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February 8, 2015

A Vegan’s Guide to Surviving the First Year.

Vegan_mushroom_and_spinach_lasagna

This month I am celebrating one year of veganism.

After 11 years of being a vegetarian moving to Asia was what finally pushed me into full veganism. From a distance it seems odd that this would be the catalyst but really, the only thing standing between me and being a full-fledged-card-carrying-member of the vegan world, was cheese. Asians don’t really do cheese. So, it’s hard to find and even if I did come across it it usually cost me a months rent and was some strange flavor I’d never heard of, like swiss-cheddar-mocha.

So, I gave up cheese.

Of course, as a vegetarian, I knew that animal byproducts were just as bad as the products themselves but it wasn’t until I made that leap that I was willing to pay attention to this.

After a full year of veganism I feel a sense of pride in standing up against factory farming and all the awfulness that comes with it; the pollution, and the waste and the pain. It was easy not to bend to temptation or craving when I thought about where that food would have to come from and how it had been treated.

However, I still found myself unprepared and downright bewildered in some situations. To all those would-be-vegans, beginner vegans or those who are just plain interested, here’s what caught me off guard the most over the last year. Look out for this stuff, it’s tricky and stealth, like a ninja.

1) Read Labels.

I know, this seems obvious. Personally, I’ve been obsessively reading labels for years. First as a health-concsious consumer and then as a vegetarian. But, by the time I turned in my vegetarian card for a vegan one I was living in Asia and was eating mostly unpackaged foods, and if I wasn’t I couldn’t read most of the labels to tell what was in the stuff anyway.

These are just excuses, I know. Basically, I got lazy. It was fine for the most part but this new lazy habit got me into trouble when I went back to the states and was eating some of my old favorites. The need to read labels on foods I’d been eating for years didn’t occur to me, until it did, and I found parmesan cheese nestled in the ingredients of my favorite chips! Outrage.

2) Check restaurant menus before going (if at all possible).

This is a big one anywhere, but in Asia I’ve found the actual definition of “meat” differs significantly from that of, well, everywhere else I’ve ever been. I have been asked “Chicken, ok?”, “Fish, ok?”, “Pork, ok?”.

In all seriousness, this is definitely a cultural difference. For instance, in Korea they only have one word for meat, it is an all consuming umbrella of confusion, for me anyway.

My point is, regardless of location, checking a menu beforehand can help avoid long awkward pleas to the waiter to make exceptions for “special orders” and hoping the waitstaff doesn’t spit in your food. More importantly it can help to avoid situations of extreme starvation and crabbiness based on uncontrollable hunger.

3) Always bring the party to the party.

In my pre-vegan days if I went out it was usually in the evening to a friends house for a few casual drinks. I’m a big fan of red wine and that usually goes well with cheese, crackers, and chocolate. Once I went vegan I figured I’d only drink a little bit and if I needed a snack I could always just eat the crackers…

Well, this was just plain ridiculous on so many levels. First, I’m always hungry. Second, I’m a cheap date, it takes very little alcohol at all for me to feel it so it is wise for me eat something while drinking to help even things out. Lastly, very few “typical” party snacks are vegan, sometimes not even the crackers.

After attending several parties that I staggered home from where I just “drank through the hunger” I decided it might be a good idea to always bring snacks to share. Everyone loves snacks and this has saved me from many a hangover since.

4) Cosmetics.

Once I went vegan I was happy to eat my nut-cheeses, almond milk and maple syrup alternatives. I thought the only thing I needed to conquer to be a vegan was my innate-Wisconsin-love of cheese. But if I was serious (which I am) about avoiding animal byproducts I’d have to step up my game. I had to go through all of my shampoos, conditioners, soap and toothpaste looking for ingredients like Panthenol, Amino Acids, Vitamin B. These are additives often found in cosmetics and can be tricky because they can come from either an animal or plant source. I did a complete overhaul and switched to vegan-friendly brands or made my own.

5) Clothes.

I also had to take a second look at my wardrobe and ended up replacing a pair of my favorite climbing shoes in favor of a vegan-friendly pair. Hiking boots are next on the list and I’m sure as I learn more and become more aware I’ll come across other items that could be “friendlier”.

Since becoming a vegan I’ve learned to be more aware, do my research and to always, always be armed with my own food for any occasion.

6) Health.

This one snuck up on me. It seems so obvious and something I was keenly aware of as a vegetarian but taking that dairy-and-eggs building block out of my arsenal suddenly left me standing in my kitchen convinced I had no food to eat except chips and salsa. This is not a horrible snack, but it’s also not healthy to survive solely on processed food and candy. Vegan or not, it’s all junk food and I had to make a real effort to avoid it becoming a staple of my diet.

If you have any tips to add to the list I’d love to hear them.

Relephant: 

THE 3 reasons to give up meat (and 1 not to).

Author: Brenna Fischer

Editor: Renee Picard

Photo: Rubyran at Flickr 

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