The Transforming Effects of a Plant-Powered Vegan Lifestyle

Photo by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash

Highlights from my interview on the Healthy Lifestyle Solutions Podcast

I had the honor of being interviewed on the Healthy Lifestyle Solutions Podcast with Maya Acosta.  We discussed my vegan journey, the transformative effects of a plant-powered lifestyle, and how to inspire healthy lifestyle change.  We also discuss definitions of vegan and plant-based, and reasons for a vegan lifestyle. Below are some excerpts from the interview.

Tell us about your journey to a plant-based, vegan lifestyle

For most of my life, I was not a healthy eater.  I ate a lot of comfort foods, microwave meals, sweets, and processed foods.  I didn’t like to cook.  Although I exercised a fair amount, I didn’t eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. 

What opened my eyes and led me to eating more plants was when I learned about how animal agriculture works.   I saw a TV program about workers in a meat processing plant, and many of them were immigrants. They had frequent injuries from this difficult work, and were so financially vulnerable that they couldn’t speak up.  They didn’t have power in this system.  It made me think about how my food got to me.  At that time I was working in a pain management program that helped injured workers. That TV program made me think about what meat processing workers were going through.

And then I started to think about all aspects of it, including the treatment of animals and what was actually going into my body when I ate animal-based foods.  I started reading everything I could. I went to the library and read every book on vegetarianism and veganism.  I learned about the health benefits for reversing heart disease from Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn.  That really hit home for me because I have a strong family history of heart disease.  I learned about the impact of animal agriculture on animals and the environment.

After watching that program, I started cooking. The very next day, I bought my first vegetarian cookbook, and made vegetarian lasagna.  I had to buy all these new pots and pans because I never cooked.  It was a great experience and I found that I loved to cook – once I switched to plant-based. 

So many doors opened.  I tried new spices. I tried new ingredients that I’d never thought of before.  I started trying a new recipe or two every week. And over time, I gave up meat entirely. A few years later I started to give up dairy and eggs.  I found that after releasing dairy from my life, my seasonal allergies – that I thought I would always have – just went away.  Some skin conditions that I struggled with went away too. 

So here I am 15 years later, in my mid 50’s, with good health and a lot of energy. I feel good about the way I’m eating, knowing that it is kinder to animals, the planet, and my own health. So it feels good on all levels.  And now my food choices are so much more varied and interesting and nourishing than they used to be.  I would never go back.   

(To read more about my vegan journey, check out my blog article:  How Veganism Inspired Me to Find My Voice.)

What is the difference between vegan and plant-based?

Veganism at its core is an ethical way of living that seeks to avoid harm or exploitation to animals.  People who identify as vegan avoid buying anything that has animal products, including food and other items as well (clothing, shoes, household items, cosmetics, etc).  

A vegan diet excludes all animal products (meat, fish, dairy, or eggs).  A vegan diet can vary in terms of healthiness.  For example, fruits and veggies and beans are vegan, but so are Oreos and potato chips.  In general, a vegan diet that favors whole plant foods (fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds), with fewer processed foods, brings optimal health benefits.

A plant-based diet is a more general term, often used interchangeably with vegan diet.  Most often, it refers to a plant-exclusive diet. However, it should be noted that sometimes the term “plant-based” can refer to a diet that is predominantly plant-based (e.g., 80% to 90%). 

A whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet is a plant-exclusive diet, focused on whole plant foods, as minimally processed as possible.  This way of eating has been associated with health benefits, and is high in nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber.

Why do people choose a plant-based (plant-exclusive) lifestyle?

One reason is health.  Eating more plants (and eliminating animal products) helps to prevent and even reverse certain diseases that are common in Western countries, like heart disease, diabetes, certain forms of cancer, and autoimmune disease.  Plant-powered nutrition also supports better fitness and overall health and energy. 

There are also ethical reasons, which I touched on when sharing my experience of learning about the slaughterhouse workers.  When I realized that I didn’t like how the workers were treated, it occurred to me, well, what about the animals?  So many of us love dogs and cats, but we don’t give a second thought to other animals and what that they go through. When we awaken to realize that cows and pigs and chickens matter too, the obvious choice is to no longer consume animal products, to no longer contribute to the suffering of these sentient beings.

A third reason for becoming vegan is caring for the environment.  Animal agriculture, especially the way it’s expanded into factory farming, has had an increasingly toxic effect on our environment, from the use of land and water, to greenhouse gases, as well as cutting down rainforests to create more feed and grazing space for the animals grown for food. All of that has a huge impact.  One book that I found really helpful is Eat for the Planet by Nil Zacharias and Gene Stone.  The authors show that by eating a vegan diet, you save 1500 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, and 30 square feet of forest per day. Simply by eating lower on the food chain, you save all of that, along with lowering your carbon emissions by 50%.

(For more information about the reasons for a vegan lifestyle, check out my resource page Why Vegan?

Tell us about your book research on the transformative effects of a plant-powered, vegan lifestyle.

One thing that really intrigues me as a psychologist is how what we eat affects our mental health, our emotional well-being, and even our spiritual well-being.  I’ve been collecting surveys and doing interviews with vegans on this topic.  My goal with this book to convey the changes in mind, body, and spirit that many people experience as they eat in ways that nourish their body, and that are aligned with the deeper values that they hold.  There’s the nutritional benefit of giving our body the nutrients it needs. And then there are psychological benefits of living aligned with our deepest values — caring deeply for our own health, living lightly on the earth, and causing the least harm to other sentient beings. There are amazing shifts that people are reporting, including more interconnectedness with all of nature.  As we eat in this healthy way, there’s a sense of fulfillment, purpose, and peace in honoring our values through our daily choices.

To listen to the full interview, check out The Healthy Lifestyle Solutions Podcast.

(Note: For this article, the interview transcript was copy-edited and some points expanded upon, to improve clarity).

Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist and transformational coach. She is passionate about empowering people to create healthy lives that nurture mind, body, spirit, and planet. Dr. Crawford is certified as a Master Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, and has a Plant-Based Nutrition certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at e-Cornell. She is currently doing research for a book on the psychological and emotional benefits of a vegan lifestyle. She serves as a psychology advisor for WeDidIt.Health, an on-line community that shares the benefits of a plant-powered lifestyle.

Key Practices for Creating a Healthful Vegan Life

Colorful salad with tomatoes, bell peppers, and arugula
Photo by Sara Dubler on Unsplash

“Veganism is not an elimination diet, it is a lifestyle filled with happiness, peace, and contentment.”

“My health and my whole life have transformed.  I feel like I got my life back.”

 “I’m living a life of ahimsa, doing the least harm to myself, the planet, and all beings.”

“I feel lighter in body and soul.”

These are just a few of the comments shared by vegans participating in my book research on the mind-body-spirit impacts of a vegan lifestyle.

My survey respondents reported that their vegan journey brought a greater appreciation for the natural world and all beings that inhabit it.  Over and over, participants shared a sense of wonder in realizing the interconnectedness of all life.  Over and over, they shared the realization that caring for the well-being of others is deeply connected with their own well-being.  And while living this compassionate vegan lifestyle, they found that their own health and vitality significantly improved.

What helps to successfully move toward and sustain a healthy, plant-powered, vegan life? 

Here are some of the top suggestions from my survey respondents:

1. Connect with a strong motivation for being vegan.

Whether it is for animals, for justice, for health and fitness, and/or for the environment, regularly connecting with your “Why” helps you to keep going when inevitable challenges and obstacles arise.  Check out my article Going Plant-Based:  A Revelation for Body, Mind, and Spirit to learn some of the compelling reasons for a vegan lifestyle.

2. Build positive supports

Ask your family and friends to be allies on your vegan journey.  Even if they aren’t willing to go vegan with you, explain the importance of your vegan lifestyle to them, and ask them to support you and back you with this.  In addition, connect with like-hearted vegans who share your commitment.  Discovering your vegan tribe can be one of the most helpful and meaningful parts of the vegan journey.  You can find vegan supports through local or on-line plant-based/vegan communities, groups, or organizations.  Taking action through volunteer work (for animals, human health, and/or healing our planet) can also create positive connections and a sense that you are making a meaningful difference.

3. Educate yourself

Listen to podcasts, read books and articles, take classes, and check out plant-based websites.  This helps to stay connected to your motivations for being vegan, as well as to learn practical tips and skills for how to thrive as a vegan.  See my Plant-Powered Resources List for helpful websites, books, documentaries, and podcasts to empower your vegan journey.

4. Be proactive with social situations.

To stay the course with a healthy vegan lifestyle, it’s important to take responsibility for your own well-being and not leave things to chance.  Plan ahead so that you always have vegan food available, whether you are eating out, travelling, or going to a social gathering.  I learned this the hard way, after assuming there would be vegan options available at a restaurant or a social situation – and finding that sometimes there were not.  I learned to speak up, call ahead, bring dishes to share at social gatherings, and to always have healthy snacks on hand.  (For tips on handling social situations, check out my article Navigating Social Challenges on the Vegan Path).

5. Learn effective communication skills.

Healthy communication and relational skills are extremely important in expressing your wishes and needs as a vegan, as well as in advocating for the benefits of a plant-based, vegan lifestyle.  A book that I found really helpful to improve vegan communication skills is Beyond Beliefs by Dr. Melanie Joy.  For additional guidance, check out my article 7 Tips for Inspiring Others Toward a Plant-Based Lifestyle.

6. Practice healthy self-care.

Being a resilient, impactful, and healthy vegan means including yourself in your circle of compassion.  This means choosing nourishing plant-foods that bring vibrant health and energy, enjoying exercise and movement, spending time in nature, enjoying time with companion animals, renewing through meditation and yoga, and drawing on spiritual resources.  My participants noted that these self-care activities were essential for remaining empowered, hopeful, and resilient in their vegan lifestyle.

Incorporating these basic practices on your vegan journey will help you to flourish in mind, body, emotions, and spirit.  Your shining example will in turn inspire and empower others, moving us toward a world of compassion, health, sustainability, and flourishing for all.

Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist and transformational coach. She is passionate about empowering people to create healthy lives that nurture mind, body, spirit, and planet. Dr. Crawford is certified as a Master Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, and has a Plant-Based Nutrition certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at e-Cornell. She is currently doing research for a book on the psychological and emotional benefits of a vegan lifestyle. She serves as a psychology advisor for WeDidIt.Health, an on-line community that shares the benefits of a plant-powered lifestyle.

5 Ways Veganism Transformed My Life

brilliant sunset over dunes and ocean
Photo by Angela Crawford, Cape May Point, NJ

I have always tended to be an introvert.  I relish solitude.  I prefer small groups to large crowds.  I’ve lived a quiet life, not often sharing my views and opinions publicly.

But then 15 years ago, I had an awakening that was so meaningful, compelling, and life-changing, it has continued to impact me and to make me more fully human, more fully me.  It revealed my deeply held values.  And over time, I came to realize that these values are universal and encompass our physical health, emotional and spiritual well-being, and the survival of the planet.  No longer could I keep this to myself as a private revelation.  I realized that I had to find a way to share this life-changing discovery.

My awakening happened in stages.  It started with learning about factory farming and the treatment of animals. I realized I would never want a dog or cat to go through that suffering.  Why was it okay for a pig, cow, or chicken?

I read everything I could, filling my Kindle with e-books on vegan topics.  Through my research, I learned about the healing benefits of a plant-based diet for many diseases that plague Western society. I also learned about the devastating effects of animal agriculture on the planet.

But I was most impacted by the suffering of animals treated as commodities rather than sentient beings.  Gradually, I broke through the deep layers of social conditioning that kept me emotionally disconnected from their plight.

Much to my surprise, becoming vegan did not seem like a sacrifice.  Rather, it turned out to be an experience of abundance and fulfillment, transforming my life in unexpected ways.

1. Veganism inspired me to find my voice

Veganism connected so many dots for me.  I wake with a deep sense of purpose each day.  Through my daily food choices, and my efforts to educate and raise awareness, I can be part of the solution for many causes that matter deeply to me: caring for animals and the planet, food insecurity, justice, and human health. Although I still think of myself as an introvert, my passion for veganism compels me to discover how I can use my voice and my gifts to make a difference.

2. Extending compassion to all beings

I have always viewed myself as an empathic person.  However, for years I ate meat daily, and was seemingly unaware of the animals who suffered as a result of my choices.  When I had my vegan awakening, I became aware of my connection with all life.  I developed a deeper appreciation for the complexity and beauty of nature and the animal kingdom.  Gradually, I realized that the kindest way of living and eating was also healthiest for me.

Recent visit at Farm Sanctuary

3. Greater peace 

There was a sense of freedom, a weight lifted, when I began living in a way that was truly aligned with my values.  An inner conflict that I had not even been fully aware of was resolved through the choice to not eat animals.  This brought a sense of peace and inner wholeness.

4. Appreciation and gratitude

My world opened to greater abundance and appreciation when I became vegan.   Yes, there is awareness of pain and suffering that is very difficult at times. But there is also an expanded sense of awe of nature and all life.  There are the delicious vegan meals I’ve learned to create, with vibrant colors and delectable flavors.  And there is appreciation for my body’s resilience and health, which has been strengthened by my plant-powered cuisine.

5. Connecting with like-hearted people across the globe

I have had the amazing experience of connecting with vegans around the world.  Through groups, collaborations, and trainings, I have met courageous and compassionate people from across the globe.

There are challenges being vegan in a world that is not yet vegan.  As someone who prefers harmony, it has not always been easy to live in a way that is at odds with the status quo.  And yet each time I meet others who embrace and live by vegan values, I feel inspired and uplifted.  And each time my example inspires someone else to consider the vegan path, it makes it all worthwhile.

Veganism is a path of listening to our heart’s guidance to extend kindness to all beings.  Through our daily choices, we join others to become a movement that seeks a world of compassion, sustainability, and flourishing for all.

Note: This article was originally published on Main Street Vegan Blog on November 23, 2021.

Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist and transformational coach. She is passionate about empowering people to create lives that nurture mind, body, spirit, and planet. Dr. Crawford is certified as a Master Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, and has a Plant-Based Nutrition certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at e-Cornell. She is currently doing research for a book on the psychological and emotional benefits of a vegan lifestyle.

Going Plant-Based: A Revelation for Body, Mind, and Spirit

Brightly colored vegetables
Photo by Chantal Garnier on Unsplash

Going vegan was the best New Year’s resolution I ever made.  To be honest, it wasn’t really a resolution.  It was more of a quest that unfolded over time. 

I discovered that going plant-based is a transformation that leads to so much more than a surface level change in diet.  It brings the joy and freedom of living aligned with deeply held values, eating food that nourishes physical and emotional well-being.  Through veganism, we begin to create the world we want to see.  We join others to become a movement seeking a world of health, compassion, peace, and sustainability.

Moving toward the values embodied in veganism holds answers for many of the challenges we face globally and collectively.  Although there is much in our world that we cannot control, we can choose to eat in ways that create positive change. 

If you have been considering a plant-based diet or going vegan, there is no better time than now.  Whether your goal is better health, enhancing your fitness, helping the planet or animals, or lessening the likelihood of future pandemics, moving toward a plant-powered lifestyle has benefits for mind, body, and spirit

Planting seeds and opening up possibility

While the shift to a vegan lifestyle can occur “overnight,” often it involves a more gradual process of awakening.  For many years, I was not ready to consider plant-based eating.  I didn’t understand why it would be beneficial.  I believed what I had been taught—that I needed meat and dairy for my health.  I didn’t know about the Blue Zones, cultures where people eat a primarily plant-based diet, and live long, active, and healthy lives free of many of the diseases that plague Western nations.  I didn’t know about Dr. Dean Ornish’s research showing that heart disease can be prevented and reversed with a vegetarian diet.  I didn’t know about the elite athletes who have thrived on a plant-powered diet. 

And I was deeply disconnected from the process of how meat and dairy products arrive in their packages in the grocery store.  I was not in touch with the toll that this increasingly industrialized process takes on its workers, or the unspeakable suffering, pain, and cruelty endured by animals bred and raised for food.  I also didn’t know about animal agriculture’s devastating impact on greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, aquifer depletion, dead zones in the ocean, and water and air pollution.

In addition, for many years, I couldn’t imagine making healthy dietary changes.  During my teens and twenties, it was not uncommon for me to eat a huge bag of chocolates in one sitting.  Even when I stopped that pattern in my early thirties, I still ate plenty of sweets and convenience foods.

But gradually I opened up to the possibility of change.  I became more invested in health and fitness, and began to eat more fruits and vegetables.  And after eating delicious plant-based meals at a conference, I became receptive to the possibility of a meat-free diet.

Many of us initially have blocks to considering a vegan lifestyle, including fears about whether we will get all of the nutrients we need, reluctance to give up foods we enjoy, or concerns about how we will handle social and family gatherings.  How do we overcome these resistances and fears?  Most of us need a deeper reason for making this level of change.  Sometimes a health issue, something we read or see on TV, or information shared by a friend sends us into readiness to consider change.

Whatever the impetus for considering veganism, once the seeds of possibility have been planted, we need to nurture them by seeking out information to inspire and guide us.  We don’t yet need to know all the “how-to’s” but we need enough knowledge for change to feel possible and desirable.  Documentaries such as Forks Over Knives, What the Health, The Game Changers, and Vegucated, as well as books like The China Study and Food Revolution can catalyze and galvanize this discovery process. 

Awakening

Many vegans describe a process of awakening.  For some, it’s the realization that despite the confusing information in the media about nutrition, there is actually a simple answer for how to eat in a way that is healthy and nourishing, a way that makes a lot of sense.  For others, it is the realization that if we care about climate change and the environment, the most meaningful action we can take is to eliminate animal products from our diet.  And for some, it is awakening to an awareness that the whole system of how farmed animals are bred, raised, and slaughtered is incredibly inhumane.  Most of us care about animals, and are deeply concerned if we learn of abuse toward a dog or a cat, but somehow we’ve been taught to disconnect from this inhumanity when it applies to species of animals that we think of as “food.”

My awakening occurred in stages, first through watching a program about slaughterhouse workers, which increased my awareness of how meat was “produced” and the inherent violence and suffering involved.  However, for many years, I did not connect with the full scope of animal exploitation.  It felt too overwhelming.  I found myself pulled into the trance of eating in ways that were socially accepted and familiar.  Watching the documentary Earthlings dissolved any remaining ambivalence and disconnection.  Although what I saw in the film was deeply upsetting, I felt lighter, freer, and clearer afterward. It strengthened my commitment to honor my deeper knowing and values, even when it was difficult.

During this period of awakening, it can help to have support from others who are vegan, to share your discoveries and to process the feelings that come up.  There is excitement, joy, and freedom embarking on this new lifestyle, but it also can feel overwhelming and disheartening when taking in the realities of animal suffering.  Consider finding a vegan mentor or support group, such as that offered by Vegan Outreach.

Preparing for your vegan transition

When you have taken in enough information to decide you are ready to move forward, it can be helpful to set a date for making the transition.  How much time do you need?  Some people are so impacted in the Awakening stage that they literally become vegan overnight.  For others, it’s a process of taking gradual steps toward becoming more and more vegan.  This is the time to discover delicious new recipes.  Learn how to “veganize” your favorite meals, develop vegan baking skills, and try out new, healthy ingredients to stock your pantry and refrigerator.  For guidance, check out The 30 Day Vegan Challenge, Main Street Vegan, The VegNews Guide to Being a Fabulous Vegan, or The Vegan Starter Kit.

Finding your vegan groove

To stay strong in your vegan commitment, it helps to continue learning about plant-powered living. There are a multitude of resources to support you, including countless websites, on-line support groups, books, documentaries, and podcasts.   (Check out some of the resources that supported my vegan journey).  In addition, social support is key to successful, lasting lifestyle change.  Continue to build connections with other vegans, and educate non-vegan family and friends, so that they are on-board with your new way of eating.

It’s normal to have ups and downs, times of strong commitment, and times of questioning.  Have self-compassion, recognizing that it can be difficult to make a change that may be challenged by family and friends.  It takes time to learn how to adapt to the social and practical implications of this new lifestyle.

Trust that with commitment, knowledge, and support, vegan living becomes second nature.  Over time, it becomes part of our identity, and for many of us, it is also part of our contribution to the greater well-being of all beings and the planet.  It goes beyond being a diet or lifestyle, connecting us with a deep sense of meaning and purpose.

Awakening to our highest values is an act of courage and inner transformation.  We are freed from bondage to unhealthy foods as we eat life-nourishing foods.  We embark on a path of self-discovery that frees us to be our authentic selves and to discover and express what truly matters to us.  And as we do so, we contribute to a more sustainable, just, and compassionate world.

Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist, transformational coach, and vegan lifestyle educator.  Her work includes coaching those who feel called to help others, animals, and the planet, empowering them to discover and share their gifts, express themselves authentically, and live in ways that nourish body, mind, and spirit. She also writes and teaches about thriving emotionally with a plant-powered, vegan lifestyle.