With popular books, films, blogs and even an ex-president boasting the benefits of going vegan, interest in this lifestyle seems to be gaining ground. But animal products are a major staple in the Western diet, and vegans must navigate a culinary world that doesn’t always accommodate their choice. Fortunately, a number of registered dietitians have become experts in the field of vegan nutrition — good news for consumers looking for credible dietary advice. And by experiencing the nuances of veganism firsthand, RDs can not only ensure clients get essential nutrients, but also advise on unique social situations and potential pitfalls.
Have a Game Plan
“Being vegan at home is always a breeze. There are so many great products and wonderful recipes,” says Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, a vegan expert and author living in Port Townsend, Wash. However, successfully adapting any new way of eating often requires planning and some expert guidance. “New vegans in particular need to identify good sources of calcium, learn how to meet needs for essential fats and make sure they are getting adequate vitamin B12,” says Messina. “An RD who is knowledgeable about plant-based nutrition is a great resource for vegans who want to ensure that their diet is well-balanced.”
Learn Away-from-Home Options
While restaurants are increasingly able to accommodate special dietary needs, empower vegan clients to ask questions to ensure that a dish is made without animal products (marinara sauce, for example, may be made with chicken stock). Many restaurants post their menus online, while apps and online restaurant directories may filter vegan-friendly establishments.
“Traveling can be a challenge, but it seems as if things are getting better and there are more choices than there used to be,” says Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, an author and culinary educator who specializes in plant-based diets. Veggie wraps, hummus, whole-grain salads and vegetables now are found at many airports and train stations, and vegans can prepare for travel challenges by packing their own snacks or meals.
Strategize Social Events
Dinner parties, weekend getaways and other social events can make some vegans worry about seeming like a difficult guest or putting out hosts. “I never want to ask for special treatment or exceptions to be made for me, but sometimes being vegan requires this. I’ve found this is best dealt with by planning ahead and being extremely polite,” says California-based Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD, who works with vegetarian clients and athletes and has been vegan since age 17.
If invited to someone’s home, it is perfectly appropriate for vegans to mention their diet restrictions ahead of time — sparing the host any surprise or discomfort later when the pot roast goes uneaten. Counteract the awkwardness by offering to bring a favorite vegan dish to share.
Be Prepared for Pushback
Veganism is a lifestyle, but it’s also a label — and followers of this often-misunderstood diet likely will face some questions about their diet at some point, whether from colleagues, relatives or friends. Some people may be genuinely curious, while others may internalize the choice as a criticism of their own diet, lifestyle or culture. Either way, it helps to prepare for the question, “Why?”
“I try to gauge how interested the person seems,” says Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst who specializes in vegan and vegetarian nutrition. “If it’s a superficial question, I just provide a quick answer: ‘I’m vegan because I think it’s a way to eat that is good for the planet, good for animals and good for me.’ And if they seem interested, I would talk a little about my path to being vegan and my main motivations.”
If a conversation turns critical, often the best way to diffuse tension is with an honest, non-defensive response. “If the statement is like, ‘I don’t know why anyone would want to be vegan,’ I’d ask, ‘Why do you say that?’ Often it turns out that the person heard of someone who didn’t do well on a vegan diet, in which case I might say, ‘I really can’t know what happened, but that my experience has been positive,'” says Mangels.