I’ve been vegan for nearly a decade—and only cheated once. Last year, in the duty-free shop in Oslo, I got a small bar of my favorite Norwegian milk chocolate and sucked on two squares, savoring them in a way that would make Cupid blush. (Yeah, of course I ended up eating the whole damn bar.) Even though no one knew about my transgression other than random strangers in an airport, I felt incredibly guilty about it. The ensuing acid reflux on a turbulent, eight-hour transatlantic flight was my penance to the vegan gods.

Still, once in eight years—that’s a pretty damn good track record, right?

I wanted to be vegan for years before I finally took the plunge; I care about animal welfare, the environment, and my health, but thought I would absolutely fail out of Veganism 101 due to my love of all things cheese. Back then, I loved cheese—ate it in my salads, on taco night, as a late-night snack. Stinky bleu, crumbly feta, sharp cheddar… it’s delicious, right?

I forget exactly what happened the day I decided to go from vegetarian to vegan; I think I ate too much feta before snowboarding and threw up off of a chairlift or something. It wasn’t cute. Anyway, I never went back to cheese. Perhaps a large part of that was due to feeling so sick, that my body had had it with dairy. Strangely enough, after the first two weeks of being vegan, I stopped missing cheese, and my cravings for it disappeared. These days, there are many amazing cheese alternatives for those who do miss it.

When I did decide to go vegan, I was living in the mountain town of Truckee, California, where there weren’t many vegan options. Still, I knew from day one that existing on junk food wasn’t an option. I figured that if I was going to do it, I’d do it right.

So I went raw vegan, cold turkey.

I prepared everything I ate, paid strict attention to ingredients, and learned everything I possibly could about veganism. At first, I felt better than I ever had before: My acid reflux went away (I don’t know for sure, but I suppose I had some type of food allergy, probably to all the delicious cheese I’d been eating). I dropped a dress size, which looked healthy on me, and I got visible abs for the first time since I’d been a teenager. I had boundless energy, a clear mind, and a zest for cashews. Cashews became my substitution for anything dairy based that I used to eat. Missing cheese? There are cashews for that. Key lime pie? There are cashews for that. Need more cashews? There are cashews for that.

My world became consumed by being vegan, experimenting with recipes, making vegan ice cream cake for an ex’s birthday—a process that took 24 hours from start to serve, and that no one knew was vegan until I told them.

I decided that healthy living is about finding a balance in a world of dietary extremes.

At first, this was all well and good, but soon, I realized that my social life was suffering quite a bit. Eating out when you’re the only one of your friends who is a raw vegan usually means being limited to plates of lettuce topped with sprinklings of social awkwardness. Family get-togethers become basically impossible. And being raw vegan takes so much time: Sometimes it felt like all I did was meal prep. There were always jars of nuts and legumes soaking in water around the kitchen, juicers that needed to be cleaned, zucchini noodles waiting to be grated (and occasionally stolen by an opportunistic pup).

I felt like I was missing out.

Around this time, I impulsively moved to Brooklyn, which is basically vegan heaven, packed with vegan fast food, vegan diners, and absolutely no need to cook—amazing. Deep-fried vegan food at places like Foodswings and Champs became my bread-and-faux-butter. I was on a mission to eat at every vegan restaurant in the city, and I hadn’t realized I’d missed “comfort food” until I started eating it again. Screw handfuls of raw cashews: I could have burgers, sausages, breakfast burritos… the options felt endless. Large plates of delicious (yet caloric, nutritionally void) food became my everything. I went up two dress sizes within the first year.

I wasn’t healthy. I was tired, sluggish, and none of my clothes fit. My skin was looking kind of blotchy, and my hair lost luster. My mood was also off, which is weird for me—I’m usually pretty happy-go-lucky. I stopped exercising. The energy and motivation just weren’t there.

One night, I was sitting on my couch watching Seinfeld in my underwear, nursing a hangover, snacking on a big plate of nachos topped with fried “chick’n” and sweet potato fries dipped in chipotle “mayo,” and I had what must have been a tofu-induced out-of-body experience: I got a good, solid look at myself and realized that this was just not a healthy way to live. Once in a while, it’s fine to indulge, but eating this way all the time just wasn’t healthy.

That day, I decided that healthy living is about finding a balance in a world of dietary extremes.

I began eating like a normal, healthy vegan: I made a lot of Thai coconut curry and steamed veggies and ordered a lot of vegan sushi when I was out. These days, I won’t deprive myself of the odd craving for pizza or chocolate chip cookies, but I also try to not eat junk food every day. I prepare my own food when I have the time and eat raw if I have a day off. I’ve decided that at least one meal a day should be green, and I eat organic whenever possible. I’ve cut down on soy-based foods and have tried to remember to eat fruit.

I have ultimately gone back up one healthy size, and I know it’s well worth it—I feel great and I’m a hell of a lot more fun than my raw vegan size! Constantly scrutinizing every mouthful of food takes away from quality of life. I’m more relaxed, happier, balanced, and I look and feel great.

Here are a few of my tips and tricks, as a seasoned veteran of veganism who’s lived at every point on the scale from raw vegan to junk food vegan, to get you started on a healthy, balanced vegan lifestyle.

Tips and tricks for going vegan

1. Seamless is a total temptress, but it’s not a great idea, wallet- or health-wise, so set a limit on your ordering. Find a few easy, fast meals that work for you if you’re in a time-bind: For instance, you can throw some tomato sauce on sourdough or a tortilla, top with Daiya mozz and fresh veggies, and chuck it into the toaster oven for a few minutes. Voi-freaking-la.

2. Don’t be scared of healthy fats—they can keep you full and, in moderation, they’re awesome for you! Foods packed with healthy fats, like avocado, nuts, legumes, and olives not only taste delicious but are good for you. If you’re an avid food diary keeper or just pay attention to your fat gram intake, know that not all fats are the same. Fat from avocados is way better than fat from fried foods.

3. Keep raw almonds around. Whenever I’ve gained a little holiday weight, I have a handful of raw almonds every day for a week or two. For me, that gets rid of the bloat, gives me energy, and keeps me sated, so I end up ditching those couple of rogue pounds.

4. Get your spice game on lock. It’s actually silly how many spices I have. For me, the necessary ones to have on hand are Himalayan pink salt, garlic, black pepper, cayenne, turmeric, cumin, sage, and rosemary. These can be used in a lot of different combinations and add flavor without adding calories.

5. Cauliflower is awesome. Yummy, versatile, and packed with about equal parts protein and fiber—as well as plenty of vitamins and minerals—cauliflower can be thrown into any meal as a side or even a main. It’s also an incredible replacement for starch. Garlic rosemary cauliflower mash is one of my favorite sides, and cauliflower rice is an easy addition to a Thai coconut curry.

6. Try not to rely too heavily on soy. Relying too much on a food that contains so many phytoestrogens may not be great for you, and there are plenty of other complete proteins that are also vegan.

7. Vitamixes save lives (not to mention pots and pans). It’s true that a Vitamix isn’t easy on the wallet, but if you can afford one, they’re an amazing investment, especially for a vegan. From raw cashew cheese to an all-in-one-go tortilla soup, it’s time-saving, space-saving, and the possibilities are endless. Check out The Minimalist Vegan for great vegan Vitamix recipes.

8. Remember, living a life in which you don’t treat yourself sucks. Want a cookie? Go for it. Indulge. If you never eat anything you love, you’ll get really cranky, and your friends won’t want to be around you as much—not that I’m talking from experience.

9. But also remember that junk food is junk food. Just because a food is vegan doesn’t inherently mean it’s healthy. And yeah, you can convince yourself that vegan junk food is slightly less bad than its animal-based counterpart, but that still doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to eat every day. Personally, I think it’s good to pick a time when it’s totally OK to feast on loaded nachos, a basket of fries, a vegan slam… however you want to throw down. Allow yourself treats—but think of them that way, not as a regular part of your daily life.

Whatever your lifestyle, balance is key. Veganism isn’t as scary or difficult as it sounds, especially in recent years—we have tons of options for substitutions, and people are way more understanding than they used to be. It’s not 2010 when I told my mom I was a vegan and she took me to a fish restaurant. (Thanks anyway, Mom. You tried.

Kari Langslet is a seasoned vegan, impulsive adventurer, traveler, animal lover. You’ll usually find her at a dive bar playing Jenga with her dog or cheering on Chelsea FC at a rude hour for a weekend morning. Stalk her on Instagram @karilangslet.