30-Day Challenge: Going Vegan With Tara
To some people, adopting a vegan diet may seem extreme. To me, it seems like the logical final step in a process I began over two years ago. In that time, I’ve come a long way from an omnivore to a pescetarian to a vegetarian, but knew I eventually wanted to go all the way. When LadyLUX suggested the 30-Day Challenge, I thought it was the perfect time to stop procrastinating and take the plunge on a fully plant-based diet—and hopefully I can stick with it. Luckily, it now seems more attractive than ever. Research has come out in recent years proving all kinds of health benefits, including lower risk of heart disease and some forms of cancer, our nation’s biggest killers. It’s also generally accepted that a plant-based diet is one of the best ways to lower your carbon footprint.
Yet, when I look back, this transformation began not with health concerns, environmental issues, or even much of an interest in farm animals, but with two dogs my family cared for when we began fostering with a local rescue. Braden, a Jack Russell Terrier/Poodle mix, and Buttercup, a pit bull mix, arrived within a day of each other and we were immediately obsessed with them. These two pups and their stories—both were rescued from high-kill shelters in the South—initially focused my attention on the broken shelter system that desperately needs fixing, but this quickly led to a consideration of how our culture treats animals in general. Though it was difficult, I wanted to see clearly the often invisible worlds of shelter and farm animals, and, in particular, understand the realities of where my food was coming from. As anyone who has Googled, “factory farming” knows, these realities are ugly ones.
This was the start of an awakening to a kinder approach to eating and, as I prepared for the vegan challenge, the first question I had to answer was how far I wanted it to go. After perusing many vegan books, blogs and documentaries, it became clear that being vegan is about striving towards a cruelty-free lifestyle that applies to everything, not just food. I’ve never worn fur, but what about clothing that uses leather or other animal parts? What about beauty products that test on animals? I read recently that even the moisture strips on razors contain animal fats; where could I find animal-free razors? Many vegans count honey as an animal product; should I dump my honey for agave?
For someone new like myself, this can be overwhelming. Ultimately, I decided that this challenge is not going to be about being a “perfect” vegan, but about taking another step in the right direction and making choices that I’m happy with. Kathy Freston, a prominent vegan activist and author, promotes the idea of “leaning in” to your goals, or making gradual, gentle adjustments rather than drastic changes. Following her lead, I’m going to focus on eliminating animal-based products from my diet for now and maybe worry about razors and insects later.
Here are some of the challenges and rewards of Week 1.
Reward: Discovering new things
My first discovery is that soy milk is awesome! Who knew? I wasn’t a huge milk drinker, but always enjoyed half-n-half in my coffee, and wasn’t excited about switching over to “fake” dairy. It turns out I actually like vanilla Silk even more. This has helped me to see the challenge as not just a new list of foods I can’t have, but maybe an opportunity to try some new things and explore new flavors that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Looking through my first vegan cookbook, Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero, I’m pumped to try their pumpkin baked ziti, curried tofu, and asparagus and lemongrass risotto. I’ve never made a curry—might as well learn now!
Challenge: Reading food labels endlessly
As I’m adjusting to vegan life, I’m realizing that I have to read labels for EVERYTHING when grocery shopping. It’s hard to tell when animal ingredients are sneaking into innocent-seeming products, and it’s time-consuming to read each one. As I was purging my fridge and cabinets, I was surprised at some of the things that had to go. My yummy peanut butter and oat bars, for example, turned out to contain milk fat. I’m sure once I find new products I like it will be easier, but for now it’s definitely a chore.
Reward: Eating more food
After my first few vegan dinners, I found that it did take more to make me feel full, but was kind of delighted by the fact that I had zero guilt about making a second plate. Whole food vegan diets are naturally low in fat. A big scoop of quinoa and veggies will have much less calories than a scoop of an old favorite, mac and cheese, so I just went for it. It’ll be interesting to see how my sense of fullness changes as my body gets used to the diet. For now, I’m going for seconds and indulging in my first vegan baking experiment: chocolate cupcakes!
Challenge: Talking to non-vegans about being vegan
Probably the biggest challenge so far has nothing to do with food, but with people. Since I decided to go vegan, even if it’s only for 30 days, I’ve gotten the same question in conversation a lot: Why? I haven’t quite figured out how to answer in a way that is honest and explains my ethical position, but that doesn’t sound like a reprimand to others who still enjoy their steaks and burgers. I understand the urge of some vegetarians and vegans to evangelize, but I also don’t want to alienate people by being an over-the-top animal nut (even if I kind of am). So, I’ve made few attempts to justify my decision and mostly responded with something like, “Because pigs are cute, dammit!” I’m working on it.
Reward: Feeling good about it!
I can say the biggest reward so far is feeling like my lifestyle is finally in line with what I believe. There are so many sad, upsetting things out there, both in places halfway around the world and here in New York, that I feel powerless to do anything about. With the simple decision to go vegan, I’m opting out of a cruel system that truly upsets me, which is an empowering feeling.
Follow me @taracarberry for more on my vegan challenge!