How “Vegan” Is Vegan?

I am sometimes asked if I ever cheat on my vegan diet. Of course I do; it is nearly impossible to be 100% vegan 100% of the time.

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There are animal products in the vast majority of things humans eat and wear. My goal is to be as close to 100% vegan as I reasonably can, but even that is challenging at times.

For example, when I visit a restaurant, I make a reasonable effort to ensure my meal is vegan (“Do you know if the refried beans are made with lard? Do you happen to know if the rice was made with chicken stock? Can I have that with no mayo, no cheese, and no sour cream please?”). Often, the servers, and even the cooks, do not know how their food is made (“I’m not sure; it’s pre-cooked and shipped to us; we just heat it up. I think the beans are vegetarian. That bun was toasted with butter before we put the veggie patty on; were you trying to avoid all dairy?”).

Unless I grow the ingredients in my garden and make the meal from scratch myself, I do not assume any meal is 100% vegan.

The important thing is, to as close as possible, live up to my values and reasons for being vegan. For new vegans, I tell them, “If you cut meat and dairy from your diet and stop wearing leather, then you are 99% vegan. Everything else is just arguing over the last inch.”

That last inch can be debatable. Some vegans choose not to eat honey because it is made by bees. Insects are animals, too, and store-bought honey is mass-produced, causing the bees to work beyond exhaustion and suffer terribly. A few vegans refuse to eat broccoli because they believe it has a central nervous system. If it has nerves and a way to transmit the information collected by those nerves, then broccoli can theoretically feel pain. The ability to suffer or feel pain is one way many vegans determine what they will not eat. Ironically, there is no evidence I am aware of to support the claim of broccoli having a nervous system, so apparently, we vegans have our old wives’ tales, too.

On the other hand, oysters definitely do not have a central nervous system (since they are mollusks) and theoretically can not feel pain, yet I have never met a vegan who thinks oysters are not animals.

Another example of the fine line between vegans and omnivores is one of my favorite comfort foods. I love french fries. I avoid places that are known to use beef fat or other cheap, animal-sourced oil to fry their food, like McDonald’s.

Still, I know pretty much anywhere I order fries, they will be fried in the same oil as meaty foods like chicken nuggets, fish, or cheese sticks. It is highly unlikely any fast food or homestyle cooking restaurant can (or will) offer completely vegan french fries. Some places even batter their fries or other foods (like beer-battered mushrooms and onion rings) in animal products before dipping them in oil.

Some restaurants offer veggie burgers but fail to mention the patty is held together with egg or cheese, or that the bun has whey (a milk derivative).

I try to avoid the obvious pitfalls but I am not too hard on myself for ordering french fries when I am out with work friends and there are no better options available, or if I go to a restaurant and stupidly forget to ask the server if the guacamole is made with sour cream. Of course, I am much more strict when I am doing the cooking.

If you are a new vegan, vegan-curious, or a seasoned veteran who struggles with identifying what is or is not vegan and whether you should order a meal or send one back angrily (a HUGE pet peeve of mine, by the way–if you choose to be vegan, then you give up your right to be mad when others do not understand exactly what that means or follow your explicit instructions–the solution is to make your own food or keep your mouth shut when you go to a restaurant–literally), keep in mind it is okay to give yourself a little slack.

That does not mean treat yourself to a steak now and then (of course that is an option but I would say it disqualifies you from the vegan club…). I mean it is okay to recognize the world is not built to meet our specifications.

Easy guidelines (even if you are not committed to a vegan lifestyle):

Be the best vegan you can be.
Cause as little suffering (both to yourself and others) as possible.
Live to your potential a little more each day.

If you do that, then you will be fine. You don’t have to give up your life to be vegan; you just have to give up taking others’.

 

The Vegan Alternative

I consider myself a bit of a food adventurer. I love to try new tastes, explore spices, and experiment with recipes. I will travel every niche of a city to find vegan gems (the best restaurants are almost always hidden).

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Eating no animal products forces me to find new, delicious foods that, before, I would have overlooked in favor of a burger, steak, or pizza (3 staples from my former lifestyle). Before I was vegan, every restaurant looked the same and so did every meal: variations of steak and potatoes or burger and fries.

When I began my vegan journey a decade ago, there were fake processed substitutes for these foods (veggie burgers, tempeh steaks, rice-based “cheese”, etc.) but they tasted terrible. Really terrible. I mean, they looked like the food they were posing as but they tasted like cardboard cut-outs of the food they were trying to be.

It is disappointing that most vegans will start their adventure with similar garbage food (yes, there is garbage vegan food that is as over-processed and unhealthy as animal-based foods… who knew?). However, as I have found better resources and learned more about being vegan, and as vegan restaurants established by world-class chefs  started popping up on the scene, I have found foods so good it is almost a crime they exist!

Better still, the vegan alternatives to western-diet foods are, if prepared well, indistinguishable from their counterparts (try Daiya cheese, for example).

I get frustrated–really frustrated–knowing there are vegan alternatives that require no pain to create and taste just like our comfort foods. I enjoyed home-made caramel popcorn last night which was made with no caramel and was better than any bagged caramel corn I have ever had.

The question, as I see it, is… if we can create burgers, pizza, steak, cupcakes, barbecued wings, mashed potatoes, bread, and everything else we eat without having to sacrifice the life of another animal or cause any pain, or further damage the earth… then why don’t we?

My challenge to humanity is this:

Will you just move past your fear and give healthy eating, being compassionate, and living a long life a shot?

I promise it is really not so bad being healthy and taking care of yourself (as well as the planet and other species)…

 

If you are going vegan or just curious about a few vegan recipes (and if the internet is a crazy, intimidating place for you), then there is one book that needs to reside on your shelf. Start here:

Veganomicon. All (or nearly all) the recipes are easy-to-follow and feature ingredients you should pretty much be able to find at any grocery store. They are real meals made with real food. There are other great vegan cookbooks, too, but Veganomicon is the perfect starting spot.

Just try a couple recipes and see if you like them. The worst that can happen is you will have had a healthy meal.

 

Share your thoughts or let me know how your adventure is going in the comments.

Here’s to your health!

 

You Think You Love Food?

I love food. I mean, I love it in a way that extends beyond emotion. Good food can soothe the soul, tame a temper, or intoxicate a lover. There is nothing so satisfying as engrossing conversation between deep friends over a grand meal.

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Adopting a vegan lifestyle, however, can seem to limit food options. In fact, some people I know (even within my family) think the only type of person that can give up eating anything that is, or comes from, any animal must be the kind of person that hates food. After all, how can I say I love food but ban all meat, cheese, milk, butter, ranch dressing, and nearly every type of candy bar made by Hershey, Nestle, Mars, or Cadbury?

Was I born with malformed taste buds or something? How can I resist such yummy treats and barbecued meats?

Here’s the deal. In my opinion, vegans are the REAL foodies; everyone else just likes food.

The way I see it, most people eat indiscriminately. We stuff our faces with anything that says “tastes great!” on the label. (If you were just now protesting that you do not stuff your face with most anything marketed to you, consider reading the listed ingredients on the last hot dog you enjoyed.)

Vegans (and even more so, raw foodists) do not eat unconsciously. Instead, we discriminate, and sometimes with ardor. We choose to eat only the best food available, the most nourishing, and the most healthful. It is because of our deep love of food and the pleasure it brings our bodies that we typically choose organic over genetically modified, natural over highly processed, real over chemical, and healthy over fatty.

Where unconscious eaters see healthful diets as akin to being eternally damned to eating only grass and tasteless tofu the rest of their lives, my experience of being vegan is completely opposite. Going vegan taught me to appreciate more types and flavors of food than I ever knew existed before. When I was a “meatie”, I ate basically the same thing wherever I went. Regardless of the restaurant or time of day, every meal consisted of meat, cheese, and carbohydrates. Breakfast- omelet, sausage, biscuit. Lunch- burger, fries. Dinner- pizza.

Being vegan forced me into options I never would have considered before: tofu, tempeh, seitan, tomato kibbee, lychee, carrot juice, lentil soups, brown rice, vegetable sushi, and much, much, much, much more… Every meal is different now, each one offering a new experience, a new adventure. Traveling to other towns and finding their organic/vegan hotspots is always a rewarding journey with many pleasant surprises.

 

You see, you have to really love food to choose a vegan or raw lifestyle. You have to be willing to pay a little more for the finer things. And what is a more important expense than the fuel that runs your body? Don’t be afraid to throw a few extra bucks into the grocery bill and eat right; it is the best use of your money by far, against almost any other expense. To be vegan, you have to want the very best for your body and your health. You have to be discriminate, educated, and conscious about what you put in and on your body.

You have to want the best because you deserve it and you have to love food enough to say “No” to bad food. You think you love food? Maybe you do. But ask a vegan about her favorite dish and watch her zeal as she describes something that sounds more like a vacation than a meal.

Now, that’s someone who loves food.