adopting a vegan diet, these are some of the mistakes you should try to avoid

Eating too little

Most people don’t realise that plant foods are lower in calories than animal foods so you actually need to eat bigger portions when you go vegan in order to get enough energy in your diet.

Trying to fill up on the wrong foods

Starchy foods can become a fall back for a lot of new vegans as they are familiar and convenient and very satisfying. However, living off pasta, potatoes and bread is not ideal for your nutrient intake. Make sure to eat a balanced diet with enough foods from all of your food groups.

Trying to replace meat with meat alternatives

Meat alternatives are tasty and filling and can be great for people who miss the taste of meat. However, just eating the same diet you always ate but with meat alternatives instead of meat, will not allow you to explore all of the amazing variety of a plant-based diet and will probably limit your food choices to what you always have eaten. Try get out of your comfort zone and cook with beans, tofu and vegetables instead.

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The important thing about adapting to this lifestyle is understanding that it is a lifestyle and not just a diet. "Being vegan means you eliminate all animal products such as leather, makeup, household cleaners etc. from your arsenal. It’s living your life in the most gentle way possible," Ashlynne says.

A plant-based diet is only one aspect of veganism but you can adopt that alone if that's what you prefer.

If it takes you a while to get used to the plant-based diet and vegan lifestyle, it's not the end of the world. You may feel overwhelmed or discouraged by mistakes and mishaps in your new lifestyle choice, but remember to take it one step at a time.

"I suggest cutting out one type of meat and dairy product at a time. Don’t get rid of all your non-vegan makeup and cleaning products all at once either. Replace them with vegan products as they run out," Ashlynne advises. "Don’t overwhelm yourself with the change." 

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