By Lindsey Gallagher
Lindsey Gallagher (they/them) is a non-binary nonfiction writer from Shelter Island, New York. They are currently pursuing their MFA at Northern Arizona University. They serve as the Editor-in-Chief of Thin Air Magazine and teach English Composition. Their work can be found in The Oval and The Palhouse Review. Outside of writing, they enjoy running and outdoor adventures of many sorts.
Common Questions & Challenges!
Welcome back! This week we will explore some common questions and challenges that those new to plant-based eating face. Then I’ll offer my answers and the best advice in response.
Let’s jump right into this Q and A!
How do I handle social events and peer pressure as a plant-based eater? Can I still go out to eat? What about at restaurants that don’t have any plant-based options?
It’s almost impossible to avoid eating with others—eating is a social event! Certainly we should embrace this and the joy that comes from sharing meals with others. But I would be remiss to say that plant-based eating doesn’t create some complications when eating in social settings.
Surely you don’t want to be rude to people who cook for you, but you also don’t want to be forced to eat animal products if you’re not comfortable. The best way to avoid uncomfortable situations is to be prepared ahead of time. Of course, there are so many social events with food with many different contexts, but I can offer some general guidelines.
If you are going to someone’s house for a meal and you know ahead of time, be upfront about your diet before you get together. This will give the host time to accommodate your diet (if they choose to). If they don’t accommodate it, it will make it clear that you not eating a dish with animal-products is because of your diet, not you personally rejecting their cooking. I personally never expect people to cook vegan for me, and I don’t want people to feel like they need to, so I often bring my own dishes to events that others can also eat and I can rely on for a meal if I know it won’t be in a vegan-friendly environment. It’s actually quite fun to bring a plant-based dish to share because you can expose others to the diet and show them how delicious and expansive plant-based food can be.
If you are at a social event and offered something that is outside of your diet, simply decline politely. You certainly don’t have to explain yourself, though you can if you feel comfortable. Sometimes you will find yourself in less than optimal situations where you have no plant-based options. In that case you can decide that is a day to embrace flexibility and have some items you don’t normally eat. In some cases, you can try to remove the non-plant-based item (like peeling cheese off). Or, if your situation permits, you can decide to eat after the event. In most cases when I go to an event and I suspect my diet may not be accommodated, I eat some snacks/a meal prior to the event, or I bring snacks to have after in case I don’t get enough to eat while there. Keep emergency snacks in your glove box, bag, or pocket so you always have something!
In terms of restaurants, you can absolutely still go out to eat! Your diet should never limit your ability to enjoy eating out. There are many approaches you can take when going to restaurants. If possible, you can look at menus ahead of time and pick the restaurant that has plant-based options (or pick the one with the option that’s most exciting to you, if you have many restaurants with plant-based food nearby). If you can’t pick ahead of time, then you’ve got to make the best with what you’ve got. Sometimes this looks like a meal made up of sides. Most restaurants have a variety of sides, like salad, fries, baked potato, veggies, bread, etc. that you can add together to make an eclectic meal from. Another option is to see if the kitchen is willing to make adjustments to some of the menu items, such as holding the cheese on a pasta dish or not adding a sauce with animal-products to the dish. This will depend on the restaurant you’re at, as each one has a different degree of flexibility in allowing alterations. If you are feeling a bit nervous about the restaurant remembering and following your dietary preferences, one trick I’ve used is simply saying I’m allergic to dairy or meat or whatever else it is. Restaurants seem to pay more attention to the word “allergy” than the word “vegan” or “vegetarian.”
How do you deal with people (including family) who may not be welcoming to plant-based eating? What do you do when you have to explain your diet or justify your lifestyle?
The truth is, many non-plant-based eaters feel threatened by the plant-based diet. This is for a number of reasons, but like any other lifestyle choice other people always have an opinion about how you chose to live your life and want to tell you the right way is their way. Unfortunately, many people who are not on board with the plant-based diet simply lack education on the topic and perpetuate myths and other harmful ideas (vegans don’t get enough protein, real men eat meat, etc.). For some they feel that you, a plant-based eater, will tell them that they need to go plant-based, too. They fear that you will condemn their diet choices. There is a stereotype about the vegan that thinks they’re better than everyone and shames anyone who is not vegan. For the most part this is not true. More often than not when vegans talk about their diet it is because they are excited to share how it has positively impacted their life.
Depending on the person you encounter and your relationship to them, you may decide to not engage or you may decide to help share the facts about a plant-based diet. You can certainly encourage other people to try a plant-based diet, but never put them down because they aren’t plant-based. This only turns them further away from plant-based eating. It’s much more likely a person will change their diet if it is done by choice, not force.
I’ve had a family member tell me I’m “missing all the fun by being vegan” and others have simply dismissed being vegan as a stupid thing to do. When things like this happen, I have found it useful to reframe things when I encounter resistance simply by saying, “I’m not telling you to be vegan. I respect your choice to not be a vegan and I hope you can respect my choice to be vegan in return. This is a choice I am making for myself, not for you.” Importantly, you aren’t required to defend yourself, you can simply ignore it and smile when others are condescending. It’s funny, no one ever questions meat-eaters like they do plant-based eaters. On the other hand, you may find people are curious and want to know more. Yay! When this happens, it’s always nice to have a good sense of your why to explain to them. Having some facts and statistics in your back pocket that show how beneficial the diet can be is also nice!
If you are in a setting where you suspect the group as a whole (perhaps a restaurant) may not be welcoming of a plant-based diet, I suggest avoiding saying I’m vegan, I’m plant-based, I’m vegetarian, etc. I’ve found that these words can actually trigger tension. You could instead say, I don’t eat meat or I don’t eat dairy or ask if it is possible to get the item with the animal-product removed (would I be able to get the fried Brussels sprouts with the cheese on the side?). People don’t catch on as easily and for some reason they feel less threatened by this phrasing, perhaps because it seems like a more individual preference rather than being part of a collective (of vegans, of vegetarians, etc.).
How hard is it to go plant-based?
Well, I can’t really answer this question for you because everyone will have a different experience based on their individual experiences and preferences. But I can tell you about my experience, and perhaps that can help. Certainly, it’s not easy. In the transition phase you will spend a lot more time thinking about and preparing your meals. You will also have to think more about your nutritional needs to make sure you’re getting enough of the vitamins and minerals that are harder to come by on a plant-based diet. You will need to plan and prepare. Going into it and expecting little to no work only spells an unsuccessful transition and a likely return to your original diet.
The hardest part, I think, is not eating many of your old staple foods or foods that you may really enjoy (for most this is meat and cheese). As humans we’re eating all the time, so losing our staples does have a big impact on our life—we can’t ignore this! With this being said, you will adapt sooner than you think (especially if you plan ahead and find plant-based alternatives to your favorite things). If you remember my first post, I grew up with lots of meat and dairy. In high school, I remember saying I would and could never go vegetarian because I loved steak too much. When I went vegetarian it was a relatively slow transition at first, and then it was cold turkey no meat (pun intended). I got used to it relatively quickly because I filled the gap with other things like tofu and veggie burgers. Over time, I found my desire for meat diminished because I learned more about animal agriculture and its impacts on the environment and human and animal vitality. After learning about these consequences, it was no longer justifiable to eat meat just because I liked it. Sooner than I expected I actually became grossed out by the thought of putting meat in my mouth. And now I’m here a few years later and couldn’t even imagine eating steak, my old favorite—it no longer has any appeal to me. I don’t actually think I would be able to eat it if I had to, which is a complete reversal from my high school self. It’s incredible how much we can change.
When I transitioned to veganism, I was more nervous because I knew how big of a role dairy played in my diet. Cheese, specifically, was my favorite thing. Almost everything I ate had parmesan or cheddar on it. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it. And, when I went vegan, I didn’t even have any non-dairy alternatives in place to fill the gap. This made it tougher at first, no longer having access to many of my staples (this is why having plant-based alternatives you like before the final switch away from animal products is so important). But I was surprised again at how quickly I adapted and got used to life without cheese. I found alternatives, I was forced to get creative and to try new things. The excitement of this helped me greatly in getting used to the new diet.
So, no, going plant-based is not easy, and it gets harder with more restrictive diets (i.e. veganism). It will take work, planning, and learning. But I don’t think it’s as hard as you might think it is. Novelty and change have an incredible power to make us excited and resilient. If you asked a plant-based person how hard the transition was, I’d bet that more often than not they tell you it was easier than they initially thought it would be.
How do I cook plant-based?
A lot of people think that plant-based cooking is something entirely new. Good news: it’s not! You will still use most of the same cooking methods, and you’ve already been cooking plant-based if you’ve ever had veggies, grains, or nuts in your life! What will be new is simply the ingredients and the combinations of ingredients. You will likely have to learn how to cook tofu, which is really quite easy. It’s just a matter of pressing the water out, cutting it up, and baking or frying it. On that note, I 100% recommend a tofu press if you want it crispy and crunchy. But things like these don’t take much skill or time to learn. Overtime, as you get better with cooking plant-based, you can find recipes for animal-based versions of foods and substitute with plant-based alternatives as you go. I’d say that creativity and flexibility are the biggest keys to plant-based cooking. It is actually quite exciting to try new ingredients and combinations! I found a new love for cooking once I switched to a plant-based diet. If you do want more on plant-based cooking, here are 20 vegan cooking tips for beginners!
How can I be a plant-based eater in an animal-product household?
If you live with others who eat animal products, don’t try to force your diet on them. Simply let them know what you do and don’t eat (and you will probably have to remind them a lot as most people don’t actually know what plant-based or vegan is). Be patient, especially if they are the one cooking your meal and they now have to learn how to make plant-based ones. I was lucky to go vegan at the same time as my sister, and we were able to work together at the start to prepare our meals. We also had very accommodating parents who didn’t discourage us and actually became vegan after seeing my sister and I’s success with the diet.
I now live with my partner Rachel who isn’t plant-based and, while I’ve influenced her to have a lot more plant-based food, she still eats meat and dairy. I understand that forcing her to be plant-based wouldn’t work, and she understands that forcing me to eat dairy or meat wouldn’t work either. We have largely had to work together so we can still share meals but have them meet our individual needs. One thing that we do is make the meal in pieces so that an animal-based item can be easily substituted for a plant-based one. For example, if we are having a stir fry we’ll make tofu and chicken separately and then we can each add our protein to the rice and veggie mix that we can both have. Sometimes we have to make our meals relatively separately, like eggplant parmesan, because the dairy and non-dairy cheese gets mixed in. But, sometimes it’s as simple as Rachel having a beef burger and me having a veggie burger. In all cases we get to enjoy the same meal while accommodating our diets.
What do I do if I want to go plant-based but don’t have access to plant-based alternatives near me?
This is an unfortunate reality for many people. Our country is moving toward plant-based, but we’re not all the way there. There are still many plant-based food deserts, you might call them. On the bright side, the most basic plant-based foods like produce, grains, and nuts, are available at even the most basic grocery store. What will be hard are the plant-based meats, dairy and specialty snack products. If you have the means you can decide to pay more to have it delivered to you from other areas. But if you can’t afford that, you may decide not to do an entirely restrictive diet for the sake of longevity as a plant-based eater. Once again, flexibility is your friend. Don’t make yourself strictly vegan for the sake of being a “pure” vegan. Be willing to work with what is available to you and branch out from strictly vegan foods. For instance, you might be vegan five days of the week and then eat animal-products that you can’t access alternatives to the other two days so you can enjoy your favorite things, experience eating in social settings where you live, and remain happy and satisfied with your diet!
I’m an athlete, is plant-based still okay for me?
Yes! Being plant-based can actually improve your athletic performance! One 2022 study, highlights that a plant-based diet “may provide performance-enhancing effects for various types of exercise due to high carbohydrate levels and the high concentration of antioxidants and phytochemicals found in a plant-based diet.” A review in Nutrients highlights a number of benefits an athlete has on a plant-based diet. Plant-based diets are responsible for lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, which allows an athlete’s heart to stay strong. Cholesterol, which is high in many animal-products, is also known to increase inflammation that can hinder the recovery process. A plant-based diet, because it contains no cholesterol, can reduce inflammation and improve recovery times. This was one of the first things I noticed when I switched to a vegetarian diet, and it became even better on a vegan diet. With less cholesterol (and saturated fat, which is high in animal products), blood viscosity increases, enabling more oxygen to reach your muscles, and this is a benefit to athletes across pretty much all sports.
It has also been shown “that athletes on a plant-based diet increase their VO2 max—the maximum amount of oxygen they can use during intense exercise—leading to better endurance.” On top of this, a plant-based athlete will have better blood flow thanks to fewer meals that impair arteries from doing their job well. Finally, a plant-based diet is richer in antioxidants than a diet including meat. Antioxidants are responsible for neutralizing free radicals, which lead to muscle fatigue, slower recovery, and worse athletic performance.
The research-backed documentary The Game Changers explores the performance benefits a number of elite athletes have seen from switching to a plant-based diet. As an athlete, it will be more important for you to monitor your intake of vitamins and minerals because the demands of sport can deplete you more quickly, but it’s 100% doable. I have been an athlete since I was quite young, so I have been involved in sport on both a diet including animal-products and a plant-based one. I was iron deficient on an animal-product diet at one point. Not once on my plant-based diet have I been iron deficient. I have supplemented iron since my deficiency and, as a plant-based athlete, constantly monitored my levels through blood work, while prioritizing iron-rich foods. I can say with great confidence that going plant-based has not hurt my athletic performance in any way. If anything, it has only improved it. And I’m not the only athlete to say this. Some of the world’s best, including tennis players Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic; NBA stars Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul, and ultra runners Scott Jurek and Rich Roll are plant-based.
For plant-based athletes I would also recommend nomeatathlete.com for resources and support!
I hope you found some useful information here! As you dive into your plant-based journey and experience the diet, know that you will learn even more along the way! It is an incredibly exciting adventure!
Stay tuned next week to hear from my sister Emma about her experiences and perspective as a vegan!
Recipe of the week: Veggie burgers!
After trying many other veggie burger recipes I’ve adjusted and perfected my own. Here it is:
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 cup canned chickpeas
- 1 cup chickpea flour (you can buy or make your own in the blender)
- 1 tbsp ground flaxseed or chia seeds (optional)
- 1 tsp onion powder
- ¼ tsp salt
- ¾ cup carrots
- Water (for blending)
Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend. Add water slowly until it is well-blended into a fine consistency. Form into patties. They will be pretty soft but they crisp up when you put them on the stove. You can grill these immediately, but putting them in the fridge to firm up for a bit can help them stay together. You can also freeze these to use later! Makes about 4 patties for you to enjoy sandwiched between a bun and your favorite toppings (I love hummus and avocado). You can also crumble the cooked burger and add it in wraps or top a salad with it!