Friday, July 24, 2009

Veganism, Year One

Exactly one year ago today, I posted "Meat, Dairy, Psychology, Law, Economics," in which I discussed my decision earlier that week to become a vegan. In that post, I noted that the U.S. economy does not make it easy to be a vegan, concluding: "The most surprising thing about becoming a vegan is that it requires so much thinking!" A week later, however, I noted that being a vegan "is a lot easier than it looks." Given that Professors Colb and Dorf were the people directly responsible for my becoming a vegan, it was a nice coincidence that Professor Colb's post yesterday discussed the continuing hostility to veganism in the U.S. today, even among medical professionals. This gives me an opportunity to celebrate the one year anniversary of my transition, to discuss the personal challenges of veganism, and to reflect on possible changes in the law that might improve matters.

Like anything that is unfamiliar, becoming a vegan has a learning curve. The two immediate hurdles to changing one's diet are to remind oneself not to default to the usual choices, and to educate oneself about what to buy and what to avoid. In some cases, it is the mindless decisions that seem most difficult to change, such as buying buttered popcorn and M&M's at the movies. (Don't butter the popcorn, and forget the candy.) In most cases, though, the bigger obstacle is taking the time to read the ingredients of nearly every product that one might buy in the supermarket. Happily, it takes very little time (a week or two) to overcome both of these obstacles. Once the "no dairy" decision is reinforced a few times, it becomes quite natural; and one generally needs to read the ingredients of the items that one might buy only once or twice before figuring out what the new set of possible purchases includes. It really is easy.

Another challenge is changing what one eats at a restaurant. This takes a bit longer, but mostly because we usually eat out less often than we eat in. The trick that my friend and colleague Sarah Lawsky taught me is that any decent restaurant will honor an off-menu request for a "vegan plate." This is especially nice when the only non-meat options on the menu come with cream sauces, leaving one eating bread and a side salad. Again, the transition turns out not to be especially difficult. There is even an upside. When a server starts to describe the specials, I'll say (if I'm alone): "I'm a vegan. Are any of the specials going to work for me?" That saves some time, because the answer is always no.

Probably the most unexpected part of the first year of being a vegan is going home for the holidays. Like most families, my family has a lot of food-related holiday traditions, almost none of which are vegan-friendly. If my family had not been supportive, this would have been difficult. As it happened, there were no problems accommodating my choices. It may at first seem odd not to be eating turkey at Christmas dinner, but not killing animals certainly fits into my conception of the Christmas spirit.

One big surprise about becoming a vegan was realizing that it did not automatically mean that I was eating a healthy diet. Eating potato chips all day is a vegan diet, after all! There are very fattening vegan faux-ice cream desserts, etc. For some reason, knowing that being a vegan does not automatically put a person on a weight-loss program made me feel good. I still cannot quite figure it out, but there is something about the possibility of eating vegan junk food that makes me feel that I was not forced to give up my vices in the name of morality. (Unsnarl that logic!) Even so, it is surely true that a vegan who otherwise does not watch what he eats will be healthier than a non-vegan who has no self-restraint. Neither will be svelte, however.

Finally, it is interesting to think now about the possible legal changes that could make it easier to be a vegan. There is an entire set of possible legal changes (and accompanying debates) about the possibility of producing meat and dairy products in a humane way, but that is not my focus here. (For what it is worth, I do not think that it is possible to do so.) In my post last July 24, I suggested that food content laws need to be enforced vigorously, and I also mentioned the possibility of changing the food labeling laws to make it easier to determine what is and is not vegan. A well-defined and adequately enforced law that allows a "V" logo to be put only on truly vegan products would be a good start, and it would hardly be intrusive or burdensome. Notwithstanding my statement above regarding the relatively brief time in which shopping becomes easier, there are always new items that one must investigate (many with dozens of ingredients). A shortcut would save surprising amounts of time.

Given the truly minimal nature of possible vegan-friendly policy changes, the simple message is that there really is not much standing in the way of becoming a vegan. I used to say things like, "I just couldn't give up pizza." Now, I have cheeseless pizza or pizza with non-dairy cheese. Both taste great. More importantly, it is impossible to imagine ever eating meat or dairy again. I have always loved animals. I now express that love by refusing to contribute to their pain and death. That is an anniversary worth celebrating.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan


Sarah Lawsky said...

Congratulations, Neil! This really is a great anniversary. As you know, I want to be a vegan but am constantly failing. This post has inspired me to try one week of veganism and see whether I can do it. One of these times it is going to stick! Anyway, congratulations.

Sherry F. Colb said...

Great post, Neil! And congratulations to SBL for being inspired to try a week of veganism! Here's a nice web site to get you started (with advice and some simple recipes): S

Paul Scott said...

Congratulations and great post Neil!. Happy anniversary. :)

egarber said...

Hey Neil,

1. Did anything happen with your weight as a result of the change?

2. Did you ever have energy swings, where you had to rebalance what you were eating, etc.?

3. I've asked this before -- but what are your main sources of protein?

And Congrats, btw!!

Sherry F. Colb said...

Hi egarber. With apologies to Neil, who might have said much of what I will say, I want to use your question as an opportunity to dispel a common misconception (one that is encouraged by the meat and dairy industries) -- that vegans are somehow protein-deficient. Vegans get plenty of protein, because whole plant foods have protein in them. Some examples are lentils, black and pinto beans, chick peas, tofu, kidney beans, lima beans, peas,peanuts, cashews, almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, brown rice, whole wheat bread, seitan (wheat gluten), quinoa, leafy green vegetables (like spinach), broccoli, and the list goes on).
Americans as a group actually consume far too much protein, and animal protein in particular has been connected with a host of "affluent-country" diseases (cardiac, cancer, diabetes, etc.). Interestingly, when people consume an excess of protein (as people who eat animals and animal products like milk and eggs typically do), they release an acidic byproduct into their blood which results in a leaching of calcium from their bones. This is likely why Americans have a much higher rate of osteoporosis than people in China, even though people in China consume little dairy.
Sorry to go on at such length, but I highly recommend that you read The China Study (a fascinating book about nutrition by Cornell Emeritus Prof. T. Colin Campbell) and find out how uninformed the worry about protein really is (and how truly dangerous for our health it is to consume the products of what also happens to be an unconscionably cruel and uncaring process -- including and especially the dairy and egg process). As for weight, one can certainly eat vegan junk food and gain weight, but the rate of obesity is far lower in vegans than in the animal-devouring population.
In short, even if one believes that it is morally acceptable to inflict torture and death on feeling mammals, birds, and fish to satisfy one's desire to chomp on their flesh, eggs, and milk, it is neither necessary nor even healthful.

egarber said...

Awesome detail. Thanks Sherry. Right now I only eat fish and some dairy, but I'm close to giving even those up.

I run and lift weights for tone. And I have found that there's plenty of protein for recovery in (filling) foods like peanut butter, black / pinto beans, etc. So I wasn't really under the impression that you can't get protein in a vegan diet -- I was more interested to hear if Neil actually likes the vegan foods that are high in protein. And you're absolutely right that certain animal proteins are actually *harmful*, because of the disease risk.

good stuff indeed...

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Thanks to all for the positive feedback. In addition to Sherry's exhaustive answer to egarber's question about protein, I'll respond to his questions as follows:

(1) I am a very bad test case for whether veganism leads to swings in weight, because I have spent most of my adult life moving in and out of obesity. For the two years before becoming vegan, I had gotten my weight down to a very healthy level; and in the year since, I have maintained that weight. There are far too many other things going on, however, to know whether my continued success has anything to do with veganism.

(2) No, I have not had any noticeable energy swings.

(3) Although Sherry has already answered the protein question, I can add that my annual physical exam in February (7 months into veganism) revealed a low level of Vitamin D. I now take D and B-complex tablets daily. Of course, if I were still participating in animal torture and murder, I would also be taking pills; so I absolutely do not view this as a downside of veganism. One should hardly be surprised that, especially as one ages (:-<), some vitamin supplements become part of the daily routine.

It's really been an amazing experience to go vegan. I highly recommend it.

Pamela Vesilind said...

Fantastic! It has changed my life, too. It IS easier than most people realize. Great job.

egarber said...

I've gone through my habits to catalog what it would take for that final leap. And in truth, it would be easier than I thought to go vegan. Stay tuned :)