How Saying Goodbye to Animal-Based Foods Meant More Variety In My Diet

This is my second post in a series about how going vegan changed my life.  First, it made my heart grow three sizes.  As for the next thing it did…

The amount of produce that I eat has grown three sizes as well.  It’s spilling out from its once-roomy vegetable drawers to fill up the rest of the refrigerator.  Now my freezer is full of dried goods, and my cupboards are packed with spices.  While it may seem counterintuitive, going vegan changed my life by making my diet more varied and more colorful than ever before.

It’s something that even my best friend noticed.  You should know, she is not vegetarian.  She eats animals, dairy, and eggs.  So when she told me that I eat a wider variety of food than anyone she knows (and I’d wager that everyone else she knows eats animals and animal-products), it stuck out to me.  That, I think, is a thing that can surprise people about a plant-based diet.  Something that seems to be about limits, can actually be really expansive.  Humans are creatures of habit.  We tend to gravitate towards the same items at the grocery store, the same restaurants, and even the same menu items at those restaurants, but when choosing a plant-based diet, the game changes.  The things that were once the go-to items now must be reconsidered.

Of course, even non-vegetarians eat “vegan food” every day.  They just don’t call it that.  They call it bean burritos, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bruschetta, pasta with marinara, french fries, crudites, saag aloo, hummus and pita, falafel, almonds, bananas, cherries, tomato soup, toast with jelly, chips and guacamole or salsa…  Still, when people go vegan, they often notice foods that they’ve ignored before – like leeks, fennel, daikon, persimmons…   That’s why a shift to a vegan diet often brings about a new interest, passion, and education in food.  Reading about the healthfulness of a plant-based diet, getting new cookbooks, learning how to cook unfamiliar foods (even if it’s something as basic as making beans from scratch or cooking dried lentils or barley), and venturing outside of simple staples like broccoli florets and baby carrots means people often find more excitement and adventure in their diets than ever before.

That said, when people first go vegan, sometimes they want to recreate their current diets with vegetarian counterparts.  They might replace dairy-based cheese for Daiya or chicken’s breast for Gardein.  For new vegans, these foods can help with the transition.  We are creatures of habit.  We crave salt, sugar, fat, and texture.  We crave what is familiar.  So in those first few months when someone is used to their Standard American Diet, it’s not uncommon that a person would reach for Morningstar Riblets or something of that ilk.  However, most of the vegans I know don’t stick to those convenience items or even gravitate towards them very often after the transition-period.  One, they’re more expensive.  Two, they can’t compete health-wise with non-processed fruits, vegetables, beans, etcetera, and three, tastes change.

When I first went vegetarian, I was used to the taste and texture of meat.  Like many people, when I stopped eating meat, it wasn’t because I didn’t like it.  I even remember joking before I went vegetarian that if there were people who could call themselves vegetarian and eat fish, I was going to be a vegetarian and have a steak every now and again.  However, the more I opened my heart to the lives and deaths of the animals who suffer for it, and the more I read about the healthfulness of a plant-based diet and the disease-promoting aspects of a diet based in animal products, the less important my learned habits and old preferences became.  I can have plenty of other things for lunch.  Cows, ducks, chickens, goats, sheep, and fish only get one life.

So what do I buy?  I get a lot of fresh produce, and I like to get it as we need it.  That means that my husband or I go to the grocery store almost daily.  The produce that we buy varies, depending on what’s available and in season.  Obviously, people can go vegan and just hit the grocery store once a week and stock up.  That’s just not my preference.  So if I had to write out a grocery list for a week for the two of us (taking into account that we already have things like spices and seasonings on hand), it would look something like this:

As for dining out, I eat out less often than I did before I went vegetarian, and now when I do go out I visit different restaurants.  I’d almost always prefer to make something at home, exactly the way that I like it with lots of fresh, organic ingredients and minimal amounts of oil and salt.  It’s cheaper at home and it tastes better.  When I do go out, my preference is to eat at vegan restaurants.  It means simpler ordering and more options.  Everyone can eat there – both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.  Best of all, it’s a relief to look through a menu and see only life-giving foods and not life-taking foods. Of course, that’s not always a possibility.  My second choice of restaurants are vegetarian restaurants, and third would be vegan-friendly restaurants, which are often ethnic restaurants (e.g. Indian, Ethiopian, Thai, Chinese, Mexican).

One more unexpected turn in eating all of this beautiful, colorful food is that I take more pictures of my breakfasts, lunches, and dinners than I ever did before.  This, my friends, is not uncommon.  (I had to smile when I went with a new-vegan a few months ago to Real Food Daily and watched her clicking away as each order came to the table.)  So be warned.  Plant based food is not only delicious, but also attractive.  You may want to invest in a new camera.

How Has Going Vegan Changed My Life?

compassion-largeThis week someone found my blog by searching, “How going vegan can change your life.”  Now, I’ve never made a specific post about that topic, but immediately I knew that I must.  Going vegan has affected nearly every facet of how I live.  So for the next few posts I’ll be exploring this question.  If that person comes back, here are my answers…

Doctors say that having an enlarged heart is not a good thing.  And while a plant-based diet is a very heart healthy one, going vegan has made my heart grow

Okay, so I was hardly a Grinch before I went vegan, but I will say that since I adopted a wholly plant-based diet and said sayonara to silk, leather, and wool, my heart has grown at least three sizes.  (Have I gained the strength of ten grinches plus two?  Well, at least 9.)  When people find out that I’m vegan, they have all sorts of ideas about why I chose this lifestyle.  An acquaintance recently inferred that I went vegan because I lived in California.  While the restaurants and grocery stores in California certainly make it an enviable place for a vegan to live, when I trace my steps back to that initial compassion, it goes much further than my first 91201 address.

I went vegan because of a compassion that has always lived in me.  It’s an extension of who I’ve always been.  Just as all of us hate to see others in pain, just as all of us hate to see suffering – going vegan and eschewing foods that are entrenched in the pain of others was a return to my deeper, more authentic self.  The ways that we mistreat animals and/or become numb to their suffering are learned.  I abhor violence, especially against those who are powerless.  (Even movies with violence towards the disempowered are too much for me.)  At its most basic, that is veganism – it’s a way of removing myself from that violence and that suffering.

Since I adopted a plant-based diet, I feel a deep sense of awe around animals.  I appreciate them so much more now.  I recently spent six months living in a cabin on a river, and I was able to watch eagles soar, titmouse and cardinals gather seed at the bird feeder, ducks and geese swim in the river, and deer frolic with their families.

From my living room window, I got a peek into their lives, their unimaginable beauty, and the ease at which they do things I can only imagine.  The eagles did victory laps around the river.  The ducks traveled in packs, and the titmouse moved like little animated characters – hopping so quickly in the snow they almost seemed robotic.  The deer carefully watched each other, aware of who was moving and who was staying, who noticed a sound that made them uneasy.  I was an outsider witnessing their lives, and it made me feel like I was one small part of this puzzle that is our world.  To see their beauty, how they live their lives and how humans are so seemingly insignificant within those lives, was such a gift.

One day I heard a thud at my window, I went outside and saw a tiny goldfinch laying on her back with her feet stuck straight up in the air.  I was instantly worried that she’d died.  I went to her, gently turned her onto her belly, and stared at her intently, willing her to move.  She quivered.  She shook.  She twitched.  I petted her as gently as I could manage – just one finger on her tiny body.  I stayed with her for a couple of hours outside.  As time progressed, she was able to fly  – at first just a short distance, then further, then further, until she went to a tree.  Those quiet moments with her – a bird I nicknamed Tiny – were so precious to me.  Obviously, I could have and would have cared about Tiny, even if I hadn’t been vegetarian.  But somehow, choosing a diet of non-violence makes me feel an interconnectedness that I didn’t know before.

That is why visiting animal sanctuaries like Farm Sanctuary in Orland, California is such a profound experience.  Spending time with animals who have suffered at the hands of humans and who have then come to forgive and trust again is an honor.  To sit with them and know the pain they experienced while they currently live in a place of beauty, a place without fear, feels like there is some justice in this world.

I stood next to a steer named Mario – so tall, so commanding in presence.  I felt his gentleness with me, his yearning to be loved as he nudged into me to pet him, much like a dog would nuzzle against an arm, and I felt a deep humbleness to be so small next to him.

Mario’s mother was a dairy cow.  He was born at a dairy farm but left on top of a stack of corpses, because he had an injured leg.  Also, male calves are worthless to the dairy industry, because they cannot be impregnated and then used for their milk.  Mario, who weighed only 45 pounds, was left to die until the driver of the rendering truck, who was there to pick up the bodies of other animals, found him and took him to Farm Sanctuary.  To have suffered so much and then come through the other side to a place of beauty, a place of peace gives Mario a quiet grace about him, an almost palpable soulfulness.  That soulfulness is apparent again and again at Farm Sanctuary.  To be near the animals there and glean a moment of that quiet strength, to be uncluttered enough to witness it, is a blessing.

Just as the Grinch thought that if he took away the trappings of Christmas he could end the holiday for the WhoVians, the television-viewer learns that he had it all wrong.  For the citizens of Whoville, the holiday was about the togetherness and the spirit of the season.  In life, when we look at veganism it might seem like there is so much to lose – hamburgers, hot dogs, Grandma’s casserole…  But what there is to gain at its most simple, at its most basic, is what we all want anyway.  We all want to live our values.  We all want to feel that we are making a difference.  For me, kindness to animals (and what could be kinder than not eating them?), doing what I can to reduce suffering is a way for me to make a difference and live my values everyday.  The beginning of compassion is “compass.”  It’s the way I find my direction.

Read more about marvelous Mario at Farm Sanctuary’s website or check out Gene Baur’s book Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food.