My History with Vegetarianism and Veganism
As long as I can remember, I’ve had a strained relationship with food. I don’t have many food memories stored up, but I remember loving pizza, fruit, cereal, and burgers. I started gaining weight in 3rd or 4th grade. It wasn’t so much that I craved food, but that I was eating junk. I had no idea how to eat properly, and enjoyed chips and candy frequently. By 7th grade, I had repeated stomach problems so severe that I was taken to a doctor who told me to not eat red meat or fried foods. Ever. My stomach issues cleared up. I was able to mostly eliminate red meat and no longer ate fried foods. My diet was not actually improved; I was only doing the minimum required to not be in pain. The candies, sodas, and other foods continued.
When I was in middle school I became friends with a kid from a family that was vegan. He also didn’t eat wheat, salt, or sugar. Eating at his house felt like being in a different country, and my parents certainly didn’t know how to feed him at our house. Things were always awkward between him and most other people. A lot of ridicule was thrown his way, and behind his back he was referred to pejoratively as “veggie boy.” I defended him, but in my mind the family’s vegan lifestyle was akin to a minority religion. He was always thin and short, traits that were attributed to his diet. Vegetarianism and veganism were seem as extreme in Oklahoma culture. The official state meal, adopted in 1988, consists of fried okra, cornbread, barbecue pork, squash, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicked fried steak, pecan pie, and black-eyed peas. While one could make a strong argument for at least part of this being designated “Oklahoma Historical State Meal,” as a current meal it definitely marginalizes plant-based lifestyles.
I started to form my own opinions on eating meat when I was in high school. Veganism didn’t seem right, or healthy. My friend seemed to be malnourished, so I made the assumptions everyone else had made. Still, the idea of eating animals seemed increasingly in conflict with my love of animals. Love of animals is a misunderstood term, and one that has been a part of who I am for most of my life. I liked to read about animal behavior in encyclopedias, National Geographic magazines, and in my subscriptions to National and International Wildlife magazines. I was hooked on natural history and plastered the walls of my bedroom with images from magazines of the animals I liked the most — cats, insects, giraffes, gorillas, dolphins, peacocks, dinosaurs, and many others. I was starting to see them as fellow inhabitants of the same planet and that belief made it harder and harder to want to see parts of animals cooked up for me to consume. I wasn’t making a full connection. It’s easy to forget what the thin round brown disc on a burger actually is. It’s almost designed to prevent knowing. I would go back and forth on my willingness to eat animals for a few years. I found it easier in college; the student union offered a veggie patty that I could have with my Josta soda and I could get a bean burrito or veggie sub for dinner. Feeding myself allowed me to eschew the animal foods that were generally consumed by other family members. I still wasn’t terribly strict with myself, allowing myself to enjoy the McDonald’s where my roommate worked.
I drifted away from these values after college. I have always been an eager people pleaser, and when I started spending time with a group of new friends, I didn’t want to seem odd. Enjoying the meats they cooked allowed me to fit in better. I would still try to be mostly plant-based, but did not turn down animal meals either. I still had issues with eating the animals, but I was more than willing to trade in my personal beliefs to make sure my friends were comfortable. It’s the only way in which I feel Southern.
Honoring My Values
In 2005, I took an opportunity from my dad to visit Alaska. He had grown up there and I was eager to see it. I was working on a novel based on his life at the time, so it seemed logical that I should go see where it all began. A friend went with me for the first week and I would stay a full month. My dad had found two places for me to stay, both at the homes of high school friends of his. At the end of the first week, I had decided I was moving, and my friend was eager to join me. She returned and orchestrated the move while I continued to stay and look for a job. The second two weeks of my vacation were spent housesitting for a couple who are vagan. Even with my history, I found it off-putting. I would go through their pantry and cabinets looking at all the unusual foods. It was not what I was used to. And I didn’t fully embrace the experience, as I should have. I took pleasure in buying fried chicken and eating it in the living room, a secret act of defiance. I’m still sad about that situation.
After a little over a year in Alaska, I was alone and starting to really reflect on the person I really wanted to be and learning how to focus on myself while I developed relationships with a newly emerging group of friends. During that first year, I was eating meat at least once a day. I didn’t feel right. I was having trouble staying happy. 2006 was coming to a close when I had the epiphany that I could no longer eat meat. I was eating lamb at the time and I could feel it in my mouth as I masticated; it was no longer food. The lamb had been alive, every bit as much as I am alive, and it certainly did not belong inside my body. It should have been allowed to mature, to be free, to become a sheep. I had been a part of that creature’s death, the demand that required it to be killed and included in my meal. I could see its little lamb face in my mind. It was adorable, to be sure, but I was more struck by the audacity of eating another creature because I wanted to, disregarding its family and community. Don’t kid yourself, sheep have communities. Cows have best friends and a matriarchal society. Chickens organize themselves into a complex hierarchy, the origin of the term “pecking order.” These animals aren’t sitting around waiting to become a meal. They are trying to live full lives, as much as they can with what we give them.
It all came down on my and I cried. I cried a lot and wanted the animal out of my body. I have not eaten meat since.
I did just a small amount of research at the time. I had been been going back and forth with vegetarianism for ten years at that point, so I felt like I had a handle on the facts enough to not dig much deeper. I had made a partial connection, but I was blind to part of the story.
Making the Connection
My roommate had become bored with the vegetarian meals we ate. I tend to just stick to the same things over and over, but I went online is search of some new recipes. I started on YouTube, searching for vegan recipes. I chose vegan as my search term so I could make sure to not get fish recipes. I assume those people still exist, so it seemed safest — or at least more efficient — to find vegan recipes and add cheese to whatever I found. I watched a lot of YouTube videos. I started with recipes, went into grocery hauls, “what I ate” vlogs, and personal stories about going vegetarian or vegan. I had found a community of people who made sense to me. These were nonjudgmental souls who seemed to strongly care about life. They cared about other beings, about the planet, and about what they chose to put in their bodies. The pieces of the puzzle started coming together. I went further than I expected and chose to watch a few activism videos. I wasn’t able to ignore what I was watching.
Being vegan, as was learning from these folks, was not as hard or restrictive as I had believed. It seemed downright easy, and close to what I was already doing. I had been one of those vegetarians who would defend myself by saying “at least I’m not a vegan,” a statement that did not really make sense. I find the anger directed at vegans interesting and unfounded. I’m not sure where it comes from, but maybe its insecurity. Non-vegans may feel like they could be doing things wrong. How is it extreme to not eat animals?
There is a fair amount of misunderstanding about vegetarianism and veganism. I’ve already spent a lot of time explaining to people how I get my protein, if I properly combine my foods, and why I don’t like bacon. I deal with the innocent taunts by family members who think its cute to wave meats at me or tell me I just don’t get how delicious it is. They don’t get it. They might never understand what I’m trying to do for myself, but in the case of the kids I just have to tolerate it until I believe they are old enough to process my reasons. I was letting my family know that I had decided to go to a plant-based diet, a more palatable term, when my nephew said “as long as you haven’t gone vegan.” I had, and said as much. But I’m bothered by the implication. He meant no harm, of course. He is old enough to understand my arguments, and I may go into them at some point, but what bothered me is the acceptance of a plant-based lifestyle in one moment, and a dismissal of the same lifestyle once it had been termed as vegan. It never wasn’t.
There exists this image of vegans as unkempt vagabonds whose privileged childhoods allowed them to explore themselves to their own detriment. This person has spent time in the peace corps, not for altruistic reasons, has spent time panhandling in Amsterdam, and has taken on the spiritualism of multiple cultures, none of which they understand. They have given up body care products, which they claim to no longer need in spite of that odor they seem to have. And they have to gall to tell those around them everything nobody asked about the food they are eating or the clothes they are wearing. These are the vegans who will always find fault with one thing or another, the milk or caffeine or leather… They will explain to you that you should eat organic, raw, local, fair-trade, and GMO-free. They will understand none of these things. They will point out how the company that made the shoes you are wearing also makes leather shoes and so should be boycotted. These people are poor by choice — Mom, Dad, and the trust fund are only a phone call away. They are obnoxious, self-righteous, and hypocritical. And they are not typical of vegans, in spite of the stereotype. They make veganism feel like such a struggle.
Only it’s not.
I am evolving because I have chosen to turn off the criticism I receive, real or perceived. I’ve allowed myself to accept the education I had ignored before. I have watched the documentaries, read the blogs, been horrified by what I’ve seen. Ignorance was wonderfully happy, but it allowed me to excuse things I knew in my heart to be wrong. Education is so important to furthering oneself as a human being.
I’m going to slip up. I’m going to do things and eat things that others would not. I’m going to feel weakened by the arguments of those I love and fail to keep up with what I’ve chosen for myself. I know these things. But as time passes, I know I’ll be able to stand my ground and develop my arguments more fully. I’ve never been great with debate, but I’m going to need to find tools to help stay myself. And I’m going to share what I’ve learned with others. I fully believe that your convictions and beliefs should be challenged often. If your mind is changed, then your values were not what you thought them to be. If, in the face of the information I share, people do not feel compelled to change, then I will have done what I can. It isn’t for me to force compassionate living.
December 27, 2006 I became a vegetarian. July 27, 2016 I became a vegan. I’m so excited about where this will take me.
But Wait, I’m Fat Too!
I’m overweight. I’ve touched on that somewhat, but probably less than I should have. The thing is that my decision to go vegan had nothing to do with my health. My choices with regard to animals and how much a part of my diet they should be has never been about my weight.
Still, it is interesting that I managed to gain so much weight in just under ten years of vegetarianism. But I wasn’t the model of vegetarian nutrition. I love mozzarella cheese. I could eat it as a meal. I love potato chips, and fast food, and frozen burritos. I have spent years eating to worst possible things for myself. I was calorie restricting at times, but still eating junk. I have failed at being healthy. To be fair, I wasn’t really trying.
Veganism is a lifestyle dominated by compassion, not a specific diet. There are many ways to be vegan. I could, if I chose, consume a diet of only Oreos, Coca-Cola, and potato chips. I’d be vegan, but I don’t think I’d feel very good about it. I could also eat nothing but salads three times a day, crunching on apples as a snack as well. I’d definitely be vegan, but I would not be healthy at all.
The plan I’ve chosen, and that I’ve felt so good on for the past week, is high carb, low fat. It’s a mainly whole foods plan, and does not include oils. It feels clean and abundant, as it is very important for vegans to make sure they get enough calories to be satiated. To do so, I eat a lot more than I used to. That is the part that I’ve found the most difficult; my vegetarian diet consisted largely of one or two meals with a lot of calories from fats, dairy, and eggs. Those are not nutrient rich sources of calories, but they are easier. Now I’m trying to get to at least 2500 calories daily. I feel energetic. I’ve got so much extra weight that this energy is hard to use efficiently, but I’m hoping that I drop some weight so I can start exercising vigorously. I believe that this is the way to do that. I’ve looked into studies done by reputable institution, watched lectures by doctors who have studies plant-based nutrition, and read testimonials by others enjoying this lifestyle. The consensus seems to be that eating in this way will encourage the body to work toward its ideal weight. It isn’t instant; it may not even be fast. But if I stick with it I should see the results I want. More importantly, I’d like to solve what seem to be compounding health issues. I don’t want to be on medications for allergies or blood pressure. I don’t want worry about headaches, backaches, depression, chronic fatigue, knee pain, heart disease, cancer, or any of the other ailments that seem inevitable in my future.
I’ve been eating 5 meals a day, following a fairly consistent pattern.
Meal 1: (around 6:00am) Early morning. This is my when I like to have water and fruit. It wakes me up, but doesn’t seem too harsh. After this meal, I start a pot of coffee (yep.) and get ready for my day.
Meal 2: (mid morning) Carbs! This is a couple cups of oatmeal or rice with coffee. Maybe a little fruit mixed in. If I want something like a cake or bread I’d probably have it here.
Meal 3: (noonish) A big salad is perfect at this point, but I’m flexible. I might have more fruit or some cereal or whatever. If my rice was particularly filling, I might skip this meal.
Meal 4: (late afternoon) A can of beans plus a can of stewed tomatoes can be great in the afternoon. Its filling without being too much. Some pasta or a sandwich or veggie burrito is also great at this time. I like vegan meat substitutes and this is where I usually enjoy them.
Meal 5: (early evening) My final meal of the day is usually potatoes of some sort, maybe with a green salad. I love potatoes in all forms.
Dr. Michael Greger — “Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death” : NutritionFacts.org : Website Dr. Michael Greger M.D. reveals the findings of many studies over several decades showing the beneficial effects of a whole food, plant-based diet. “Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death” is one of his annual presentations on the newest findings in nutrition in which he discusses 14 of the top 15 leading causes of death in America and how they can be prevented, treated, and/or reversed by a plant-based diet.
Cowspiracy — Trailer : Website This illuminating film attempts to un-silence the link between animal agriculture and the decline of the planet’s health. Anyone interested in not living in a dystopian future, give this one a watch.
Earthlings — Trailer Joaquin Phoenix narrates a difficult-to-watch, but important documentary on the suffering of animals for the amusement and feeding of humans. It can be difficult to change the perceptions of superiority, but it is worth watching.
Gary Yourofsky — “The Best Speech You Will Ever Hear” full speech + Q&A : Website Yourofsky is a skilled orator and makes the case for veganism with extremely well-framed arguments. This is a must-watch for many vegans. It is great, but I’d also watch a few of Yourofsky’s TV appearances. He is so versed in his cause that he calmly dismantles those who try to debate him.
There are also a lot of fantastic YouTube channels:
Mr. and Mrs. Vegan – Nutrition, Recipes, Vlog, Weight Loss
The Vegan Corner – Recipes
Mic. the Vegan – Activism
That Vegan Couple – Activism, Vlog, Recipes, Nutrition
Hot for Food – Recipes
Freelee the Banana Girl – Nutrition, Activism, Fitness, Vlog, Weight Loss
The Light Twins – Fitness, Recipes, Vlog, Nutrition, Activism, Weight Loss
NutritionFacts.org – Nutrition, Weight Loss
Jon Venus – Fitness, Nutrition, Vlog
Guilt Free Vegan – Vlog, Recipes, Fitness, Nutrition
Learn Organic Gardening – Gardening, Nutrition, Activism
EdgyVeg – Recipes
Life al Dente – Vlog
Peaceful Cuisine – Recipes
BananaTV – Vlog, Recipes, Activism
Jenny Mustard – Recipes, Vlog, Lifestyle, Nutrition
Sweet Potato Soul – Recipes
Mary’s Test Kitchen – Recipes
Running Vegan – Fitness, Nutrition, Activism
Bite Size Vegan – Activism
Cheap Lazy Vegan – Recipes
Healthiest Vegan – Vlog, Nutrition
Unnatural Vegan – Activism, Nutrition
Handyman Bananas – Recipes, Fitness
The Butterfly Effect — Plant-Based Weight Loss – Nutrition, Weight Loss, Vlog
Reach4Raw – Weight Loss, Vlog, Lifestyle
Vegan Gains – Activism, Fitness, Nutrition, Vlog
Dr. John McDougall – Nutrition
and many, many others….