When my cholesterol numbers climbed out of the normal range, my doctor prescribed me a statin and strongly advised me to take it. My high cholesterol is genetic—I exercised and my diet was already pretty good. Nonetheless, I told her I wanted to try diet first, and she reluctantly gave me six months to bring those LDL levels down.
As a health writer, I had read the research on plant-based diets and heart disease. I felt confident that I could move the needle on my cholesterol by cutting out animal foods. Spoiler alert: It's four years later now, and all my blood lipid numbers are in the "ideal" range. Thanks, plants! But my journey wasn't entirely smooth or linear. Here are the things I wish I had known before making the switch.
Getty Images / Oscar Wong
What I Wish I Knew Before Going Vegan
1. Mindset is everything.
Some of my biggest obstacles had to do with how I thought about myself and what I feared other people would think about me. I worried about being labeled "high-maintenance" when I shared meals with other people.
A huge turning point for me was embracing a new identity as a food rebel. I don't eat like everybody else, and I'm cool with that now. I started thinking of myself not as "weird" but as "ahead of the curve." Everyone will be eating more plant-based in 10 years, after all.
I practiced putting my own health needs ahead of other people's comfort and convenience. It turns out that making bold public statements such as, "Pizza doesn't work for me; let's order from the falafel joint instead" and "I'm bringing vegan mac and cheese to Thanksgiving" actually doesn't cause your friends and family to immediately disown you.
2. None is easier than some (for me).
After my initial diagnosis, I decided to adopt a "mostly" plant-based diet. I figured I could get all the benefits by being 90% vegan. And I still think that's probably true—for some people.
To use a Gretchen Rubinism, I'm an "abstainer." She writes, "If I never do something, it requires no self-control for me; if I do something sometimes, it requires enormous self-control." Over time, my self-control wore out. My supposedly 90% vegan diet sometimes looked more like the ice cream and Parmesan cheese diet.
After having some initial success bringing my numbers down, they crept back up as my vegan-ish diet became less vegan, more -ish. I decided to embrace my "abstainer" personality, go full vegan and bid a fond farewell to all animal products. And almost immediately after making that commitment to myself, adhering to a fully plant-based diet became effortless.
Related: How to Start a Plant-Based Diet
3. Vegan junk food exists—and it's good.
Every diet needs some treats, and I absolutely enjoy some vegan junk food. But I try to stick to options that are low in saturated fat (Tofutti Cuties are a fave) because you can do just as much damage to your health on a processed-food-laden vegan diet as you can eating animal products. By some accounts, a vegan junk food diet is worse. I have been through times of overdoing processed vegan snacks, and I know now that when it comes to any kind of ultra-processed food (vegan or not) I want to proceed with caution.
4. Planning is essential.
In my life as an omnivore, I could take off on an adventure without thinking too much about what I would eat. I could find a meal at any restaurant or convenience store. Now I don't leave home without supplies: nuts, an apple, a container of hummus, whole-grain crackers or carrot sticks. I research available restaurant options in my path with the Happy Cow app to know what plant-based options I'll find. Many times, I eat before parties and other events because vegan food can be scarce out there.
5. You can still go to restaurants.
For a while, I was afraid to visit restaurants without clearly marked vegan menu items. I've learned along the way that a majority of restaurants can offer me something wonderful for dinner. Calling the restaurant in advance to chat about my dietary restrictions is a must.
Sometimes a chef will make you something so inventive and appealing, your table mates will be jealous. Other times, you'll get a serviceable bowl of pasta and vegetables which is also pretty good. But most of the time, you will be able to make it work so you can eat with your people. You'll just need to learn how to advocate for yourself if you want something more than french fries and a side salad.
6. You'll probably be a positive influence.
A lot of people are vegan-curious. A 2017 Nielson report found that 39% of non-vegans want to eat more plant-based foods. Be prepared for questions from their ranks after you make the switch.
I've been very surprised by loved ones who have followed my lead. My mother is making an effort to eat plant-based most of the time, and my brother-in-law has taken an interest in vegan cooking and baking. My husband has been surprisingly happy to eat the plant-based meals I make for myself. He eats very few animal products these days and no meat-centric meals. This is a good thing for all of us, since eating plant-based can be great for your health.
7. You must take a vitamin B12 supplement.
I always knew this in theory, and yet I wasn't taking one. My last round of bloodwork revealed I was B12 deficient. I thought I would get enough B12 from fortified packaged foods, but during the pandemic my husband began making our soymilk and breakfast cereal (two of the most commonly fortified foods) from scratch. I thought I was getting plenty in the copious amount of nutritional yeast I enjoy, but I accidentally switched to an unfortified brand without this essential nutrient.
If you're planning on following a low-to-no animal product diet, get yourself a B12 supplement before you begin. Plus, make sure you're getting other important nutrients on a vegan diet with these tips.