We’ve asked some of our volunteers to share their stories about how they got started on a special diet. This interview is with Melissa from Vibrant Wanderings, who has been vegan for eight years.
What influenced you to become and stay a vegan?
I had a close friend from who became vegan shortly after we graduated from high school. At first, I thought she was completely insane, but over time she shared some of her reasons with me, and even loaned me a few books. It only took me a bit of reading to realize my friend wasn’t crazy after all: The environmental impact of the meat and dairy industries and the harm done to animals used for food is very real, as are the health benefits of a plant-based diet.
It’s funny, too, how motherhood can change the way you feel about things. Initially, it was factory farming that really upset me. At this point, though, I don’t think I’d eat meat even if it came direct from the most ethical farmer in the country and she lived next door to me. There’s just something about the idea of choosing to take the life of another living being that I can’t stomach when I’m fortunate enough to have so many other options available to me.
Did you use any resources to get started on this new way of eating?
I read a book when I first got started that I wouldn’t recommend at this point, but that gave me a lot of information to consider as I got started. A year in, I also started seeing a naturopathic doctor who ran extensive blood work for me and used the results to recommend some ways I could improve my overall nutrition and health. There are so many supposed health concerns for those eating a vegan diet, a few with a basis in reality, and most with none, that it really helps to monitor one’s own health like this every once in awhile. Of course there’s a wealth of information online, and knowledgeable friends helped, too!
What do you think is the most important thing to consider for someone who wants to start eating vegan?
I definitely think it’s crucial to educate yourself about nutrition. I have known many people who decided to “go vegan” based on environmental or animal rights concerns alone and ended up going back when their health started to worsen due to poor nutrition. You can’t just replace burgers with veggie burgers and milk with almond milk and call it good. It’s important to be aware of the nutrients your body needs and where in a plant-based diet they can be found. There is a ton of vegan convenience food out there that is just as bad for you as many processed animal food sources.
What are the staples that you keep in your cupboard and fridge?
In the fridge, on top of plenty of fresh fruits and veggies, we always have almond milk, which I use for baking and cooking and on things like granola. I try not to overdo it on soy, but I do like to cook with tempeh, which is a fabulous protein source and a fermented food. There’s usually a brick of sprouted tofu as well. I try to keep our pantry stocked with various beans, nuts, sprouted lentils and mung beans, seeds (hemp and chia seeds are a favorite), and such. Our favorite grains are quinoa, brown rice, and fresh whole grain bread. I love to bake, too, so I keep sprouted flours, coconut sugar, and coconut oil on hand all the time as well as maple syrup and blackstrap molasses (delicious and a great source of iron!). Another staple is flax meal, which acts as a fabulous binder in egg-free baking. I don’t think I would know how to cook without onions and garlic either. I use both in the majority of our meals!
How long did it take you to get used to the vegan lifestyle?
It’s hard to remember exactly, but I know it didn’t take too long, especially since I had a couple of vegan friends who could pass their knowledge on to me. I was young and I lived alone, so I had no one to feed other than myself, and I could spend as much time as I wanted doing things like reading labels in the grocery store and trying out new recipes. I was waiting tables at a barbeque restaurant at the time, so that was interesting, to be sure.
I dropped quite a bit of weight at first, which was fine because I definitely had weight to lose, and it probably had a lot to do with the grilled cheese sandwiches and pizza I had been living off of. After about two or three months, though, my weight stabilized and has remained nearly the same (outside of pregnancy) over the years, and well within the healthy range for my height.
How do you handle going out to eat or visiting non-vegan friends or relatives?
Going out to eat is usually pretty easy, especially after you’ve been doing it for awhile. More and more restaurants are offering and labeling vegetarian and vegan options on their menus, but even those that don’t can usually accommodate. For chain restaurants, a quick Google search on the way out usually reveals a couple of vegan options, and for smaller operations a heads-up by phone gives staff the opportunity to prepare for you. While some consider it a hassle, I have found that most chefs and cooks, given ample time to prepare, love the challenge of creating an interesting vegan meal, or are at least willing to take it on. I have had incredible off-the-menu meals many places — most notably, a vegan alternative to the five course meal being offered at a wine tasting. When I’m picking the place, I stick with what I know works well for my diet, or go to happycow.net, which is a wonderful resource where you can find vegetarian and vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants in most cities around the world.
Most of our friends and relatives are familiar with my diet now, and some usually expect me to bring food of my own, which I’m always happy to do, while others go out of their way to pick up vegan options from local restaurants or health food stores. Others love to cook vegan, anyway! When this is not the case, I try to touch base with the host or hostess and offer to bring something vegan to share if that would be helpful. I really try not to make my dietary needs an issue, and if I don’t know for sure that there will be plenty for me to eat, I snack plenty beforehand so that I can honestly smile and say I’m simply not very hungry. I always try to grab something from the table, even if it’s a handful of cherry tomatoes and a few carrot sticks, if for no other reason than to keep the host from feeling like they’ve failed me.
There have been a few situations where I have knowingly compromised, like when my husband, his mother, and I went out to the Texas country to visit his great-aunt and -uncle. They had been forewarned, and so were making veggie fajitas for lunch, with chicken on the side for everyone else. We were all sitting at the table chatting as my husband’s great-aunt was putting the finishing touches on the meal and out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of her slathering each tortilla with butter as she put it into the pan to warm. I knew she wasn’t likely to ever meet another vegan in her life, and that she had made a special effort to accommodate me already. The butter had already been spread, so I wasn’t going to save any cows from suffering by making an issue of it. I decided to say nothing, to thank her, and to eat. I have to remind myself sometimes of the reasons why I chose to be vegan, and make sure I’m being as kind to other humans as I aim to be to every animal species, and every once in a great while, this means eating a very small amount of dairy.
What has surprised you most about eating vegan?
In the beginning, I was really surprised by how little I felt like I was missing out, and how easy it really is to create delicious and varied meals from plant-based sources. As time has gone on, I have been pleasantly surprised by the great ideas the vegan community has come up with and the creative products and recipes that come out all the time.
What are some of your favorite recipes?
Most loved by friends and family are my banana bread and my granola. Personally, I just love food and end up experimenting and trying new recipes all the time. A favorite place to go for inspiration is the Post Punk Kitchen, or the cookbooks written by its author, Isa Chandra Moskowitz. She’s a vegan culinary genius.
Photo Credits: Melissa at Vibrant Wanderings
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