What if I told you there was one simple thing you could do to become a healthier, happier, more compassionate human being?
I can’t overstate how much my life has changed since I went vegan in April 2011. I was already relatively healthy as a longtime vegetarian, but I feel way more vibrant now that I no longer consume milk, eggs, or cheese. If you’d like to read more about my own path to veganism, read The Epiphany That Came in Trickles.
What you eat isn’t just about you. Your diet affects your family and friends, your planet, and everything else that lives on it. Veganism has taught me that my life is much bigger than “just” me. No one is perfect — but day by day, in any given moment, we can do our best to be more compassionate.
Notice your reaction as you read the following Q&A, because it’s normal to feel a certain degree of internal resistance. Most of us were taught from the time we were weaned that animal foods are healthy for us, and it’s profoundly upsetting to realize that such a deeply held conviction could be flat-out wrong. Your parents and grandparents, like mine, were only passing down what they’d learned from their parents. I won’t try to convince you of anything here; I just want to offer you some facts, and I hope you’ll make space in your mind and heart to consider them.
What is veganism?
Veganism is a lifestyle and philosophy avoiding animal products of any kind. Along with very serious concerns regarding personal health and environmental sustainability, veganism promotes a sensitivity to the ways in which humans exploit animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and scientific research.
No milk, eggs, or cheese? Isn’t that extreme?
The dairy industry would like you to think so! I reframe the words “drastic” and “extreme” in this blog post. Once I realized how harmful industrial dairy farming is towards animals and the planet (not to mention how bad dairy is for our health), I did not find it difficult to cut milk, eggs, and cheese out of my diet.
But how do you get your protein???
To show you how easy it is to get enough protein from plant sources exclusively, I logged everything I ate for one day, tallied up the protein content, and blogged about it here.
Eating meat is natural, isn’t it? Aren’t we at the top of the food chain?
Compare your canine teeth to those of a lion, tiger, or bear, and you’ll see quite an obvious difference. Human teeth are designed for chewing vegetation. (On the other hand, check out this documented case of a vegetarian lioness!)
I’m a vegetarian. Aren’t I doing enough?
It’s awesome that you don’t eat animals, but most vegans would say that the way cows and chickens are exploited for their “secretions” is almost as horrible as killing them outright. Furthermore, when those animals start producing less milk and fewer eggs, what do you think happens to them? You’d like to think they’re taken to a farm animal sanctuary to live out their remaining years, but that just isn’t the truth. Even if you only ever purchase organic dairy products from local farmers who don’t kill their animals when they get older (and let’s face it: this is a scenario too ideal for the real world), there is still your personal health to consider. There is a significant body of scientific research linking dairy consumption to cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other diseases. Get yourself a copy of The China Study, and in the meantime read this.
But I’m addicted to cheese!
I used to eat a lot of cheese. A year or so before I went vegan, though, I started feeling queasy after indulging in my favorite kind (Cotswold cheddar with chives). I felt uneasy, but I couldn’t quite articulate it yet. As I was transitioning to veganism, I learned that the casomorphin in cheese is a type of opiate (as in opium, just as “casomorphin” is to morphine) — which means you aren’t actually kidding when you say you’re addicted! For more reasons to give up dairy, see my post on cheese addiction.
Is veganism compatible with my religion?
Try turning that question around: is your religion compatible with veganism? Do your spiritual teachers practice compassion in an authentic way, or do they overlook the plight of animals used for food, entertainment, clothing, and unnecessary scientific research when they speak of “God’s love” and “do unto others”? I’ve written more about this issue in a blog post on veganism and Christianity inspired by Keith Akers’s The Lost Religion of Jesus and Rynn Berry’s Food for the Gods.
I have a family history of heart disease (or cancer, or diabetes). Will cutting out animal products really improve my health?
There is a mountain of evidence that says YES! Do yourself a huge favor and read T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study. Also, consider the likelihood that your “family history” or “genetic predisposition” actually comes down to your whole family consuming the same unhealthy diet. By going vegan, you take responsibility for your own health, and you’ll be way healthier for it.
I only eat organic meat and chicken, so I don’t eat or drink anything that came out of a factory farm. These animals are well treated. Aren’t I doing enough?
First of all, words like “free range,” “cage free,” and “natural” are marketing ploys. We’d all like to think the FDA exercises strict oversight, but even livestock industry insiders admit this isn’t true. (Read this column by John Robbins for a clear explanation and quotes from those who have worked within the industry.)
Now let’s talk about words like “well treated” and “humane.” As I wrote in The “Happy Meat” Myth, I (as a human) define “humane” as being treated in a way I myself would feel comfortable with. Would you define “well treated” as “we will name you and feed you and sometimes pet you before we someday kill you”? A cow, pig, or chicken may suffer more acutely on a factory farm than on a “small family farm,” but ultimately there is no difference in treatment. Killing is killing.
All animals feel pain and fear. They want to live (and live happily!) just as much as we do, even if they can’t tell us so in human language. Ultimately this issue is about you, and just how honest you are willing to be with yourself — are you truly concerned about how these creatures are treated? Or do you pretty much only care about how they taste?
Why are you so concerned about animals when there are so many people suffering all over the world? Aren’t there way more important problems than animal cruelty—like war, genocide, poverty, drug addiction, pollution, and so on?
I address this question in this blog post. In The World Peace Diet, Will Tuttle makes an impassioned argument that peace on Earth begins on our plates — and if this strikes you as hippie-dippy nonsense, check out this article describing what happened when a group of incarcerated criminals went on a vegan diet. What if this experiment were replicated in prisons and schools across the country? Do you think the nightly news might be more pleasant to watch?
As for famine and poverty, you’ve no doubt heard it said that were the food resources reserved for livestock used to feed needy humans instead, there would be more than enough food for everyone on this planet. Consider a ballooning world population and projected water shortages, and you’ll see why some experts are predicting that we may be forced to adopt a vegetarian diet by the year 2050. Veganism is the diet of the future, so why wait forty years when you could start living a healthier, more environmentally responsible life today?
Still, people are starving all over the world. Why shouldn’t hungry people in third-world countries take food wherever they can find it?
As my friend Jamey said, “When we talk about adopting a vegan diet, we’re not talking about Himalayan goat-herders. They’re doing the best they can with what they’ve got. But we in the first world can do better.”
It seems like a vegan diet is much more expensive than the typical American diet.
The meat and dairy industries are heavily subsidized by the U.S. government, but your tax dollars aren’t the half of the “hidden costs” of meat. How much will it cost to keep you in the hospital when you have a heart attack? Or if you need cancer treatments? Look at the big picture and that Big Mac is anything but cheap.
It’s true that your grocery bill will add up quickly if you regularly buy faux meat products and Coconut Bliss ice cream from Whole Foods. But beans, rice, legumes, and vegetables are very affordable! If you’re watching your budget, a great resource is Ellen Jaffe Jones’s Eat Vegan on $4 a Day.
If a vegan diet is so good for my health and for the environment, then why hasn’t my doctor recommended it? Why doesn’t everybody already know about it?
We tend to forget that our doctors are ordinary people, liable to the same prejudices and mental blocks as anybody else; furthermore, I’ve heard from Dr. Rob Ostfeld and the work of other physicians that med students receive a shockingly inadequate education when it comes to nutrition. Many doctors are embracing the benefits of a plant-based diet, however, and you might want to check out books by Dean Ornish, Joel Fuhrman, John McDougall, and others. If your doctor is skeptical, encourage him or her to read The China Study as well!
As for why we don’t hear more about the benefits of veganism, keep in mind that there are extremely powerful economic interests on the side of the status quo; as Ellen Jaffe Jones says, “Nobody’s getting rich off broccoli.” “Big Agra,” fast food mega-companies like McDonald’s, and the pharmaceutical corporations make outrageous profits on unhealthy food and sustained illness, and their influence on our government is such that we are not being protected and informed as we should.
If I go vegan, do I really have to give up wool? I understand giving up leather, but why wool?
Simply put, the wool industry is the mutton industry, and it isn’t as earth-friendly as you’d think, either. (For a more detailed explanation, see vegan menswear designer Joshua Katcher’s FAQ.) As for what to wear instead, there’s a fantastic vegan clothing company called Vaute Couture, based in Brooklyn, and they offer really warm and snuggly winter coats and other fashionable, well made clothing. I blogged about my new Vaute Couture coat here. Also see my Resources page for where to buy cruelty-free shoes, clothes, handbags, and cosmetics.
If veganism is so great, then why have I met so many former vegans?
Some former vegans will admit they didn’t take the time to design a healthy, fresh, and nutrient-rich plant-based diet for themselves. (And by “design,” I mean “eat a big salad. Eat some nuts. Eat an apple. Take a B-complex vitamin.” As Dr. Campbell writes in The China Study, as long as you are eating a variety of wholefoods, you are getting all the nutrients you need.) With a lack of planning, it’s all too easy to fall into mindless eating habits. French fries and potato chips are technically vegan! Also, I know and have heard of former vegans who quit because they lost too much weight. Increase your calorie intake and that problem is solved. Same goes for athletes; I don’t believe anyone who says they can’t train without animal products when there are amazing vegan athletes out there like Carl Lewis, Brendan Brazier, Robert Cheeke, and a long list at GreatVeganAthletes.com.
Also, people who focus only on the personal health aspect often don’t stay vegan for “the long haul.” They smell a roasting chicken, their mouths start to water, and they think, “What’s one bite of chicken going to hurt?” Sometimes they claim that since they crave that chicken, their body must “need” it. (Registered dietician Ginny Messina responds to that claim in this blog post.) These erstwhile vegans have forgotten about the chicken — the animal, that is — an animal that doesn’t see itself merely as food for someone else.
Where can I find motivation and support as I transition to a vegan lifestyle?
First of all, I am SO PSYCHED for you! The months after I decided to go vegan were incredibly exciting, and I hope your experience is just as joyful. You’ve got two priorities right now: educating yourself and finding your community, both online and in real life. Meetup.com is a great way to connect with vegans in your area (for example, I’m in Boston and the Boston Vegan group is very active). Many social groups (like Vegan Drinks) are on Facebook as well, and you can find out about upcoming events just by checking your feed. Annual events like the Vegetarian Summerfest are a great way to make friends, learn from amazing authors and speakers, and find out about new products. Even smaller cities are hosting such festivals these days. As with anything else you want to know, Google can be your best friend. Seek out whatever kind of support you need, and I promise you will find it.
As for education, check my Resources page for a list of books, podcasts, and websites I’ve found particularly useful. Take the time to enlighten yourself, because the deeper you venture into the truth, the less you’ll crave the animal foods you used to take comfort in. There’s real, profound comfort to be found in compassionate eating, and you can share what you learn (including fun new recipes!) with your friends and family so they’ll better understand your decision.
And of course, if you’re looking for someone to hold your hand (metaphorically or literally!), I’m a Main Street Vegan®-certified vegan lifestyle coach and educator. Visit my Learn With Me page for more information on coaching and workshops. If you ever have a questions, please leave a comment on the blog or drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you!