How To Stay Vegan While Living Abroad

To say that I have had a love-hate relationship with food is an understatement. In my younger years, I was a textbook example of the saying “you are what you eat”. I was born with longganisa sized arms and thighs and maintained that figure long enough to earn the moniker “Tabernacles”, an allusion to my perpetually rotund tummy and cheeks (read: taba means fat in Filipino). A couple of years ago, after a life-changing, once-in-a-lifetime encounter with psychedelics, I ventured into the terrains of veganism and quit the meat cold turkey. Just like that. Needless to say, that didn’t go so well; with a sudden and rather drastic drop in my weight I didn’t hear the end of it, what with my meat-eating friends and family telling me to stop this nonsense and never look back. Now with a more enlightened mind, a clearer view of what it is I truly want out of this life, and a deeper sense of spirituality, I have decided to give veganism another shot. And I am feeling better than ever.

I don’t have to tell you how utterly difficult it is to be vegan in the land of jamon and queso. But I will say it anyway. It is incredibly hard. There are still days when the temptation grows stronger than my resolve and I reach for that bag of chocolate pralines, that tub of mint chocolate ice cream, that container of Parmesan cheese, ignoring all together that I form part of the 75% of the human population that is in fact lactose intolerant. Nevertheless, here I am, not just surviving but thriving as a vegan in the michelin-star capital of Spain, the Basque Country, no less. But how exactly?

1. Watch all the documentaries and read all the books and articles you can find on the subject matter.

Fruits for days (Photo from Reader’s Digest)

Veganism doesn’t just translate to eating plant-based food and staying away from animal products. There is plenty to learn about it. I would argue that although veganism is something that comes naturally for us, it has been buried and forgotten through heavy conditioning thanks to the influence of consumerism and capitalism. Think about it. Veganism has in some way transformed into a solution to the planetary disaster that is the meat and poultry industry when in fact we were always designed – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – to eat plants and show compassion to animals. Documentaries such as Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives, Cowspiracy, and What The Health, are just some that have opened the eyes and minds of many to this reality. Watching them (repeatedly, if possible) would be a great starting point for your new and somewhat still fragile food journey.

2. Turn your favourite food into vegan recipes. 

Sinigang, my favourite Filipino sour stew (Photo from Vegventures)

One grave mistake I made the first time I switched to a vegan diet was to denounce everything that I loved in the two decades of my life and essentially brand them as being pure evil. Direct consequences of said action were starvation and an unnecessary loss of iron. This doesn’t have to happen. In fact, one of the easiest and healthiest ways to transition into a vegan lifestyle is to keep what you love and just adapt them to meet your new needs. For instance, I absolutely love sisig, a Filipino dish made with pig’s face and egg, and basically a number of things that are just bad for you. Nowadays, I make it with extra firm tofu and no eggs, and it tastes even better knowing that I didn’t have to partake in the slaughter of innocent animals to enjoy it. You don’t have to demonize your old ways to become vegan; you just have to come to terms with the fact that you are now better and that your old ways are, too.

3. Learn about how to stay healthy while on a vegan diet. 

A useful visual guideline (photo from Pinterest)

You can be vegan and unhealthy; that is a fact. A lot of the processed food we got used to eating can be considered vegan (breakfast cereal, potato chips, you name it) but they’re not necessarily nutritious, are they? One concern that comes up a lot is if a vegan diet gives you all the vitamins and nutrients that you need (e.g. Vitamin B12, protein, iron are the main ones being disputed). You can get protein and iron from plants, probably more than you can from animals. You can get Vitamin B12 from fortified foods and supplements. The key is to be informed and not to quickly dismiss a plant-based diet as being deficient. This kind of thinking comes from the conditioning that we have been put under to believe that we need animal products to thrive, but that is just a lie we tell ourselves to justify stealing milk from a baby cow in order to produce dairy.

4. Look for health food stores and vegan restaurants in your neighborhood. 

No reason not to dine out (photo from Business Insider)

Living abroad and staying vegan can be tough especially when you don’t exactly know where to get your vegan fix, which is usually the case when you have just made the switch or have just moved abroad. Sometimes Oftentimes, the bigger, better-known supermarkets are not the best sources of  organic, whole, vegan foods so it pays to do your research and look for local brands and stores that do provide your favourite substitutes (such as the quintessential nutritional yeast). It also makes sense to have a list of restaurants that are vegan-friendly for when hunger strikes and you’re not necessarily in the mood to cook. This is also a good habit to have for when you are traveling and don’t want to mess with your diet so much while on the road. I personally love just staying in the kitchen for hours, experimenting with recipes and coming up with new ones, but there are times when I feel like I want to be inspired. This is key because it will help you stay focused and appreciate the effort that you are making to live a healthier, cruelty-free existence. It’s also nice to know and be involved in your local vegan community in this manner.