How to Go Vegan
For your health, for the environment, or for the animals, there are plenty of good reasons to start eating a plant-based diet.
The question, of course, is how to get there… and how to make it last.
Some can go plant-based with the “cold turkey” method, so to speak. But in my experience and what I’ve seen with others, that’s not the best way to make a lasting change.
Instead, take small steps. For me, that meant eliminating four-legged animals from my diet for several months, then two-legged animals, and finally fish, before transitioning to vegan over the next two years.
The small steps help prevent overwhelm and getting in over your head. Plus it allows you time to find the answers to the countless questions you likely have about going vegan.
But still, there should be a method to your small steps. One that has a clear path for progress so you never get stuck, confused, or unmotivated.
That’s why we created 80/20 Plants, our smart approach to going plant-based and losing weight in a way that works for your specific lifestyle.
But if you’re not there yet, the links below represent several of our most popular articles on how to go vegan. Below that, you’ll find an entire “How to Go Plant-Based” course, including videos, FAQs, a sample meal plan, and more.
Getting Started with a Plant-Based Diet
7 Steps to Eating Less Meat Now
50 Fantastic Resources for New Vegetarians
Veg-Curious? Don’t Be Fooled by These 7 Myths About a Vegetarian Diet
9 Essential Cookbooks for the Plant-Based Athlete
How to Go Plant Based (When Your Partner Won’t)
10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Went Vegan
Meeting Your Nutritional Needs going Plant-Based
Vitamin B12 and the Case For (and Against) A Plant-Based Diet
Protein: A Primer for Vegetarians
What Every Vegetarian Needs to Know About Iron
Protein for Vegetarians — A Simple Guide to Getting What You Need
The Only Healthy Eating Guide You’ll Ever Need
Are You Getting the Nutrients You Need from Your Plant-Based Diet?
Going Plant-Based in the Real World
How to Eat Healthy When You Just Can’t Find the Time
Warning: 8 Common Foods You Thought Were Vegetarian
25+ Tips for Eating Vegetarian While Traveling (from the People Who Know Best)
Grocery Hacks — 6 Money-Saving Tips for the Vegetarian Athlete on a Budget
7 Ways to Simplify Your Meal Planning
The Healthy (But Practical) Plant-Based Diet: A Typical Day
10 Vegetarian Lunches You Can Make at Work
24 Tasty, Healthy Vegetarian Snacks
A One-Month Plan to Go Vegan (and Make It Last)
In this course, we’re focusing on a topic that a surprising number of our community members identified as important: transitioning to a completely vegetarian or vegan diet (or removing the remaining processed foods from your diet).
To accomplish this, first select which of these three tracks best applies to your situation:
Track 1: Omnivore to Vegan
Track 2: Vegetarian to Vegan
Track 3: Vegetarian/Vegan to Whole-Food, Plant-Based
The video and article content below will integrate these and apply to all of the tracks, but of course your weekly actions will differ.
We’ll have to work hard to make these fairly large diet changes in a single month. In some cases, it might make sense for you to progress more slowly, so if you’d like to adapt the plans to slow the pace, by all means, go for it!
Alternatively, you could treat this month as a sprint, knowing that it’s not going to be easy to change so quickly, but understanding that at the end of the month, you can go back to the point where you feel comfortable and progress more slowly from there.
TRACK 1: OMNIVORE TO VEGAN
Week 1: Remove beef and pork (4-legged animals) from your diet
Week 2: Remove chicken (2-legged animals) from your diet
Week 3: Remove fish (0-legged animals) from your diet
Week 4: Remove remaining animal products (dairy, eggs, honey) from your diet
TRACK 2: VEGETARIAN TO VEGAN
Week 1: Remove eggs from your diet
Week 2: Remove all dairy except cheese from your diet
Week 3: Remove cheese from your diet, except for two days this week that you choose in advance
Week 4: Remove all cheese from your diet
TRACK 3: VEGETARIAN OR VEGAN TO WHOLE-FOODS PLANT-BASED
This track isn’t as clear-cut as the previous ones, since different people will have different starting points and goals. So you’ll design your own progression through 3-4 stages that match up with the stages above. For example:
- If you’re already vegetarian but want to go vegan, you might make the stages “Remove milk,” “Remove eggs,” “Remove cheese” (the hardest part for most people)
- If you just have one particular food you want to give up — say, cheese or alcohol or caffeine or oil — you could limit it to progressively fewer days each week. (3, 2, 1, then 0, for example)
- If you’re vegan but want to stop eating most processed foods, choose the 3 or 4 big ones and plan to remove one new one each week.
Get Ready: Prepare Your Diet for Change
Often when we get inspired to make a change, we want to dive right in. Partly this is out of excitement; partly it’s impatience. But whatever the motivation, starting immediately is actually not the most effective way to begin a change.
So instead of jumping right in, we’ll deliberately wait a few days before we officially begin our diet transition, for a few reasons.
First, the buildup of anticipation helps to teach your brain that this change is important — not just something you start one day and quit the next. Second, and more importantly, the delay gives you time to plan. This is absolutely crucial, because most attempts to go vegetarian or vegan (including my first!) fail due to a lack of preparation.
Planning is what this section is all about. Please, don’t neglect these steps. It may feel like you don’t need to plan, like your willpower will be enough. Don’t believe it.
Even if you need a few extra days to “build the wall” around your diet change before you start, by all means, take them. Just delay your start date by two or three days. But whenever it is, make sure you do commit to firm start date.
Step 1. Grab a notebook or set up an online document where you’ll keep your diet change plan.
Step 2. At the top write down your commitment. Something like, “I commit to transitioning to a 100% plant-based diet over the next three weeks.” Once we reach the finish line, you can assess whether you want to keep going, but make a commitment to at least complete the plan.
Step 3. Write down your reasons why. The purpose statement above is important, but the real value comes from getting clear on why this change is so important to you. What great things are going to happen as a result of your changing your diet? Just as importantly, what bad things will happen, both in the short term and further down the road, if you don’t follow through on this change? Write a paragraph or two, and charge it with as much emotion as possible.
Step 4. Write down the exact schedule you plan to follow. If you’re following the “omnivore to vegetarian” schedule exactly then you’ve already got the plan. Otherwise, modify it to create your own, but be sure to include the specific dates when each new phase begins.
Step 5. Commit to a set time each week when you’ll check-in. During this weekly 5-10 minute check-in, you’ll review how things went the previous week, and what you can do differently and prepare for situations that might have caused you to slip up.
Step 6. Create some accountability. We’ll do far more to keep a commitment to someone else than we usually will for ourselves. So how can you involve other people in your diet change? Maybe you’ve got a partner who will do it — or some other challenge — with you, and with whom you can check in every day or every week. Another idea: you could start a blog about your change.
Step 7. Set up a reward schedule for yourself. Can you build in a reward at the end of each successful week? What about something smaller, even if it’s just marking off a calendar or checking in on social media, that you can do daily? Even a tiny reward or ritual can help strengthen the new habit.
Step 8. Prepare for the first week. If you’re following the “omnivore to vegetarian/vegan” plan, then the first week is fairly simple — you’re just removing four-legged animals from your diet, but still eating chicken and fish when you want to. If instead, you’re removing processed foods from your already-vegetarian/vegan diet, make sure the first step you choose is similarly easy.
This first week shouldn’t be a major change, so there’s not a whole lot you’ll do differently in the kitchen. But still, before you start, make sure you’ve got the following bases covered, ahead of time.
- Do you have your meals planned?
- Do you have the ingredients you need to make those meals?
- Would it help to actually donate or throw away foods that you want to avoid?
- Is your family (or whoever you live with) onboard? If not, what’s your plan for keeping everyone happy?
- Are there any social situations, like parties, meals out at restaurants, sports games, travel, etc. that you need to be prepared in advance for?
The main virtue of the slow, gradual approach to change we’re using this month is that each successive step feels “easy” and prepares you for the next.
We’ll address lots of practical concerns about this diet — cravings, nutrition concerns, social situations, and where to find plant-based meal ideas, etc. — in the section.
Until then, good luck with the first week of your diet transition! See how simple and easy going plant based can be!
Get Clear: Answers to Common Concerns About Going Vegetarian or Vegan
It’s natural to have questions and concerns when considering a diet change. And when that change is to vegetarian or vegan — diets that our cultural conditioning about the merits of meat and dairy certainly hasn’t encouraged — the need for answers is doubly important.
So here, I’ll answer 12 of the most common concerns about plant-based diets. Warning: this is a long section! But I intentionally didn’t hold back here, so that you could scan the list of questions and get a decent answer to just the handful of concerns that apply to you.
Of course, all of these questions could be answered at much greater length, addressing all kinds of specific situations. Obviously that’s impossible to do in one article, but I’ve included links to relevant blog posts about most of these topics. You can click those and find more information (and more links!) and go as far down the rabbit hole as you wish.
Let’s get to the questions.
1. IS IT EXPENSIVE TO EAT VEGETARIAN OR VEGAN?
It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Although fresh produce can be expensive, that’s something that any healthy diet is going to include. Whether or not you buy organic is up to you, and that will certainly increase your grocery bill, but again, that’s not unique to plant-based diets. Often I purchase organic only for foods that are on the Dirty Dozen list, and get the rest conventionally grown.
Other than that, most vegan food is inexpensive. Beans and grains cost significantly less per pound than meat and cheese, two of the most expensive foods in the store, and in many people’s opinion, these are much healthier options for your money.
One big exception is fake meats and other processed, fancy vegan foods: they’re fun to eat and possibly useful as a tool while you’re transitioning, but they’re often even more expensive than the food they’re imitating (and usually not very good for you).
Stick to fresh produce and the bulk section of the store as much as possible for your grains, nuts, and seeds, and you’ll see that your grocery bill isn’t much (if any) higher than it used to be.
Here’s a useful chart that compares the nutritional quality of common foods with their cost.
2. DO I HAVE TO COOK?
Yes. Or at least someone in your household does. It’s just not very easy to eat healthily — plant-based or not — when you don’t know exactly what’s going into your food.
The good news is that the closer to “natural” you’re eating, the more raw produce that will be in your diet. That means preparing snacks (and maybe even breakfast) can be as simple as grabbing a couple of fruits and a handful of nuts. Or some veggies and hummus, which you could either make yourself or buy from the store.
Other meals will require some chopping of vegetables and other ingredients, but little hands-on time. Generally, the healthier your meals are, the simpler they are to prepare.
One final option is meal delivery services, like Purple Carrot or Thrive Foods Direct. Some are affordable and still require you to do the cooking, but send you the ingredients you need so you don’t have to plan or shop. Others give you fully prepared meals that you just need to heat.
But if at all possible, give cooking a chance. It’s a wonderful skill to have and one that, if you’re just following recipes and not trying to invent new meals, is quite easy to learn.
3. CAN I STILL EAT OUT AT RESTAURANTS?
Yes! Try happycow.net to look for vegetarian- or vegan-friendly restaurants in your area, and you might just discover a new, delicious place that has been nearby all along.
But even if you can’t find a restaurant that’s outwardly catering to vegetarians and vegans, many times the chef will be happy to prepare you something not on the menu that meets your needs. I’ve had many chefs excitedly welcome the challenge to create something new and delicious, instead of the same dishes they cook night after night. Still, it helps to call ahead and make sure the chef is willing to do something like this.
And even in the worst case, you can almost always order a salad (hold the cheese) and a vegan dressing, some side dishes, and bread. Not the healthiest or most enjoyable restaurant experience, perhaps, but it does the job.
4. HOW DO I DEAL WITH CRAVINGS?
Cravings aren’t the big deal that people make them out to be. Yes, you’ll experience them. But there are great ways to deal with them, and one of the benefits of our small-step, gradual transition is that even if you choose to indulge your craving, we’re not so wrapped up in perfectionism that it totally blows your whole diet change. If you slip up, figure out what happened and get back on track with your next meal.
Over time, your cravings should disappear as your taste buds adapt to the new way of eating fresh, whole foods. But in the early days, when you experience cravings, I’d suggest indulging them, but in a way that’s still vegetarian or vegan.
For example, in my early days of being vegetarian, I was watching a football game at a bar with friends and I craved buffalo chicken wings, I would just order some french fries and dip them in hot sauce. Was it the same experience? No, of course not. Healthy? Nope, not in the least. But once I was so full that I couldn’t eat any more hot-sauce-drenched fries, the buffalo wings (and any other food for that matter) were the last thing on my mind. The substitute satisfied those taste buds that were craving the spicy, fried flavor, and reinforced the idea that I could make a vegetarian diet work.
And that’s the role that fake meats can play in the early days of your diet and even beyond. They’re not the healthiest choice you can make, but if they keep you on track by letting you enjoy those situations that you might still associate with animal products, then I think fake meats are a wise choice
Or how about any other kind of vegan junk food when you’re craving something that’s not part of your new diet? Maybe you’re craving a cheeseburger, and a veggie burger either isn’t an option or doesn’t seem nearly as tasty — in that case, how about letting yourself eat a half a bag of potato chips or a whole sleeve of Oreos (they’re vegan, you know)? Again, not healthy. But if the indulgence will keep you on track with your diet transition, then I think it’s worth it.
5. HOW DO I HANDLE SOCIAL SITUATIONS THAT INVOLVE FOOD?
The answer to this one is complicated and depends on your personality. But I believe that especially when you’re transitioning, the best thing to do is not making a big deal about your diet.
For the first few months, if you’re not comfortable saying you’re vegan or vegetarian, you could say you’re just messing around with a new diet, as an experiment. Of course, if your very reason for choosing the diet is as a visible protest (as it is for some vegans), you’ll want to be more upfront. As I said, it depends on your personality and motivations.
Personally, I’ve found it helpful to be as open as possible — let friends and family know what you’re up to and what you eat and don’t eat. (Don’t just show up to dinner and then announce that you’re not going to eat the food they made for you.) Offering to bring your own food is extremely helpful; many times your host will take you up on it, but you’ll be surprised by the ones who appreciate the chance to make something special that fits your needs.
In general, “play it cool, communicate, and keep it low key” has worked tremendously well for me. Here’s an entire podcast episode Doug and I recorded about this very topic, if you’re interested in learning more about different approaches.
6. HOW DO YOU STAY MOTIVATED TO EAT THIS WAY?
Everybody’s motivated at first, but to stay inspired long-term, you need to be clear on your reasons for wanting to eat this way.
It might be health. In that case, stay motivated by watching documentaries and reading new books that reinforce your beliefs that this is the best way to eat for long-term health.
Maybe instead your reasons are ethical. In that case, get involved: volunteer at a shelter, visit an animal sanctuary, etc. Or watch documentaries (Earthlings is very graphic but extremely powerful) that remind you of how important this choice is.
Most of all, surround yourself with other people who eat this way, as much as is possible. Look for vegan meetups or a No Meat Athlete group nearby, and hang out with them. Read blogs in this space. Find Facebook groups around the topic. Avoiding the feeling that you’re the only one doing this is perhaps the most important thing you can do to keep your motivation high.
7. CAN I STILL EAT THIS WAY WHEN I TRAVEL?
Sure. Again, Happy Cow is a great resource for finding local restaurants that are vegetarian- or vegan-friendly. Chipotle is another option (their vegetarian burrito with black beans or sofritas is always vegan, and sometimes their pinto beans are, too). So is Whole Foods, which usually has a hot food bar with plenty of plant-based options, and where you can stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables to snack on.
How best to eat while you’re traveling depends on the exact situation, like whether you have a hotel room with a refrigerator, whether you’ve brought along a blender, or if you’re just road tripping and camping along the way. Here’s a list of travel tips I put together with the help of 25+ plant-based experts where you’ll find a few ideas to help you out, whatever your situation.
8. WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO MY FITNESS LEVEL? WILL I STILL GET THE CALORIES (OR PROTEIN, OR FAT) THAT I NEED?
There’s no way to say for certain how this diet will work for you and whatever sports you do, until you give it a try. But a growing number of athletes choose plant-based diets precisely because of what they believe are the performance benefits — which for most comes in the form of faster recovery from workouts.
I’m not here to make performance claims to convince you to go for it — just try it for yourself and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out, it’s usually not hard to go back and regain whatever fitness you lost during the experiment (just like with any other nutrition strategy change). But I think it’s quite likely that you’ll feel so good and perform so well that you’ll never want to go back.
As for calories and macronutrients, it’s not hard to meet your needs, even with a plant-based diet. Scott Jurek is said to eat 6,000 calories a day during periods of heavy training, all vegan. It’s probably tough to eat this much if you’re only eating whole foods, but for most athletes, there’s a balance to be struck between long-term health (whole foods) and short-term performance (more processed foods, made for athletes, that pack lots of readily-available calories).
Consider also that as you shift to foods that are dense in micronutrients, you may need fewer total calories than you did when you were eating foods that were not as packed with nutrients.
As a recreational endurance athlete, I try to eat about 65% of my calories as carbohydrate, 12% as protein, and 23% as fat. (These ratios, by the way, came from Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong’s old nutrition coach.) I’m sure that on most days I don’t hit these numbers exactly, but now and then I record everything I eat for a few days and make sure that I’m close to where I want to be.
As for protein in particular: if your diet is based on whole foods, it’s almost impossible not to get between 10 and 15 percent of your calories from protein, which is exactly where I aim to be. Even something as “carbohydrate-rich” as whole wheat pasta has 15 percent of its calories from protein! Unless a large part of your diet is oil or processed vegan junk food that contains no protein, the protein that’s naturally found in beans, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and even fruits will be plenty. If you’re still concerned about protein, include a plant-based protein powder in a daily smoothie to give yourself more confidence.
9. IS IT SAFE FOR KIDS TO EAT THIS WAY?
I believe that it’s not only safe, but important for kids to eat diets that are based on whole foods and plants. My children, ages 5 and 2, are 100% vegan at home, and probably 97% vegan when we’re out (and always vegetarian). I personally don’t believe that dairy products are as harmful to children as they are for adults, but still, I don’t think they’re necessary to raise healthy kids (mother’s milk excepted, of course).
If you’re interested in learning more about plant-based nutrition for children, I’d recommend Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s excellent book Disease Proof Your Child: Feeding Kids Right.
10. WHAT DO I DO IF I’M THE ONLY ONE IN THE HOUSE WHO EATS THIS WAY?
It’s not easy to be the only vegetarian or vegan in a household, but it’s doable. If you’re not the primary cook, I’d suggest you learn, so that you can make your own food without inviting resentment from whoever does the cooking. Unless the cook is supportive, in which case you’re a very lucky partner!
If you’re the cook, don’t try to force the other people in your household to eat this way — that will only turn them off of this diet entirely. Check out books like The Flexitarian Diet, which provides recipes where the meat is cooked separately and only added at the end to the plates that require it. Even if your goal is to eventually change the diets of those who live with you, I think the best way to do this is to be a good example — let them see you eating your healthy, plant-based food every day, so that they can see it’s really not such a big deal to eat this way. All the better if they notice positive changes to your health, energy level, or mindset as a result of your eating this way!
11. DO I NEED TO TAKE SUPPLEMENTS AS A VEGETARIAN OR VEGAN?
If you’re vegan, I’d recommend a vitamin B12 supplement, at a minimum. Despite what many say, it’s hard to get a consistent, absorbable dose of it from plant foods. Suggested daily doses vary, depending on who you ask, but I take 100 micrograms per day.
If you’re vegetarian but still eat some dairy, you’ll get some B12 that way, but it still would be a good idea to take a supplement, as even omnivores are often low in B12.
A multivitamin with relatively low doses of vitamins and minerals is a good idea to cover your bases, but many believe that it’s unnecessary. I take one which contains B12, so that I don’t need to take multiple pills each day.
Finally, it’s worth considering a DHA/EPA supplement. These are two types of omega-3 fatty acids that aren’t so easy to get on a plant-based diet for many people. It’s possible that by eating nuts or oils you’ll get the omega-3’s you need and convert enough ALA into these other types, but I like my family to take a few drops of this supplement in our smoothie just to be safe.
And of course, there’s protein powder. I personally don’t use it anymore, but if you’re short on time or concerned about protein when you’re trying this diet for the first time, go for it! I’d recommend a minimally processed form, like hemp protein — try to avoid protein isolates, as they’re processed and potentially unhealthy in the long term.
Read more about supplements here, and be sure to check out Complement Plus, a product I made with the express purpose of delivering just the nutrients vegans need, with nothing else.
12. IS SOY SAFE?
In my opinion, yes. Here’s a great article that has helped me see that soy isn’t the evil food the internet has made it out to be.
Still, as with any controversial food, I intentionally don’t base a huge part of my diet on soy. It’s probably healthy to eat soy every day, but in case it’s not (and since there are so many other beans out there!), I eat soy only now and then, maybe once a week or so, and almost always in a minimally processed form like tofu or tempeh.
Stay away from soy protein isolates, which are highly processed and form the basis for many protein powders and fake meat products (not all of them, so check the ingredient labels).
I hope these answers have helped you! Again, if you’ve got other concerns or questions about a specific situation, attend an upcoming webinar and I’ll be happy to answer it live for you.
Go Vegan: 3-Day Sample Going Plant-Based Meal Plan
The first time we did this 30-Day Go Vegan Challenge with our community, several people asked me if there would be a meal plan to follow each day.
The answer, of course, is no — the very point of the small steps approach we’ve used to create this change is to rock the boat as little as possible. In other words, especially in the first few weeks, we wanted your meals to be as close as possible to what you were eating before.
For example, in the first week when we gave up beef and pork, the very best thing you could do to keep things as normal as possible (and maximize your chances of sticking with it) was to just eat the same meals you normally eat that don’t contain beef and pork. If there was a special one, say spaghetti with meat sauce, you could simply replace the ground beef with ground turkey and hopefully not notice too much of a difference.
But now that we’re into completely vegetarian (and almost vegan!) meals, it’s hard to keep eating what you’ve always eaten. So to give you an idea of what a few typical days look like on a healthy vegan diet, here’s a sample three-day plan.
It’s not meant to be followed exactly, by any means, but I hope it’ll help to give you a framework around which to plan your meals.
THE BASIC FRAMEWORK
Breakfast: usually a smoothie, or sometimes the same stuff that’s in a smoothie but not blended. Fruits, nuts and seeds, and possibly some greens
Morning snack: Examples include fruit, nut butter (on fruit or whole-wheat bagel or pita), hummus (with veggies or whole-wheat pita)
Lunch: Sometimes a giant salad with three-quarters cup of beans (often chickpeas) and nut-based dressing, sometimes leftovers from previous night’s dinner
Afternoon snack: Same types of foods as a morning snack, but sometimes adjusted to be a pre- or post-run meal (meaning slightly more refined carbohydrates or fruit juice)
Dinner: Usually some combination of beans, grains, and greens — see examples below
Dessert (totally optional): I usually count a craft beer or glass of red wine as dessert, but fruit or even occasional vegan ice cream made from almond milk or coconut milk works too
Breakfast: Smoothie with strawberries, baby spinach, walnuts, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and flax seeds, plus water and ice
Morning snack: 2-3 tablespoons of almond butter spread on Ezekiel bread
Lunch: Huge salad with romaine lettuce, dandelion greens (mixing common lettuce with a more bitter, higher-nutrient green is a good way to do it), tomato, celery, carrots, and a half can of cooked chickpeas, with tahini dressing (recipe here, under item #2)
Afternoon snack: Half a small watermelon
Dinner: Hearty chickpea-pasta soup
Breakfast: Banana-walnut smoothie — just mix 3-5 bananas, a handful of walnuts, and water to thin it to desired consistency
Morning snack: No-oil hummus (I like Roots brand, or homemade) with whole-wheat pita
Lunch: Southwestern salad — same dressing as previous salad, with hot sauce stirred into a dressing. Use romaine, green onions, avocado, tomato, chopped jalapeno (if you like spicy) and black beans
Afternoon snack: 2-3 Medjool dates before a workout, 8-ounce glass of tart cherry juice after a workout.
Dinner: BBQ tempeh tacos
Breakfast: One-half to one-whole cantaloupe
Morning snack: Almond butter on a whole-wheat bagel
Lunch: Leftover BBQ tempeh tacos
Afternoon snack: Small green salad with just lemon juice as a dressing (optionally add extra-virgin olive oil) and a pinch of salt, plus 1-2 bananas
Dinner: Scott Jurek’s Long-Run Pizza
Note: for another approach to meal planning, one that’s somewhat more involved but still focused on simplicity, check out the (free) Stress-Free Plant-Based Plan.
Make it Last: Anticipate the Disruptions to Your Routine
One of your biggest allies when you’re trying to change a habit, diet included, is your routine. With a solid one in place, you no longer have to make a decision or rely on willpower every time you sit down to eat.
Even after a few days of eating differently, you’ve begun to carve a new path for yourself. And the more times you do things the same way, the deeper the path is dug and the easier it is to stay on it.
So one of the biggest causes of habit change failures (of all kinds) is when something comes along and jolts you out of that familiar, comfortable routine.
Your parents, in-laws, or good friends come to visit. A loved one gets sick. You have to travel for work, or maybe a planned vacation. Or even without traveling, work just gets busy one week, and you’ve got to go in early and stay late for three or four days in a row.
If you haven’t experienced it already, you can imagine the havoc it wreaks when you’re in a new phase of a gradual transition to a plant-based diet. Suddenly, you’re forced to eat at restaurants for every meal — maybe even restaurants that you didn’t choose. Or, worse, you might have to make breakfast without your beloved Vitamix. (I know — gasp!).
The fact is, this stuff is going to happen. One way or another, your routine is going to get messed up, and for a day or two or three, you’ll be on your own, without the comforts of your environment and familiar routine to fall back on.
So what can you do? One thing only: prepare.
Situation 1: Disruptions you know are coming, and when
In some cases, it’s easy. If you know ahead of time that you’ll be traveling or that relatives are coming to visit, you can figure out what you’ll do to stay on track.
Still, that’s easier said than done, so don’t fall into the trap of telling yourself, “It’s no big deal, I’m pretty good at this. I’ll just wing it when they get here.”
No. Have a plan.
What restaurants will you go to when your friends visit? If you’re traveling, what will you make for breakfast and other meals where you won’t go out? Is there a Whole Foods nearby, or do you need to pack your own energy bars and other in-a-pinch staples?
Situation 2: Disruptions that are sure to happen eventually
And what about the stuff you don’t know is coming — the out-of-the-blue day when the boss needs you to stay two hours late, or the afternoon you get stuck in traffic? Fast food joints and vending machines won’t be much help, so how can you be prepared? You could stash a jar of nut butter in your desk, some (unopened) trail mix in your glove compartment … it doesn’t have to be gourmet. Anything that’ll fill you up will do the job.
Situation 3: Disruptions that are impossible to even predict
And then there’s everything else — one level of uncertainty deeper — that you don’t even know could happen. (I’d give examples, but then they’d be in a different category. :)) To prepare for the unknowable, decide in advance how much you’re willing to bend.
In his interview for our Academy habit change module, Leo Babauta mentioned that while he was on a month-long European vacation, he was okay with doing just a few minutes of pushups and meditation, rather than this usual gym workout and longer periods of mindfulness. He set up the game so that it was easy to win: he needed to do just enough to feel satisfied, not so much that he’d procrastinate or feel guilty for missing his habits.
How can you do this with your diet change? If you’re not fully vegan yet, but transitioning, how far are you willing to deviate from the plan without feeling like you’ve failed? I’d encourage you to give yourself more leeway, not less: think far down the road, years from now when you’re looking back, and the one-time deviations become meaningless if they helped to keep you on the path.
If you’re a committed vegetarian or vegan now, then it’s likely that you won’t allow any deviation, for ethical reasons — but that doesn’t mean you can’t lessen your standards for healthiness, if it keeps you from beating yourself up during a stressful period. If you find yourself out at a restaurant with zero other options, maybe a greasy plate of french fries isn’t so bad if it keeps you from going hungry and from questioning whether all of this is worth it.
Obviously I can’t cover every potential situation that will arise to disrupt your specific routine in your specific environment. But by giving you a heads up about the importance of being prepared for anything, I hope I’ll save you from relying on willpower (which, as we all know, isn’t something you want to rely on for long).
So the next time you check in with your new habit — and again, I suggest carving out just five or ten minutes each weekend to evaluate how any habit change is going — think about what disruptions lie ahead, which ones could lie ahead, and what can do to prepare for even the ones that come completely out of nowhere.