Tuesday, March 3, 2009

A couple of years ago, I tested out being vegan and wrote the article below.

When I tell the people close to me that I am going to be a vegan, I get the same response, “But Why?” This question is usually followed by, “Isn’t being a vegetarian enough?” Maybe it is for some, but for me my curiosity led me to want to find out why somebody would become a vegan. I always thought veganism was for those die hard people whose compassion must be comparable to that of Mother Teresa or a lifestyle for those people who aren’t that big into eating in the first place. I wanted to know first hand how much of a challenge it is to live with such a restrictive diet that you have to read every label to make sure there isn’t any hidden animal derived ingredients. I also wanted to know if the benefits of eating mostly veggies, and eating ethically would be worth the devotion. I decided for the next 48 days I would become a strict vegan.

For those not familiar with veganism, the Vegan Society defines it as ways of living that seek to exclude, as far as is possible and practical, all forms of exploitation of animals for food, clothing or any other purpose. This means eliminating the use of animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs, leather, and wool. I thought of the experience as nothing more than a change in diet, like trying one of those horrible weight loss diets that restrict intake of certain kinds of food. I knew the results would be different than losing weight it might even change my worldview and I was up for the challenge.

Before my experience I considered myself a confused vegetarian. I never read labels, I ate omelettes and sushi, and I was fine with meat cooked next to my vegetarian foods. I knew from the beginning that taking on this challenge would be more than just a little difficult for me. I could rattle off a list of cheeses I ate on a daily basis from goat cheese in my salad to cheddar on my veggie burgers. Not to mention most of my favorite foods had some kind of dairy product in it.

From the beginning my experiment was complicated. I discovered that the cafĂ© I stopped by every morning on my route to work didn’t have any vegan-baked goods. The croissant had butter, their bagels were made with eggs, and muffins had both ingredients. I was shocked that the homemade granola bars weren’t even vegan (they contained honey) an ingredients I never had to think about not eating before. I went hungry on my way to work until I got to a vending machine and carefully selected trail mix, one of the only choices of vegan snacks.

On another occasion my boyfriend and I tried our hand at finding vegan food at some of our favorite restaurants. After ruling out many eateries based on their menus, we decided to play it safe by going to a local pub with veggie burgers as an option. I felt a bit annoying when asking the waitress what were the ingredients and if they could make sure that my veggie burger was cooked away from the real burgers. I learned quickly that humor helped when asking these questions. Through consulting many books on veganism and practice it became easier to make conscious decisions of what to order. After awhile, eating out wasn’t a problem and it wasn’t that difficult to ask the wait staff to tweak the menu a bit, it just meant I would need to leave a better tip.

My first realization of physical change had to do with my appetite. I began to find myself hungry every hour. The hunger would begin at work after my lunch of a salad, quinoa (protein packed grain) or sandwich with fake turkey and vegannaise (non-dairy mayonnaise substitute). To fix the problem, I decided to incorporate snacking into my diet. I ate Lara bars; certified organic and vegan bars made from whole nuts, and fruits. (pecan pie is my favorite) This didn’t help. The hunger that I felt was different then any other feeling I experienced. My stomach felt empty even after I ate. I decided to consult a friend who had been vegan for nearly nine years. His rule to vegan eating was adding fat to everything. One of the great benefits of being a vegan is being able to eat all the fat I wanted to. Vegan fat isn’t like regular fats from cheese or meat; it’s actually derived from whole foods and is good for you. To get rid of that awful hollow feeling my vegan advisor said to add more of these good fats like almond butter, avocado, and olive oils to my diet. After I took his advice my hunger problem went away, plus my energy level peaked. I was able to go through my day with more energy than I had for a very long time. I also felt the food I was eating affected my mood. I noticed in the mornings I wasn’t grumpy as I usually am when I have to wake up early for work and I felt more refreshed even though I didn’t change my sleeping patterns.

Near the end of my experience, I had a dinner party and invited my closest and most adventurous friends over to enjoy a non-diary eggplant parmesan and for dessert a vegan chocolate cake. My vegan casserole was an instant failure. The alternative cheese made mostly of soy didn’t even compare to real cheese. It turned out that the cheese even after an hour of baking wouldn’t melt. It just remained stringy and tasted bland and rubbery. Although the main course wasn’t worthwhile my three guests delightfully ate all of the vegan chocolate cake. My daring non-vegan friends sipped many of my specialty drink, vegan White Russians (with soymilk). Even if the vegan dinner party didn’t win over my friends into becoming vegans, I still view the party as a success.

I realized from my experience as a vegan that I became more creative in my restrictive diet. I believe that I fashioned more delicious and inventive dishes than I ever did before. Being so limited in my food choices had caused me to be inspired and discover endless recipes. I also felt better, my energy level remained at a high the entire time I was vegan. Although, there are plenty of benefits from being a vegan I decided I wouldn’t continue with it. I found being a vegan to be isolating from my friends and family members. I was invited out less to social gatherings mostly because family and friends were afraid that I wouldn’t have anything to eat or would have to keep justifying over and over with others my reasons for being vegan. I realized it was a difficult lifestyle especially if you are the only one in a social group doing it or not living in a large city with access to vegan food. I also decided I don’t want to be limited in my diet. Being vegan may not be right for me, but I have incorporated much of the values into my lifestyle such as eating more plant-based foods and less animal derived foods. I will still go out for a slice of pizza once in awhile, even though on a larger scale I’ve dramatically cut back my dairy intake. I have a new found admiration for vegans and their dedication for this lifestyle. I am not ruling out becoming a vegan in the future, but for right now I am content knowing where my food comes from and eating more consciously.
Tonight, I am ushering at the WITNESS event with
Toni Morrison, Homi K. Bhabha, and music by Yo-Yo Ma.