Ruling Your Food

As a minimalist and vegan, I like to keep things simple, so here are my rules for eating right…

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1. Do not eat anything that does not want to be eaten. You could rephrase this as “Don’t eat anything that feels pain” if you like, but the overall point is to avoid causing suffering. Most vegans make this distinction by not eating anything that has a central nervous system (the clearest indicator that something can feel and respond to pain). Put even more simply, “Don’t eat or wear animals”.

2. If it has more than five ingredients, do not eat it. It is an arbitrary number, but once you pass three to five ingredients, you almost certainly are eating junk mass-produced processed “foodstuff”. Bread requires nothing more than “(Whole Wheat) Flour, water, yeast, salt”. Think about that the next time you pick up a popular brand and scan the ingredient list.

3. Do not eat any ingredient you can not pronounce (or is not immediately obvious what it is by name alone). Monodiglyci-what? High Fructose Corn Syrup? Is that different than regular corn syrup? If you know what “high fructose” or other common lab ingredient names mean, it is probably because a scientist explained it to a reporter who wrote an article about it that you read once. There are so many (intentionally) obscure names for ingredients, either because they come from a lab or because marketers know you would never eat something if you knew what it actually was. “Cochineal”, for example, is that nice purple-red dye that colors many candies (like Nerds)… and is derived from the crushed shells of the insect by the same name, also sometimes called “Carmine”. Would you feed your kids a handful of crushed beetles? Would you eat them if you knew what they were?

4. If an ingredient has more than 3 syllables, don’t eat it. Pretty much the same rationale as rules #2 and 3. If it takes longer to read the list of ingredients than it does to eat the food, then this is probably a highly processed nightmare. In fact, you can really break down my rules 2, 3, and 4 into one easy rule: “Eat Simply.”

5. Leave something on the plate. This is the rule I admittedly struggle most with, but I overeat sometimes simply because I was taught to always “clean my plate”. However, if I cook when I am really hungry, or anytime I go to a restaurant, I always have more than I need on my plate. If you are eating at a restaurant, challenge yourself to always take something home. Most single restaurant meals are plenty for two people or two single meals.

 

One of my favorite food-books is Michael Pollan‘s “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual“, which offers up many easy rules to help us navigate the complex multitude of food and food-like products in the world. One of my favorite examples is “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. Matt Frazier from No Meat Athlete shared his “Rules for Navigating Vegan Life in a Non-Vegan World” which reminded me I have several rules for eating, as well. Hope they help you eat right, feel right, and live right!

 

 

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’.

 

How Can We Fight For Real Food?

How can we stand against a genetically modified industrial and political food complex?

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I posted a snarky comment on FaceBook that sparked discussion about how to fight for real food. My friend Sharon was kind enough to ask what I think we can do about the situation. Here is what I think:

There are lots of ways we can take action. The best thing I think we can do is support local Farmers Markets and vegan, organic, and farm-to-table restaurants.

Here is something else: for the past few years, I have curtailed my support of multiple charities in favor of one or two I care deeply about. Shopping local helps me avoid some of the “forced charity” I already rail against (Big Box stores and brands should not dictate how much charity I give to which organizations). Rather than giving a dollar to the Salvation Army cup and a few cents in the cash register change cups for children with cancer or spare change for breast cancer, a quarter for people with MS, etc… I combine all my giving for maximum impact on one or two charities or projects I care deeply about and gave BIG donations to them. Last year, for example, it was to help make one of my favorite stores, Tree Huggers (a local vegan bulk grocery store that promotes zero waste), and Cult Pizza (a local vegan pizza restaurant being pioneered by Ryan Cappelletti who also started Bartertown, another vegan local produce restaurant).

Kickstarter is a great way to find or create local projects to support. You can contribute as little or as much as you want. In my opinion, I have more impact by making one or two large donations to one or two causes I am passionate about rather than donating to many small causes distributed across many venues.

Finally, I focus on living a minimal lifestyle with less consumer goods so more of my money can be used to enjoy organic and locally produced food. I don’t need a huge stereo system, multiple gaming consoles, and jewelry. Those are not things that truly enrich my life or my health. Food and experiences shared with friends and family are far more beneficial. I can’t tell you about the video games I played in 2005, and none of them were really important, but I will never forget the trip to Lebanon I took with my father or the meal we ate high up in the mountains, surrounded by pine trees. That was a much better return on my investment in both time and money than my X-box was.

So that’s a start, but it is also important to recognize we have a misconception about food. As Michael Pollan has pointed out eloquently in his books, many people wonder why eating organic or buying from Farmers Markets is SO expensive. That is the wrong question. We should be wondering instead, how on earth a burger from McDonald’s can be so cheap. A fast food burger is assembled from meat imported from many countries. A typical McDonald’s burger has more than 40 ingredients in it (follow the link–I counted them), including the bun, pickles, ketchup, mustard, meat, plus assembly, transportation to the restaurant, storage, and the overhead of the restaurant itself–lights, rent, utilities, wages, benefits, etc… How is it possible McDonald’s can afford to charge a DOLLAR for that, and still make a profit? What, exactly, are you eating when you are not eating local, organic, and real food? Yikes.

Maybe Monsanto and similar companies have a place in the world, though it is debatable. They may seem evil from where we are looking but they have an opportunity to create “food” through bio-technology that can end hunger in the world. If we can show Monsanto, Cargill, and others through conversation and action that they do not have a market or profit margin in the U.S. big enough to warrant their mono-culture take-over, then we might be able to persuade them to find other ways to generate revenue with absurdly cheap “sort-of” nutrition in places where it might be considered a boon. Perhaps then we can all win. Technology and Politics are not inherently evil; it is what we do with them that matters.

But, you know… it takes action and conversations with and through our senators and local artisans and farmers to make significant transformation happen. As with any major change–personal, political, local, or global, it can be done.

 

We just have to be willing to do the work.

How Do Vegans Get Enough Vitamins?

When I decided to adopt a vegan lifestyle, one of the first concerns I read about was vegans not getting enough vitamins–protein, B-12, iron, etc… There are many variations of the “How do you get your protein?” question.

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Let me put the basic fears to rest first: there is not a single vitamin, mineral, or nutrient that comes from an animal source that can not also be derived from a plant source.

Even if my vegan diet made me a little deficient in one vitamin or another, is this really a concern for non-vegans? When I ate meat and cheese, I ate basically the same foods day in and day out. My diet was as predictable as snow in Alaska. For me, I had meat and cheese at every meal. Breakfast: sausage and eggs, cream cheese bagel (or a sausage McMuffin with Cheese). Lunch: Hamburger with cheese, and fries (or a couple Double Decker supremes). Dinner: Steak and cheesy mashed potatoes (or pizza). If I had greens, they were always the same greens: iceberg or Romaine lettuce, spinach, green beans, and maybe parsley.

As a vegan, my diet has expanded far beyond my old eating habits. I have found more diversity and pleasure in food than I ever thought possible. Now, I eat things I never would have considered trying on my former diet. Breakfast: fruit smoothie with flax seed, cashews, and raw oats with Agave nectar. Lunch: Grilled tofu and avocado with brown rice. Dinner: Kale or Arugula with orzo, heirloom tomatoes, and nutritional yeast flakes.

Those foods and many others would never have made it into my former diet. The way I ate before, I would never have heard of things like Lychee, Quinoa, or Chia seeds. I ate burgers, steak, and kabobs–that was pretty much as exotic as it got.

Vegans listen with wry cynicism when curious mono-food culture friends suddenly become arm-chair nutrition experts.

I understand when someone asks, “How do you get your protein?” they have probably never asked themselves the same question. Most non-vegans believe protein comes from beef, which is not a very good protein source. Spinach has more protein than steak.  I think when someone asks about protein or feigns concern over vitamins, it is not really because they are interested in becoming vegan (which is fine; I probably did not ask them to). I think it is more because people are fearful of what veganism stands for and are interested in defending their NOT being vegan. “How do you get your protein?” is another way of asking, “How can I keep eating what I want and have no guilt about it? How can I get away with it? How can I keep doing what I want to do instead of what is being presented as a better choice?”.

It is okay. Vegans are used to it; we usually think it is humorous.

Instead of reacting from fear and defensiveness, though, just remember if you decide to live a vegan lifestyle and it turns out being vegan is just not for you, or you really do become deficient in a vitamin that you have probably never checked to find out if you are deficient in already… well, it is not like losing an arm. You can go back to being non-vegan anytime and catch up on all the steak and cheese you missed.

For me, I make the choice to be (or stay) vegan each time I eat. The beauty of being vegan is that it IS a choice, and each meal, I am choosing my health and choosing not to cause pain and suffering to my fellow animals. It is a choice to stand for me, for my values. I love it; I love that I get to choose standing for ME every time I eat. If I were suddenly to become deficient in a vitamin or decided I could not live this way, though, I could always just go to McDonald’s.

The fact is, if I went back to my former eating habits, I would be getting a lot fewer vitamins and much less variety in my diet than I do as a vegan. I wouldn’t enjoy all the great new foods and tasty ways to create exotic meals that I have found. I wouldn’t enjoy the weight I lost, the alertness I gained, or the peaceful living that comes with my vegan lifestyle. To me, it is a no-brainer. Being vegan is a powerful choice and one I am happy to make at each (happy) meal.

 

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!

 

Should You Be Afraid of Vegans?

I don’t usually go out of my way to advocate a vegan diet, but occasionally someone realizes I have ordered a meal with no meat or cheese, or they ask  a question that forces my hand and I share that I have a vegan lifestyle.

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For example, someone might ask what my favorite restaurant is (it’s a vegan one, of course) or they might wonder how I am able to get by on so little sleep or how it is I am almost never sick or tired, or how I am able to think quickly and clearly even very early in the morning, or how I can wake up without an alarm clock or coffee, or whatever (and believe me, at best, I might have been able to do any one or two of those things prior to mastering my diet, but never all of them at once).

A funny thing happens when it comes up, though. As soon as I say, “I’m vegan” the reaction is almost always the same: “Oh, I could never do that!”

It’s a very interesting reaction. My first thought is usually, “But I haven’t asked you to; I just answered your question,” and my next thought is, “…But why not?”

The very idea of not eating meat or dairy is so terrifying (or revolting) to some people it sends them into an automatic defensive stance as if they could contract veganism from me (and honestly, would catching a healthy-diet be so bad?). We have been so well trained to believe the western diet is the only option imaginable that we actively choose to avoid those benefits. What’s really funny to me, though, is that people see being vegan as some sort of crazy anomaly.

Imagine your diet is a dial, like a volume control knob, with meat and dairy at one end (“0” on the dial) and vegetables at the other. Obviously, no one is at “0” (because we would die if we ate nothing but other animals). Most people, I would guess, are probably somewhere around 4 or 5. Being vegan is just turning the dial all the way up to 11.

We all eat what is in a vegan diet–I just eat a lot more of the good-for-you stuff.

I watched Forks Over Knives again recently. It’s a pretty good documentary explaining the benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet (the new, less-intimidating way of saying, “vegan”). I’m especially fond of this movie because it briefly profiles Mac Danzig–mixed martial artist and UFC champ. I really like that it showcases a top-performing athlete (among many others–Prince Fielder and Carl Lewis come immediately to mind).

If you are curious about why vegans are vegan or just want some basic tips on how to eat healthier, then Forks Over Knives is a good entry level film.

 

The next time you ask somebody about being vegan, consider looking a little deeper into the question of why you’re not. Don’t be scared to look deep; every vegan had to go to the same spot before making such a huge decision. If you are a vegan… the next time someone says, “Oh, I could never do that!”–just ask them why not. The answer, honestly, doesn’t matter. The important part is to get people thinking, and asking themselves.

 

 

 

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.