Thoughts on Living Vegan
Veganism often leaves people perplexed (as in “How do you get your protein?”) or thinking how strange that animal products (i.e. milk, eggs, ice cream, yogurt, cheese, steaks, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken breasts, pork chops, and the like) are not a part of my diet. To these people, I want to say “I understand” because I, too used to think vegans (and I used to pronounce the word “veg-ans” with a soft “g”) were extremists, outliers, and generally don’t fit in with the rest of the world. The truth is they don’t but it’s not because vegans are weird but because vegans have chosen to acknowledge, confront, and reject the horrific cruelty involved in putting animal products on a breakfast, lunch, and dinner plate, or in a bowl or glass.
Everyone knows there are slaughter houses but the realities of feedlots, poultry sheds, battery cages, production houses, gestation crates, veal crates, and factory farms (where thousands and thousands of animals are kept in deplorable conditions and fattened with grains before being slaughtered) are hidden from the public. In fact, most states have Ag-gag laws which make the exposure of conditions and animal abuse a criminal or civil act of disobedience. But, the real crime is that people don’t want to know; they don’t want to acknowledge what is going on because if they did, they would have to confront their belief system and make a decision to either support these industries by continuing to buy these products or say “no, I won’t be a part of it.”
Switching from a diet high in meat and plant fats to one without is extremely difficult because the American diet emphasizes meat, dairy, and processed foods. Witness the “I got milk” ads which tout milk as a source of calcium (we’re the only mammal who consumes another mammal’s milk and are able to do so because the calf is taken from the cow) and the cultural custom of serving protein in the form of meat, poultry, or fish with nearly every meal. The simple truth is that many of these foods are killing us. 2 out of 3 Americans are overweight while 1 out of 3 are obese which contributes to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and other illnesses. Simply stated, we’re eating too much of the wrong foods.
When most people switch from a diet filled with animal fats and adopt a plant-based diet that is low in vegetable fats – the body responds positively. Cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight drops while blood sugar stabilizes in many patients. Some people find they no longer need statins and other medications because their bodies are able to do what they were designed to do on a herbivore diet (we humans have not been outfitted with long canines to hunt, kill and devour).
Many people, upon learning that someone is vegan, assume the diet has been adopted for nutritional reasons or to ensure a long life. This may or may not be true. For me, being vegan has very little to do with longevity and everything to do with how I feel and the energy I have on a day-to-day basis. Although I was never much of meat eater, I did enjoy milk based products – butter, ice cream, yogurt, and cheese. Rich, creamy and delicious is how I would describe these foods. Do I miss them? Yes, but I feel better (both emotionally and physically) knowing that I am not supporting the dairy industry. Do I mess up sometimes? Yes, I do.
Many people will argue that a plant-based diet is bland, lacks flavor and variety but there couldn’t be anything further from the truth. Unfamiliar foods will seem strange (think about a dining experience in another country) so if you haven’t tasted or learned how to make flavorful plant-based foods, the idea of eating these foods may sound unappetizing. Contrary to public opinion, vegans don’t live on salad and tofu. We consume lots of grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits, and vegetables and we use herbs and spices to enhance the flavor of these foods. We eat moist rich cakes (made with nut-based milks, maple syrup instead of refined sugar, cocoa, nuts, and lots of spices) that are indistinguishable in flavor from cakes made with butter, eggs, and cream. The secret is learning how to incorporate these foods and prepare them so that each meal will leave you satisfied and happy. With that in mind, here are suggestions to get you started:
- Add pesto to your diet. Pesto – a blend of basil, olive oil, and sea salt in its simplest form – adds an enormous amount of flavor to pasta and vegetable dishes.
- Add lemons and oranges to your menu in the form of zest. The zest of a lemon or orange adds a terrific tangy flavor to food. But a zester (Microplane makes a fantastic one) and add fresh zest to grilled vegetables, baked goods, grain and rice dishes, salads, dressings, sauces, and fruit salads.
- Visit a really good vegan restaurant to taste delicious vegan food and see how they do it. I often take my husband to vegan restaurants and although he calls himself a “flexitarian” – meaning he is flexible and eats everything – he has often enjoyed the vegan dishes and said “I could eat this again.” To find these restaurants, use on-line sites like www.happycow.com.
- Watch “Forks Over Knives” – a movie about a cardiologist’s decision to choose a plant-based diet and how we all should follow this path to avoid undergoing the surgical knife.
- Start gradually with adding one or two plant-based meals to your dinner menu every week. Consult websites that emphasize few ingredients and easy steps (www.HappyHerbivore.com, www.chefchloe.com, www.thugkitchen.com).
- Buy six cookbooks (Vegan Chocolate by Fran Costigan, Great Good Dairy Free Desserts by Fran Costigan, Chloe’s Vegan Italian Kitchen by Chloe Coscarelli, Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Thug Kitchen, and any of the Happy Herbivore cookbooks) to start and use them every single day. Fran Costigan’s cookbooks showed me that I can have my cake and my plant-based diet without giving up the rich flavor of desserts. For years, I claimed that I could never be a vegan because I “couldn’t” give up Levain’s Chocolate Chip Cookie (a scrumptious cookie made on the upper west side in NYC) but Fran Costigan’s cookbooks convinced me otherwise. Now I can’t live without “Chocolate Cake to Live For“- a rich, moist dark chocolate cake featured in Vegan Chocolate.
- Incorporate soups into your diet. There are hundreds of low-sodium soup mixes with spice flavor packets on the market. Simply add low-sodium vegetable broth, a cooked pasta, rice or grain, and whatever vegetables are in the refrigerator, and a meal is ready in less than 30 minutes.
- Buy nut-based milks and use in place of cow milk. My personal favorites include cashew, hemp, and almond milk but there are also many others to choose from.
- Buy a container of nutritional yeast – a nutty, cheesy yellowish food product in the form of flakes that can be sprinkled on pasta, vegetables, soups, and more. Nutritional yeast is deactivated yeast.
- Have a bowl of diced fruit always in the refrigerator to snack on. Choose watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, kiwi, oranges, nectarines, grapes, and add sliced bananas before serving. Sprinkle granola on top for a crunchy addition.
- Incorporate oats and mushrooms into your diet. Oats in their natural state have so many uses beyond oatmeal and are loaded with protein and fiber. Ground oats (to make oat flour) can often be used in baking and cooking in place of wheat flour. Mushrooms add an earthy, meaty flavor to stir-fry’s, casseroles, veggie burgers, lasagna, and sauces.
- Read up on grains – barley, buckwheat, bulgur, corn, farro, freekeh, kamut, millet, quinoa, rice, rye, sorghum, spelt, teff, triticale, and more) and add these tasty grains to dishes.
- Add avocados to your diet. The avocado is not limited to guacamole but can be used in salads, mashed on sandwiches and toast, as a thickener in recipes, and is delicious raw with a sprinkle of salt. Although an apple a day is great, an avocado a day is even better.
- Use protein-rich pastas made from lentils and beans. These pastas come in penne, fettucine, rotini and more and are packed with protein (20-25 grams per serving).
- Read labels. There are many vegan junk foods which are as nutritionally dense as other junk foods. Just because food has “vegan” stamped on it, doesn’t make it nutritious. Read, read, read.
Most people become vegan by way of a journey which was the case with me. Mine started with taste (I preferred fruits, vegetables, and grains), moved to nutrition (there is no doubt a plant-based diet low in oils is healthier than a diet that includes meat, processed foods, and oils), and ended with compassion (I don’t want to support the livestock and dairy industries). Small steps make a big difference. Progress not perfection. To borrow a phrase: If you can live well without causing unnecessary harm, why wouldn’t you?