Moving to Vegan
I went vegan recently.
What prompted this? Why now, at 48 years of age?
I’m not sure. But I can tell you about possible causes and actual effects so far.
I love animals. That would have been the seed of the change. I’ve long felt bad about the treatment of animals in food production, and, you know, that we are killing them for food at all. But I was raised on the standard American diet in the standard American Midwest and I put it out of my mind. I liked meat, eggs, cheese, and milk. A lot.
I was aware of vegetarianism. It’s hard not to be. Early in my career I met someone at work who was vegetarian. I can’t remember if she ate fish. For her it may have been more about not liking meat that much. But meeting people that are different in this way makes an impression on you.
When I learned of veganism and its restrictions, I imagined it would be extremely hard to do. I recall attending a party where the hosts were vegan, and we made a giant platter of vegan sushi. It was an interesting way to learn about and be exposed to the concept. Still, it didn’t seem like something I would ever do.
I later worked at a place that had a weekly party of sorts on Friday afternoons, with food and beer and presentations and etcetera. Almost always there’d be a vegan food option. I didn’t think that much about it, but again it increased my awareness of the choice. It made it seem more natural. This is something people do. (Never mind that the vegan option usually looked meager and sad compared to the main event.)
In 2016, I listened to the audio book for Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. His description of farming practices—both traditional and industrial—horrified me. It was disturbing to confront this reality in such stark terms, but I was well-practiced at putting information like this out of my mind, and I made no changes to my diet.
I started a new job and met vegetarian and vegan coworkers on different work trips. Again with impressions, but not in a way that made me think much about changing my ways. Good impressions. They didn’t come across as preachy or annoying. I admired their principles. I listened with interest to a vegan and a vegetarian talking about things one night when we were out to a bar. The vegetarian said cheese was the biggest thing stopping them from going vegan. I thought about what it would mean to not eat cheese.
In summer 2018, I started reading Sapiens again, in text form this time. I had almost forgotten about the animal stuff and again was horrified. In my slow re-reading, I’m not sure if I reached that part before or after reading news accounts of Hurricane Florence in September, about the millions of chickens and pigs drowned, and of larger numbers of animals killed in the normal course of business. It was staggering to think about the scale of these operations.
I must have been in a receptive frame of mind when I learned in October that a new team member was vegan. After chatting a while, I suddenly decided I would try it. Slowly. With two work trips that month, I didn’t want to commit to anything immediately, but traveling would also provide a good chance to try new things. My coworker suggested I not dwell on what I’d be giving up, but to think of all the good things you can have.
(Despite the sound of all this, my work is not a den of veg<etari>anism. I just happen to work closely with most of the ones we do have, apparently.)
I started making my regular Chipotle order vegan, with sofritas, and determined that I could at least live on burrito bowls if it came to that. (I had foregone cheese in the past when trying to lose weight, and had almost never had sour cream anyway.)
My sister had been cutting meat and dairy out of her diet over a couple of years and I started talking to her about it as well. It’s helpful to have support with this kind of change. There’s a lot to learn, and I imagine it might feel lonely if no one you know is either vegan or similarly reducing their animal-based food intake. I found it helpful and reinforcing to talk about it. Your non-vegan friends and family don’t really want to hear it, just as you don’t want to hear about meat anymore. I started digging in, reading a lot on the subject.
Early on, and for some time as I got more serious about it and started counting things out or thought about what I’d be giving up, I’d get sudden pangs. Oh, no! No more M&Ms! Really?! No more Cheetos?!
With the work trips over, I decided to drop chicken first. Meat and eggs. This was the only food restriction I instituted for the rest of the year, but seemed a good choice for experiencing the lack of both a common meat and non-meat option and ingredient. It was Christmas cookie season, so this had consequences. My raised-on-a-farm Mom doesn’t fully understand what happened to my sister and me, but she’s been supportive, and even made me special orders of some favorites without eggs.
I’d experienced some of the social and logistical difficulties by this time, and it had been long enough for the initial spark of enthusiasm to fade, but it felt right to do this. I had few misgivings and wanted to keep going.
Along the way, “mistakes were made.” And cheating. I didn’t beat myself up too much about this. I ate some Halloween Snickers before realizing they included eggs, and then ate a few more after that realization. I carelessly had a potsticker without really thinking about the contents, which turned out to be chicken. I had our regular frozen pizza several times before realizing it had eggs listed as a crust ingredient. (Oh, pizza! That one was going to be hard.) But those exceptions felt small compared to my overall commitment and the choices I was making.
At the same time, I wondered how I would feel when it came to eliminating more things. Was I really going to be able to do it? How slow would I be about this?
In December, needing a new pair of shoes, I ordered “vegan” ones. A pair of Nikes that were listed by some website as vegan-friendly. It occurred to me I could rule out leather now, assuming there would be substitutes for anything I need. I still have other leather shoes and products, previously purchased. The frugal part of me enjoys that I’ve had a pair of Sorel winter boots for 30 years. I think it’s okay to keep them. Throwing them out wouldn’t change anything.
2018 turned into 2019. I stopped drinking alcohol. This wasn’t related to going vegan. Many beers are vegan. I was just drinking too much. I mention this so you may weigh as you will the unfolding tale and how much of the good stuff can be credited to the absence of certain foods and how much to the absence of alcohol.
I wanted to make other healthy changes, too. I started walking more. I had already been walking my dog and on a treadmill regularly, but now with even more dedication. I started tracking calories in order to enforce a calorie deficit. I’ve had success losing weight in the past with Weight Watchers and its points system. When I’ve been able to adhere to counting, I’ve enjoyed the sense of a scientific method.
I’m not a believer in New Year’s Resolutions, but if I happened to be doing all this with the new year… well, that was okay.
After a couple of weeks, I realized my food log was telling me I was mostly eating vegan already. I decided to cut out dairy, with a couple of asterisks for pizza and a favorite dish at one of our regular restaurants. I wasn’t sure how strict I’d be in general with going out to eat or at other people’s houses.
With my treadmill time I started streaming things. In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollen, and Forks Over Knives, about the benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet. This is where I first learned about the work of T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn and others. The ethical concern had been my prime mover in going vegan, but now I was fascinated by the nutritional and health side of things.
I watched other “vegan propaganda,” fascinated to learn more about the environmental impact of raising animals for food, and saddened to see more of the mistreatment of animals.
Within a week of watching these movies, I decided to make the switch. No more taking it slow. No asterisks.* I was feeling great eating vegan.
* Well, some asterisks. There is more to veganism than the exclusion of animal-based foods and products, and I’ll work on these areas and determine where my boundaries are.
The movies steered me to whole foods and away from the processed plant-based stuff I had been experimenting with. I enjoyed some of those things, like Field Roast wheat gluten sausages, but I’ll enjoy them less frequently now. I’m not as concerned with finding substitutes.
(I don’t see myself avoiding processed foods altogether. Cheetos may be out, but Fritos are way in.)
Good things have accompanied these changes. I went for a routine physical at the beginning of February. I last had a checkup two years before, when my cholesterol was borderline high at 203 (standard range being 0-199 mg/dL), and my triglycerides were high at 274 (standard 4-149mg/dL). Now, after a month of eating mostly vegan and not drinking, my cholesterol had fallen to 121 and triglycerides to 45. Other numbers were good, too, but those two stood out.
My weight is down, thirty pounds in the first couple of months, and overall from 220 to 185 pounds. I’ve lost weight before with exercise and counting calories in and out, but I never significantly changed my diet and would be hungry, and craving things, and always gained the weight back and more when I stopped counting.
With a (mostly) whole food, all plant-based diet, I’m not hungry all the time or even at all. I feel satisfied and have more energy. I’m enjoying the food I’m eating and I (mostly) don’t miss the things I’ve given up.
It’s possible I’ve joined a cult, as some people think of this way of life. I see these words I’m writing and they are the same words I hear from people in those movies. Satisfied. More energy. But they are true.
I’ve been surprised to hear criticism that veganism is a fad diet. I would never have thought so, but this accusation may be a good sign that more people are doing it so that it appears faddish to the accusers.
I’m still counting calories because I’m impatient to lose more weight sooner, but I think I’ll be able to switch to maintenance mode and not have to scrupulously count everything. For what it’s worth in anecdotal diet results, with a sample size of one person, my counting tells me about 75% of my calories are coming from carbohydrates, with the remainder split about equally between protein and fat.
My primary motivation in being vegan continues to be ethical, but the health and environmental considerations have helped reinforce my commitment and contribute to good feelings about the whole enterprise.
I recommend this article by Yuval Noah Harari in The Guardian, covering some of the same ground from Sapiens: “Industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history.”