5 Things I've Learned in 5 Years as a Vegan
Instagram user @dominiquelissa
It recently occurred to me that I’ve followed a plant-based diet for more than half a decade. This realization was surprising, but not for the reasons you might think—if anything, I’m kind of shocked that it has only been that long. I’ve been vegan for all of my adult life, and when you overhaul your regimen in such a way that many of your most basic decisions—what you’re having for breakfast, what groceries you’re buying, where you can eat out—completely shift, it’s hard to remember what life was like before that. What I do know, however, is that I can’t imagine going back.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been without its challenges—namely, that when you go vegan, it suddenly becomes everyone else’s business. Making this choice continues to be niche enough in our society that even five years down the line, I’m still assaulted with questions about that decision on a near-daily basis. It’s often one of the first things that come up when I meet anyone new, even though it’s not information I typically volunteer, because after fielding the same stereotypes and inquiries for this long, I can pretty much guess how the conversation is going to go. These things are inevitable even with people I’m related to.
Yet as annoying and frustrating as it can be, it has also taught me so much about how to demystify those stereotypes—and how much work is left to be done in that regard. In addition to the physical transformation it has provided me, veganism has profoundly changed the way I relate to so many things—my mind, my body, my planet, and, yes, other people.
So in honor of my little anniversary and in an effort to debunk some of those all-too-common myths, I thought it only appropriate to reflect on everything I’ve learned. Keep reading to see what going vegan has taught me.
1. "Vegan" and "healthy" are not synonymous.
Fun fact: Doritos are vegan. So are Oreos. My favorite restaurant in Brooklyn is a Southern-style vegan diner that specializes in gut-busting comfort food—my usual order includes sweet potato fries and curry “mayo” with a banana split for dessert.
These are indulgences I enjoy from time to time. But I’ll never forget the beginning of my vegan journey, when I began visiting the farmers market on a weekly basis and made a concerted effort to eat seasonally. I was constantly awestruck by everything that nature had to offer—and how good I felt, both physically and spiritually, by being so connected to the planet in that way. That feeling has never left me in the past five years, and it dictates most of my food choices—not to mention that it’s followed me into other areas of my life as well. It’s for this reason that I’m usually quick to specify that my diet is plant-based.
This being said, one of the most perpetuated myths I hear about veganism is that it’s automatically healthy. “Don’t you get sick of rabbit food?” people ask me. I personally love my veggies, so no, I don’t. But just because I identify as vegan doesn’t guarantee that I eat said vegetables, either. I could just as easily subsist on a diet of processed foods and faux meats. It’s important to make that distinction for people who are considering going vegan as well—it’s not an automatic road to health.
2. On that note, while it can aid with weight loss, it's not the be all, end all.
Another comment I get from time to time: “But you don’t look like you need to lose weight?” Aside from the general rudeness of commenting on someone’s body, it’s simply inaccurate. Sure, swapping out processed animal products for a clean, plant-based diet can be immensely helpful for weight loss, if that’s your goal—Beyoncé is exhibit A. But the way I see it, what you really gain is long-lasting health and an improved well-being, as well as an appreciation of where your food comes from (not to mention other physical benefits like clear skin and glossy hair). And even if you only eat processed foods in moderation in favor of fresh produce and plant-based sustenance, weight loss isn’t a guarantee.
Full disclosure: I’ve actually gained weight over the past few years—it was much-needed, and I feel stronger and healthier than ever. And I did it mostly by eating highly nutritious, calorie-dense foods like nuts, seeds, and avocado (my favorite), along with a few indulgences in between. Tl;dr: A vegan diet is exactly what you make it. Your goals are up to you.
3. It's essential to make sure I'm getting all my nutrients.
On the other hand, people need to stop asking me if I’m getting enough protein. That alone is arguably one of the biggest myths surrounding veganism—plants and grains are actually very substantial sources of protein, and I get most of my daily value from my morning smoothie alone.
In truth, there are other nutrients that are trickier to come by. Vitamin B12 is a big one, since its plant sources are few and far between—it’s really only found in some sea vegetables. Iron is another one. But by being smart, doing my research, and taking supplements, I’ve had very few problems with my nutrient levels over the years. And I’ve made it a yearly practice to get my blood tested to make sure everything is in check—something I highly recommend to people who are giving veganism a go for the first time.
4. People will never stop offering unsolicited opinions, and they will never stop being annoying.
“I could never do that.” “Don’t you miss cheese?” “Are you okay?” Or, the personal favorite of my brothers: “Mmmmm, this burger/steak/fried chicken is soooo gooooood. Want some? WANT SOME?” (So mature, those two.) Listen: I find it immensely disheartening when vegans are overly militant about their choices; I find that it only deters people from ever considering giving the lifestyle a try (and also, you do you). So I make it a point not to comment on people’s food choices. I’m not that person telling you how exactly your chicken breast died; it’s rude. Would you care to return the favor, especially since most of the time, the comments I hear are little more than tired stereotypes? And please, for the love of all that’s good, stop asking me if I miss [insert food here].
5. But in the end, it's all worth it.
These myths are all slow to demystify—often frustratingly so. Yet there’s one thing that keeps me tethered to this massive lifestyle change, and it’s the fact that it has transformed my mind and body for the better. I’ve never felt more connected to the planet or my body, nor more acutely aware of the fact that the decisions we make about the food we eat are so much bigger than us. These past five years haven’t been without their bumps and missteps, that’s for sure. But I also wouldn’t take back a moment of it. Make no mistake: My veganism doesn’t define me, but it has helped shape the person I am today.
Shop some of my vegan essentials below.
Moon Juice Vanilla Mushroom Protein Powder ($35)
This delicious vanilla powder has proven essential to my regimen, as I’m currently working on building muscle. It’s the perfect addition to my morning smoothie—and the genius addition of adaptogenic medicinal mushrooms keeps my cortisol levels in check too.
Want to know more about what it’s like to go vegan? See what happened when two Byrdie editors roundtabled it.