Are you intimidated by the idea of going vegan? So many long-term vegans and vegetarians will tell you that their lifestyle is a source of joy and pride. But did you know that the majority of vegans do not stay vegan forever? An astounding 84% of vegans and vegetarians abandon their plant-based diet! This may be a hard pill to swallow, but getting to the bottom of what causes folks to abandon their plant-based diets can help those new to the community stay here.
Doing our research, taking care of our nutritional needs, listening to our bodies, and taking it slow is just the beginning. There are many steps you can take to ensure this lifestyle remains sustainable for you. For many, toning down the pressure and intensity- and finding what works for you- is key. In this article, I will cover what the data tells us as well as share some personal experiences. I hope it’s helpful!
Going “cold turkey” works for some, but not for most. Don’t jump into the deep end before learning how to swim.
I became vegetarian in the sixth grade at eleven years old. My decision to cut meat out of my life entirely was a sudden and drastic one; raised on bacon-and-egg breakfasts, hamburger helper, spaghetti and meatballs, and chicken drumsticks, eliminating my meat consumption in a single day was a radical choice. I was plunged into the deep end of learning to cook, helping my family prepare meals, and doing my own research into something I knew nothing about. Less than one year later, as I was barely learning the ropes of a vegetarian lifestyle, I made the further decision to become vegan. This was Earth-shattering for my family. For years, I stumbled in the darkness with this new life change. Going out to restaurants was stressful. Dinner with the family was often a time of conflict.
Being a neurodivergent child with a strong emphasis on the “hyperfixation” in ADHD, this polarizing extremity somehow worked for me. Given that animals have always been my life’s passion and animal rights was my deepest interest at the time, there was no possibility of going back to eating animal products in my mind.
But this is not the case for everyone. Many of my friends at the time tried to become vegan, too. Imagine: a band of angry small children going home to their families and firmly announcing an end to their meat-eating days. That is exactly what happened.
But many of these friends did not manage to stay plant-based. For most, a few months later, still having no idea what to eat, and sick and tired of being excluded from family meals, they raised the white flag.
Evidence shows us that gradual transitions are far more likely to yield a successful outcome! One of the most sure-fire ways to become plant-based is to take it week by week. Dedicate each week to eliminating a new animal product from your diet and to experimenting with a new vegan ingredient in your cooking. Don’t move forward with eliminating an animal product until you feel completely confident living without it. For example, during a week of eliminating eggs, try several new scrambles: tofu, chickpea, JUST egg. Research baking alternatives and try out a recipe. Figure out what you miss most, and try to come up with a better vegan alternative. Don’t rush the process. Make sure you’re replacing nutritional needs adequately by doing your research. Having cravings? Listen to them. Figure out exactly what tastes you’re missing, and how to mimic them. Just keep expanding your comfort zone. Before you know it, you’re vegan!
Keep the motivation alive.
Loss of motivation is a common reason for abandoning a vegan diet. This happens all-too-often: someone watches a documentary, has a conversation with a friend, or discovers something that inspires them to ditch animal products. For a few weeks or months, they’re all about the cause. But life gets busy, and it’s easy to forget why you became vegan in the first place.
So invest in some books. Cue up some documentaries. Visit some vegan restaurants, and find out when your local Vegfest is. A major motivator for many people is visiting a farmed animal sanctuary. Meet the animals you are investing in protecting. Feel what it’s like to hug a cow, give a pig a belly rub, or watch chickens scratch and forage in the dirt. Learn the animals’ stories, and meet the likely long-term vegans who may work at the sanctuary. There’s no stronger motivator than that!
Find your niche in the community.
According to Faunalytics, 84% of former vegetarians/vegans said they were not actively involved in a vegetarian/vegan group or organization. 63% of former vegetarians/vegans said they disliked that their vegetarian/vegan diet made them stick out from the crowd.
Tired of being excluded from potlucks, of being the only one struggling with the menu at a non-vegan-friendly restaurant. That is a very real struggle when the majority of your social circle doesn’t get it.
No, that doesn’t mean you need to ditch your non-vegan friends. But meeting some new fellow vegans and vegetarians, joining a facebook group, visiting Vegfests and finding social media creators who suit you can really help. There are vegans of every ethnicity, age group, income level, social ideology, sexual orientation, gender identity, the list goes on! There are vegans who face specific challenges, like health issues, disabilities, living in food deserts, being college students, prioritizing global travel to less vegan friendly destinations. These people can share ideas and help you succeed. So find some non-judgemental, plant-forward people who are like you in more ways than just veganism. Build a community that can help you navigate through any challenges you might face.
Don’t beat yourself up. Long-term sustainability should come before purity.
So many formerly plant-based folks cite the pressure to be perfect in their vegan diet as a reason for quitting. How silly does that sound from a do-less-harm perspective? What causes less animals to be killed for food: someone who is 90% vegan with occasional slip-ups or “cheat days” for the rest of their life, or someone who tries strict veganism for six months, can’t handle it, and goes back to eating meat and other animal products every single day?
For many people, maintaining absolute purity is downright exhausting. And when people become exhausted with their diet, they quit. At the end of the day, different people have different levels of commitment, free time and willpower. If a monthly sacrificial Kraft Mac-n-cheese or a favorite non-vegan Halloween candy is what keeps you sane, so be it. If you can’t handle the pressure of ordering vegan at a non-vegan restaurant with non-vegan friends, but do fine cooking vegan food at home, don’t give up entirely because you don’t feel like a “real vegan”.
The extremist vegan sector seems to always be moving the goalpost further for what constitutes a true vegan. “You’re not a vegan if you only follow a vegan diet, but not a vegan lifestyle,” “You’re not vegan if you aren’t an activist,” “You’re not vegan if you’ll sit down and have a meal next to someone eating meat.” But who is this benefiting, really? Those newcomers interested- and possibly intimidated- by the idea of a plant-based diet? Unlikely.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what you call yourself. Reducitarian? Flexitarian? Plant-based? Vegan? Animal activist? As long as you are actively trying to decrease your consumption of animal products and live more sustainably, you’re doing a good job. If ditching labels helps you, ditch away. And when you slip up, well, get back on your feet and try again!
Don’t overthink it. Do the best you can, listen to your body, and take care of yourself. We hope this helps!
Chelsea Pinkham is a long-time animal advocate, rescuer, and humane education writer. Chelsea studied Communications & Journalism with a minor in Environmental Science at Sonoma State University. She has been vegan for thirteen years, since she discovered the treatment of animals on farms in middle school. Outside of Vegan Unlocked, she works for a nonprofit farmed animal sanctuary, authors humane education children’s books, and has personally rescued, fostered and transported over 1,000 animals. She enjoys camping, hiking, learning about animal behavior, and traveling the world on a low budget!