Monday, July 6, 2009

Why I Choose Veganism

MrsB72008 left this comment on my blog:

"Do you think that maybe you could do an OSN post about how you worked your way into a vegan lifestyle? I think more people (like myself) would consider it if they understood that it's an attainable goal and that as with anything, it's something you work into instead of jumping head first."

This post will be about my own journey and experiences with giving up meat, and transitioning into a vegan lifestyle. This will be about my own subjective experience; why and how I found out that this diet is best for me. I am happy to put this information out there for those who are curious, or who could benefit from it.

However, it is absolutely not my intention to bash anyone else's eating styles, hit anyone over the head with vegan self-righteousness or throw verbal paint on any one's fur coats. That really is not my style, and I think that kind of judgemental abrasiveness is contra-indicative to why I became a vegan in the first place.

I gave up meat in March 2006.

Before this, my diet was pretty unhealthy.

Growing up, I ate tons of junk food. My mom made (and still makes) homemade tortillas every, single week. There was always Little Debbie and Hostess snacks stocked, along with chips, frozen pizzas and top ramen.

My sisters and I were also cheese FREAKS! We used to cut up chunks of cheese, and melt them in the microwave, and eat it out of the bowl, just like that. True story.

My mom was a single mom, so sometimes, food was more about quick, easy and cheap. However, I can not undermine her cooking. She was (is) a damn, good cook. We regularly had pretty fattening traditional, Mexican meals.

I played soccer for 8 years, up until me Senior year of high school, and I mostly credit that with keeping my weight under control.

After I graduated, and begin college, the weight really started packing on, and even though I joined a gym, and worked out sporadically, I did not change my diet. In fact, it probably got worse, since I am a self-proclaimed stress eater, and would munch on Del Taco, or pizza, while studying.

My first job out of high school was as a cashier at Clark's Nutritional Centers, a local health food store. I am very fortunate that I found this job, it truly turned my health around, although not immediately.

While working at Clark's, I really started absorbing TONS of information about my health, and what I ate. I never gave too much thought before to how the way I ate made me feel, or the effects that it had on my body. I started paying more attention to what I ate, and begin trying tons of new things from the store.

About a year into working there, the Atkin's Diet became the new fad diet of the minute. Many of our customers where having great success with it, and we sold the Atkin's products. I decided to give it a try.

After 6 months of eating a minimal amount of carbs, I had lost 30 pounds.

After this, I begin to develop a very unhealthy relationship with carbohydrates. I realized how fast I could lose weight when I cut them out. So I begin a ridiculous cycle of eating too many/too few carbs. My weight went up and down, over and over again, for the next year.

I was been happier with myself for finally losing the weight, but I definitely was not healthy.

I worked at Clark's all four years of my undergraduate education, my sister also began working there, and between all the things we were both learning and trying, my family begin to start eating better. My mom started shopping there much more, and we all started trying new foods and healthier meals.

One of the things I begin to learn there was the manner in which animals were treated, before getting to my plate.

I met many, err...interesting people while working at Clark's. They have a very colorful clientele. Many vegans and vegetarians shop there, and some would hand out literature, or give information on the benefits of an animal-free diet.

I started reading up more and more, and felt an increasing amount of guilt for eating animals.

I have always been an animal lover. Our family treated our "dog" Lucy like a family member, not a pet.

I started feeling extremely conflicted. How could I love one animal enough to let her sleep in my bed, yet, turn around and eat another one?

For awhile, I pushed these thoughts aside, or would think, "I could never live without meat." I tried to appease my guilt by only buying meat from Clark's. Most of their meat is free range or hormone free, so that helped me feel that at least I was only eating animals that were treated ethically.

After I left Clark's, I still shopped there pretty frequently, and was still trying to eat healthy, although I would have a fair amount of junk food.

I was still cutting out carbs every now and then, and on one of these meat-laden days, chicken started to gross me the eff out!

I distinctly remember looking at a piece of chicken I was about to eat, and my stomach just turning. I did not eat it.

I thought that maybe I had eaten too much meat lately, since that is the primary food you eat on a protein rich diet.

I started eating carbs again, but I still could not shake off how much chicken disgusted me. I ate very few meat in the next few days.

About 1 week after the chicken epiphany, I literally woke up one day, and decided not to eat meat that day. I never ate it again.

I, quite literally, became a vegetarian, overnight.

I did not know I was a vegetarian, at that time. I thought I just would not eat meat that day. But the next day, I still did not want it. Nor the next week, or month. A few months went by, and I realized, I did not miss meat, and I did not ever want it again. The thought of it still grossed me out! I quickly realized this was not just a phase I was going through.

I thought about what it was that got me to the point of being so completely grossed out with meat, that I no longer wanted it. I think it came down combination of;
  • How overloaded my diet had been with meat in all the years of not eating carbs
  • How guilty and wrong I felt about eating animals
  • My strong conviction to not cause harm to any other living thing. I was having deep conflicts over why another living creature had to die, just so I could get fatter.

    However, I soon realized that being a vegetarian, does not equate being healthy.

    I think that is a common misconception, and one I myself ascribed to.

    I had the mentality that since I was missing out on the calories from meat, I could make up for it in other areas.

    And, I did.

    I was still mindful of my health, and tried to stay attuned to how I was feeling without meat. However, my hair, nails and skin were all still looking normal, and my energy levels had not changed. I definitely did not feel like I was suffering from a lack of protein or iron.

    I started eating more vegetables and fruits, but I was still eating my fair share of vegetarian junk food.

    French fries, cheese pizza, chocolate chip cookies and fatty pastas can all still be vegetarian, but that does not make them healthy.

    I was still not happy with my weight, and I knew I needed to make some changes in order to get down to a healthy range.

    The motivation to truly clean up my eating came when I took my engagement pictures, in August 2006.

    I was really disappointed with the way I looked in them. I strongly disliked them, and I was determined not to feel the same way about my wedding pictures.

    My wedding date was set for September 2007. I had over a year to get my weight in check.

    I started counting calories, and making healthier food choices.

    I was frustrated at first, because the weight came off MUCH slower than it had, when I did the Atkin's diet.

    But, I realized this was a much healthier, balanced method to weight loss, so I stuck with it.

    I definitely had my ups and downs in this time, (stress eating would still get the better of me sometimes; especially with planning a wedding and finishing up my Master's degree), but I managed to shed 20 pounds, before my wedding.

    In this time, people would often ask if it was hard to be a vegetarian. Honestly, it was not too difficult at all. It was pretty easy to simply omit meat from dishes. It was not terribly difficult when going out to eat, I could usually find something meatless on the menu, or ask for the dish to be served without it.

    I did not find being a vegetarian difficult or inconvenient.

    Some benefits I did notice were;
  • Clearer skin. There was a definite improvement in random breakouts and skin clarity.

  • Diminishing Acid Reflux. A few months before going vegetarian, I begin having severe acid reflux episodes.
    It would get so bad sometimes, that I could not eat anything at all and I would be so, incredibly nauseous. My acid reflux ruined a Xmas and a weekend Vegas trip, because I was so miserable the whole time.
    I know some of this had to do with how much Diet Coke I was drinking, but a large part was also due to all the junk I was eating.
    I have had very few acid reflux episodes, since giving up meat, and the ones that I have had, have not been nearly as severe.

  • Less guilt. I felt SO much better about myself for no longer eating another living creature.
    I strive to give each living thing on this earth respect and empathy. I think it is the minimum that we should give to one another as human beings. We definitely do not have to like one another, agree on everything or share the same belief systems, but imagine how much better our world could be, if we could at the very least, respect one another.
    I constantly fail at this, but I will never stop trying, and my conscious deems that some amount of respect also be shown to animals.

    The Road to Veganism:
    Early on in my vegetarian days, I toyed with idea of veganism, but, quickly brushed thoughts aside, because, "I could never give up cheese."

    In March 2008, at the recommendation of my homie Leslie, I read Skinny Bitch, and it was the push I needed to start the journey to veganism.

    There are many critics of Skinny Bitch, and they are not unfounded. The book has been criticized for it's use of foul language, and the authors' credentials have been called into question.

    Personally, I found the language and style of writing humorous, but I could see how someone with a different sense of humour, could find it offensive.

    The credentials of the author were never something that bothered me. Mostly, because it was information that I had known before, but conveniently forgot. It was a good reminder to me of how unethically animals are treated. It also helped me to see that eating dairy could still be harmful to animals, and that industry was something I no longer wanted to support.

    To read some of my initial thoughts on Skinny Bitch click here.

    The book really had an effect on me, and I decided I wanted to try reducing the amount of dairy I ate.

    The transition to veganism was MUCH harder than the transition to vegetarianism.

    Can I just emphasize how much of cheese addict I was? Cheese became my main source of protein and an absolute staple in my diet, after giving up meat. Most of my meals did not feel complete, unless they were topped with cheese. A burrito, a sandwich, pasta, they just were not the same to me, without it.

    I decided not to try an overnight veganism switch. I made it much more of a transition.

    First, I stopped buying myself dairy products. I no longer purchased cheese.

    (I had stopped eating eggs while I was a vegetarian, and I had not drank cow's milk in years. I hated it. I drank soymilk early on, when I started working at Clark's.
    I did have eggs and milk, though, when I ate baked goods, so that was a challenge to give up)

    I would limit myself to only eating dairy when I ate out, or when we went somewhere were food would be served.

    This lasted about a month, and I was proud of how well I was sticking with it. I had drastically reduced my dairy intake, and was beginning to realize that I could, in fact, have burritos, sandwiches and pastas, without cheese.

    I then gradually stopped eating dairy altogether.

    This was definitely a challenge.

    I had to pay close attention to ingredient lists. I never realized before how many breads, crackers, chips, etc. have dairy products in them.

    I was bummed to find I could no longer eat Hot Cheetos, or Hot Funyuns.

    But, this was also a good thing. My diet cleaned up tremendously, and I really started concentrating on whole, unprocessed foods.

    I did worry about the amount of protein and calcium I was getting, so I begin doing research, and read Becoming Vegan, which lists many different methods of obtaining all the vitamins and minerals you need, all from animal-free foods.

    I begin reading tons of vegan blogs, and looking up more and more recipes online. I started experimenting with different foods, and was really happy with all the diverse options out there.

    By far, the hardest thing about being vegan is eating out, or eating at other people's houses.

    My options now at typical restaurants are pretty limited. Chips and guacamole is my safe stand-by. Ethnic food seems to be the best at having animal-free options. Some restaurants are just not accommodating (*cough*Panera & TGIF's*cough*), so I generally avoid those places, or eat before hand. To see some of what I do eat, when I eat out, click here.

    However, now I get the pleasure of searching for, and trying out some all vegan establishments. I just wish there was more in my area : /

    Eating at family/friend get togethers, can be damn near impossible. Chips and salsa, and fresh fruit are usually the extent of what I can have, so I generally eat before I go. I do not expect anyone to accommodate my style of eating, and no one likes a pissy eater who complains about a lack of options, so I am happy to fill up ahead of time.
    (This is also a challenge, because people will often question, or comment on my eating habits. Maybe it is just my family, but I get my fair amount of teasing, or some people say downright ignorant and rude things. But, I have a tough skin and a quick mouth {not always a good thing}, and I stand behind my reasons for not eating animals, and I did not do this without doing research first, so I generally have an answer when people think that I am starving myself)

    Planning ahead has become absolutely essential. During the school year, I work during the day as a high school counselor, and teach classes 2-3 nights per week. I also keep pretty busy with running in between my jobs, therefore, it is SO important for me to have food prepared ahead of time, to grab and go.

    This has definitely proved to be a challenge. A good portion of my weekend is spent cooking 1 or 2 big meals for the week, that can be divided up for lunches/dinners, and chopping fruits and vegetables, so I can quickly grab them. I have to make the effort to get up in time each day, to prepare breakfast, lunch, snacks (and sometimes dinner), for that day. (My hubby is also a HUGE help with this, I can not take all the credit.)

    Planning ahead can be time consuming, and sometimes I would definitely rather be doing other things with my time, but I know it is worth it. I would rather eat healthy foods, and if I am not prepared, I will either go hungry (which is NOT good for anyone in my vicinity) or eat something unhealthy from a drive thru, that will make me feel like crap later.

    Slowly, but surely, I have made the transition over to being a vegan. From March to August of 2008, I lost another 10 pounds, and I attribute that mostly to how much cleaner my diet got, and the elimination of junk food.

    However, I am not the perfect vegan. Sometimes, I cave, especially for cupcakes or cake (in moments of weakness, when vegan options are not available). Once in awhile, a piece of cheese pizza still looks good (although the last time I did that, my stomach revolted), and every now and then, I eat my share of junk food; potato chips, french fries, vegan cookies, etc.

    As time goes on, these instances happen less and less, and usually, I feel like crap afterwards, and I try to remember that, the next time I am tempted, although I still reserve my right to cave every now and again.

    If you are considering giving up meat or dairy, these are just a few things from my own experience, that I think you should consider first:

  • Ease in to your transition gradually.
    Although giving up meat overnight worked for me, it may not work for you. Perhaps try going without red meat first, see how you feel, then cut out pork, so on and so forth.

  • Eat balanced and concentrate on whole foods.
    Very often, people's image of a vegan is someone who looks emaciated and anemic. Why? Because there are many vegans/vegetarians out there who look that way. They are not getting their recommended amount of protein, calcium, iron, etc.
    While working at Clark's, I encountered many vegans/vegetarians who were just following the diet to be hip or edgy, and they would come in to stock up on; chips, vegan cookies and pastries, vegetarian beef jerky and veggie burgers.
    Rarely would they eat fruits or vegetables, so, of course they would end up not up to their optimal health.
    This leads people to think that an animal-free diet is unhealthy, but it truly can be, as long as you are being smart about what you eat and still getting in all your nutrients.

  • Do your research.
    Know what non-animal foods contain protein, calcium, iron, etc. Becoming Vegan is an excellent resource, as well as this site.

    This is copied from a past blog I wrote:

    "Most of my protein comes from beans, whole grains (brown rice, couscous, Ezekiel bread), soy products, and the occasional fake meat products.

    I try to limit my intake of processed, fake meats. However, I do not see a problem with eating them in moderation, for a quick protein fix.

    Most of my iron comes from spinach and beans.

    I get my calcium from dark, leafy greens, nut butters and soy products."

  • Have an open mind, and try new things.
    There are many alternative, healthy foods out there, that can be intimidating, at first, but give them a shot, before you decide you do not like them.

    I know some people are grossed out by tofu, but try it fried, baked or raw, you may find one method is tastier to you, over the other.

    Seitan and tempeh are also excellent sources of protein, and some great recipe ideas for them can be found here.


    I hope this post has been informative and a glipse into my decision to eat animal-free. I know it was long, so thanks for hanging in there if you made it this far.

    It is definitely not my intention to come across condescending to anyone's dietary choices, but I have found what works best for me, and I hope you have enjoyed reading about it.



    Becoming Vegan

    Becoming Vegetarian

    Skinny Bitch

    Diet for a New America

    My favorite authors are Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero. They write most of their books together, and their instructions are very thorough. I have Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, and Veganomican. I need more!

    These are some of their books.

    Skinny Bitch in the Kitchen

    Vegetarian Times is my favorite recipe site.

    Whole Foods' website has an excellent recipe finder, and you can set the options to give you only vegetarian, or vegan selections.

    Veg Web has a unique and diverse collection, for recipes I could not find anywhere else.

    Favorite Blogs:
    Veggie Vixen

    The Urban Housewife

    Vegan Dad

    What the Hell Does a Vegan Eat Anyway?

    Vegan Yum Yum

    "Is your husband a vegan?"
    Find out the answer, and his thoughts on my diet, here.