Thursday, March 31, 2016

My Vegan Experience

This March I've embarked on a month-long Vegan Experience. I've been contemplating veganism for nearly a year, and now I've finally found a starting point: I committed to following a vegan diet for 31 days.

My vegan month was inspired by the awesome food blog Serious Eats. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt authors the column The Food Lab, where he obsessively examines and develops home-cooking techniques through science. Each year, Lopez-Alt lives one month of veganism and shares his recipes, tips, and techniques.

Now that I'm in the final hours of my challenge, I find myself conflicted about how to proceed when the calendar changes.

The decision seems straightforward enough: My values tell me that a plant-based diet is best for the environment, for the animals, and for my health. I believe that the environmental impact of meat production is a wasteful contributor to global food scarcity, and that following a vegan diet is a way I can personally take responsibility for minimizing my own impacts on climate change and better sustain food security. I don't see the value in cruelty and have grown ethically opposed to the idea that humans need to turn beings into products. Most selfishly, I believe that a whole-foods, plant-based diet is the best path to maximize my health and physical performance in athletic pursuits.

In 2015, the Federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee issued a report that concluded that plant-based diet was both healthier and better for the environment. A quote from the report:

"Quantitative modeling research showed how healthy dietary patterns relate to positive environmental outcomes that improve population food security. Moderate to strong evidence demonstrates that healthy dietary patterns that are higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods are associated with more favorable environmental outcomes (lower greenhouse gas emissions and more favorable land, water, and energy use) than are current U.S. dietary patterns." 

So there it was. What better time than now?

I'm grateful for the things I've learned being vegan this month. It's been a surprisingly simple transition from vegetarianism to veganism. I feel physically strong and healthy. I feel like I'm doing a better job living out my values. I've even had fun! Eating vegan has encouraged me to be creative in the kitchen.

Did you know you can use the liquid from a can of chickpeas, known as aquafaba, to make vegan mayonnaise?

That tofu makes a great breakfast scramble?

Or that cashews, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, and salt make a perfectly delicious "cheese" topping for pizza?

With the exception of the time we went to Toscanini's and I settled for mango sorbet even though I really, really, really wanted coffee cookies-and-creme ice cream, I honestly haven't felt like I'm missing out. At home, it's easy to select vegan recipes or make substitutions. Flax meal makes a great egg replacer and almond milk is pretty tasty. I am fortunate to live in a progressive, vegan-friendly city filled with abundant grocery, restaurant, and take-out options.

In spite of the Toscanini's disappointment, I made sure to eat a LOT of vegan ice cream. Including this fantastic cone from Van Leeuwen in Brooklyn.

So why do I have any hang up at all about committing to full-on veganism?

For one thing, I value shared meals with my loved ones. Whether that means hosting a potluck, visiting family, or going out to dinner with friends, I know that my dietary restrictions can exclude me from participation. It is not my goal to cast my judgment on others, to miss out on community experiences, or to come across as ungrateful when so many people in my life already go to great lengths to accommodate my diet.

I also feel this small, nagging sense of guilt that my choice to live a vegan lifestyle is a reflection of privilege. I have access to high quality foods, the financial security to purchase them, and the time to prepare my own meals. I know that these are luxuries not everyone can afford. Then again, I suppose my privilege is all the more reason to hold myself accountable for my choices.

Perhaps my biggest lesson from this experience is discovering that I don't have to live in absolutes. I can follow a vegan diet at home and make conscious choices each day about when to draw lines and when to be flexible. It would feel so wasteful to throw away my down winter coat and my leather Frye boots, so I'm not going to. There will be times when the one vegan option on the menu is neither the healthiest nor the most responsible, humane option. There will be choices to make at family dinners for the rest of my life.

And, yes. I'm eating enough protein.

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