To me, veganism is about progress, not perfection. As a vegan, I don't eat meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or honey. I don't buy leather goods or clothing. I go out of my way to support vegan restaurants and grocers. Am I perfect in my efforts? Of course not. Will I ever be? I doubt it.
Sometimes tricky fish oils sneak into my otherwise vegan Thai dish at dinner. Last month, I bought a wool coat from a local thrift shop. While I regularly veganize my drink order at Starbucks, I have to admit that I'm technically still giving money to a major chain which is nowhere near 100% vegan. I don't think I'll ever be perfect in my efforts to live a vegan life, but I do think each little choice makes a difference, and that's largely what keeps me going in my efforts.
For many people, food is a very personal thing. In our diet- and body-image-obsessed society, the fixation on what we eat (or rather, what we don't eat) can often make us feel like we're making a political statement each time we open our mouths.
In the United States, about one million people are vegan, which sounds like an impressive number until you remember that one million people comprises only about .5% of our population. But for a minority diet and lifestyle choice, veganism isn't hurting for attention. Of course, some of this attention is good attention – Charlie Hales, mayor of Portland, OR recently proclaimed March 20 as “Meatout” Day and encouraged Portlanders to eat a diet heavy in vegetables, whole grains, and fruit. There are many vegan celebrities who openly discuss their vegan diet: Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Hathaway, Lea Michele, and Alicia Silverstone are just the tip of the vegan iceberg.
But no matter how much positive attention veganism gets in the media, I've heard the same two questions more times than I can count:
What do you actually eat? And hey, where do you get your protein?
I eat a lot of the same foods I ate before I was a vegan: for healthy meals, I opt for salads, wraps, sushi, smoothies, and juices. I also love a good burger, wings, and a heaping bowl of creamy pasta. The difference is that now my burgers are made of black beans and beets, my wings are seitan based, and that sushi? Avocado all the way.
Overall, I definitely am more mindful about where I get my fats and protein since becoming vegan: for fats, I love avocados, seeds, and nuts, especially in smoothies, baking (yes, I put chia seeds in my brownies) and oatmeal.
For protein, I have a lot of options as a vegan (which surprised me, in all honesty): leafy greens, beans, tempeh, tofu, and seitan are my most frequent choices, and I make an effort to prepare my food in ways which challenge my cooking and my palette. I use spices and herbs more than I used to, and I experiment with baking, grilling, blending, frying, and sauteing – sometimes to replicate the textures of meat based meals, and sometimes just to experience the food in front of me in a different way. Veganism has definitely widened my palette and awakened my taste buds.
When I seriously began my vegan journey, most of the research I did involved my health. People who regularly eat processed or red meat are 50% more likely to develop colon cancer, as well as increase their risk of developing heart disease by 72%. As a woman, I was particularly taken by a study which found that vegan women have 34% fewer incidences of breast, cervical, and ovarian cancer.
To be honest, studies aside, when I listen to my body, it tells me that it feels better and functions more efficiently without animal products. I no longer feel heavy and lethargic after eating meat. Even as a vegetarian, my body reacted poorly to the animal products I consumed – I was often bloated after eating dairy, and my skin broke out into pimples much more frequently than it does now.
I will confess: one of the biggest challenges I've faced as a vegan is social eating. If you're going out to eat, Yelp and Happy Cow are both great websites (and good apps for your smartphone) to scope out vegan friendly options in advance, but going to someone's home is much trickier. It's a safe bet (and polite, because it puts no extra pressure on the host) to offer to bring a vegan dish with you.
For me personally, I try to keep in in mind that not everyone has my dietary preferences – if the people around me dig into some chicken and waffles, that's their choice. I don't like it when people assume things about me based on what's on my plate, so it will never be my place to put that judgment on someone else.
On the topic of friends (and family, and coworkers...) I will say this: You have autonomy over your body. If you want to be vegan, be vegan. If you want to eat paleo, eat paleo. If you want to eat a plate of cupcakes at your work luncheon instead of a sandwich and chips, go right ahead. You don't owe anyone an explanation about what's on your plate.
As I said earlier, I get a lot of questions and comments about my choice to be vegan. At this stage in my life, I'm pretty comfortable with my answers, but in all honesty, there were points where I wasn't, and the questions and comments made me feel self-conscious. I questioned my beliefs and my values and my self-esteem plummeted. It's always damaging when someone questions your judgment, but especially so when it concerns such a basic necessity: the ability to nourish yourself, and to read your body's language.
I've learned this: If people respect and care about you, they will not judge you based on what you do, or don't, put into your body. Everyone has different comfort levels, especially with humor, but if people are making you feel ashamed because of the food you consume, they are in the wrong, and you are not.
I say this as a vegan, to other vegans, but also to meat and dairy lovers. Your bodies, your choices. Of course, as a vegan, I encourage people to think about how their choices affect others bodies – both animals, and their fellow humans. But at the end of the day, I can confidently say veganism is the right choice for only one person, and that person is me.