Tips on veganism from a relative newcomer

This Baked Ziti incorporates vegan mozzarella.
This Baked Ziti incorporates vegan mozzarella.
Published May 25, 2015

I know what you're going to say: "I could never give up cheese. Or bacon."

I hear it often, and College Steve would have nodded in agreement. (Of course, College Steve grew winded walking up a flight of stairs and was nicknamed "Tons of Fun" by his family.)

When I say, "I'm vegan," I understand your instinct to start listing off what I can't eat. But while there are off-limits foods, three years into this lifestyle change, I can attest that it's anything but restricting. Once you learn to navigate the basics of vegan cooking, you'll find it's not hard, it's healthy and the options are endless.

Of course, it is an adjustment. I grew up in a meat-and-potatoes Midwestern home. The number of frozen pizzas I ate in my first 25 years would tower over Tampa's Beer Can Building. I ended up meeting a girl who was vegan at a point in my life when I was striving to be healthier. Soon, I was trying to impress her by stocking my fridge with almond milk and substituting vegan cheese for the real stuff in my baked ziti recipe — my go-to home-cooked date dish.

Eventually, I stopped eating meat and cheese altogether, and I don't intend to start again. It has been life altering for me.

Whether you're looking to make a healthy lifestyle change or believe there are environmental or ethical benefits to a plant-based diet, here are some tips from a regular dude and relative newbie to veganism.

Finding protein

I know you're concerned about this one, so let's get it out of the way: I am not protein deficient. Really. I have blood work to prove it. You can stop worrying, Mom.

I played sports through high school and continue to stay active. I understand the need to maintain certain protein levels.

Supplements or powders aren't necessary. There's quite a bit of protein in vegetables. Eat enough of them and you'll get plenty of what you need. Think of all the ways to prepare or marinate meat with spices and sauces and apply that effort to a portion of veggies. You can extract and apply just as much flavor.

Legumes, beans, nuts, lentils and even some grains like quinoa and farro are full of protein as well. I keep them in my pantry at all times. You can also try tofu, tempeh or seitan if you are feeling more adventurous or are trying to replicate the consistency or taste of meat.

Replacing favorites

If you have a favorite dish you're afraid of missing out on by going vegan, you're likely not alone. The Internet is full of vegan cooks trying to replicate everything from pulled pork using jackfruit to nacho cheese with cashews. One night I craved fettuccine Alfredo and found a recipe that replaced the creamy sauce with boiled cauliflower and nutritional yeast. I now make that several times a month.

These days, you can also find many meat knockoff products, leaving the approach to you: Do you want to top your pizza with meatless sausage and vegan cheese or just pile veggies on marinara sauce? The latter is probably healthier, but the substitute products are especially helpful during the transition or on special occasions.

Reading ingredients

Since adopting a plant-based diet I've had to get better about actually looking at labels.

Often, milk, cheese, meat and other animal by-products will be listed in the allergen section. That's a good place to start, but there can be other hidden pitfalls in the ingredients. Gelatin, for example, is made from animal bones. Many processed peanut butters you liked as a kid contain monoglycerides and diglycerides, which are animal fat.

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Explore all your options

Eventually, you'll learn what foods to avoid and what ingredients to watch for, but it might take some education. One easy trick: The less processed the food is, the easier (and healthier) it will be for you.

Navigating restaurants

More and more restaurants are creating separate menus or labeling items that are vegan or ones that can be altered to fit your dietary needs. But for me, eating out remains the most challenging aspect of being vegan.

Sometimes, vegetarian items that seem vegan are not. Refried beans can be cooked in animal lard. Many Asian restaurants use fish oil in their sauces, even in tofu dishes. Some veggie burgers are made with eggs, or the bun will contain milk.

I still don't consider myself a vegan expert. It's all about trial and error. But if you give it a go, you'll learn that most of the concerns you had about a vegan diet turned out to be myths.

Contact Steve Contorno at Follow @scontorno.