You may have noticed a tag that wasn’t there when I first started this blog: “vegan/végétalien”. I’m not vegan, nor are any of my close friends or relatives. So why the tag? Well, because I believe in veganism. In part because of the convenience of knowing that anything that is vegan is automatically lactose-free, sure, and because it just sounds healthy, but mostly because I strongly disapprove of the conditions in which most “farm” animals are raised and slaughtered. I put the word “farm” in quotation marks here because the traditional farm model is no longer used – and that’s part of the problem. The vast majority of animal products on the market today come from factory farming (the key word being “factory”).
Jonathan Safran Foer wrote a hugely popular book called Eating Animals; Natalie Portman then wrote a great article on why that book was enough to turn her from vegetarian to vegan. You can also see the author discuss the book with Ellen De Generes on her show. And here’s another good article musing as to how we decide why it’s okay to eat certain animals and not others. I recommend the documentary Food, Inc. if you want to learn more about this. It’s not for veganism per se, but it’s a real eye-opener about how much crap goes into our food. Oprah also did a show on this topic. People who have seen Food, Inc. have started looking at alternative places to buy their animal products; others are exploring ethical slaughter and ways to find places that sell or serve ethically raised meat. All of this has more to do with Slow Food than with veganism, though.
So what is veganism, exactly? In short, a vegan is someone who doesn’t use any animal products. No meat, poultry, fish or seafood products or by-products, of course, but also no eggs, no dairy and no honey. And it extends to things other than food: no leather, no wool, no silk either. Animal products can hide almost anywhere, like in sugar; according to Wikipedia, “the sugar refining industry often uses bone char (calcinated animal bones) for decolorizing. About 25% of sugar produced in the U.S. is processed using bone char as a filter, the remainder being processed with activated carbon.” It is still interesting to note that a vegan food item is not automatically healthy: shortening is vegan, potato chips are vegan, most donuts are vegan, etc. That being said, vegans also tend to be very health-conscious, so a balanced vegan diet is centered on foods like whole grains, legumes and vegetables, with sugar and fat being used only on occasion.
While I suspect most people get into veganism for moral or ethical reasons, it turns out that they often stick with it for health reasons. Vegans report numerous health improvements, including clearer skin, easier digestion, lessening or disappearance of symptoms of asthma and chronic allergies, etc. This may or may not have anything to do with the animal products themselves, but you have to take into consideration the fact that most cows on the market, for example, are raised with antibiotics in feedlots and are killed in inhumane conditions, all of which affect the contents of the beef and dairy we buy (and none of which is particularly good for us). Some people are more sensitive to it than others. It is also true that meat is harder to digest than plant matter; as a matter of fact, many runners turn vegan when they are in training, even if they aren’t full-time vegans. And while there is less calcium in plant-based foods than in dairy, it is more easily absorbed by the body – actually, scientists think that most nutrients are more easily absorbed by the body when one does not consume animal products. (As an example, I’ll remind you that while a traditional Chinese diet contains no dairy, Chinese women have a much lower rate of osteoporosis than North American women. So clearly, dairy is not the only way to get sufficient calcium!)
So if I believe in veganism, why am I not vegan? The short answer is twofold (see, even my short answers aren’t that short!): 1) there are too many things I like that I would have to give up completely if I went vegan (bacon, cheeseburgers, eggs, lactose-free ice cream, pork tenderloin, duck breast, sharp cheddar, goat cheese, red tuna. etc.); and 2) since I’m still having issues eating my vegetables, I’m afraid that I wouldn’t have enough to fall back on if I stuck strictly to plant-based food, or at least that the adaptation would be really rough for me. Let it be noted, though, that it is easier to be vegan in some places than in others: I’m sure there’s more choice in, say, Berkeley than in Texarkana. I only recently found vegan creamer in grocery stores in Montreal. I was confronted with this problem recently, as I read Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Diet. The book is very informative, and it contains a lot of recipes that look delicious. However, most of them call for ingredients that are not readily available in most grocery stores in Montreal, though I’ve seen them in the U.S. (vegan cheeses, Veganaise, seitan, tofu sour cream, umeboshi plums and vinegar, kombu seaweed, kabocha squash, Earth Balance margarine, spirulina, Stevia, carob powder, etc.). So while those recipes look great, I think I’ll use this book more when I’m settled in my Texas kitchen and shop at Whole Foods. Four of the recipes are online, so you can take a look (and don’t forget the blog, which has posts about food as well as health, style and the environment). I definitely recommend The Kind Diet to anyone who is trying to find out more about a vegan lifestyle, though.
That being said, I do enjoy vegan meals once in a while. I’m not officially doing the Meat-Free Mondays, but I do support the cause. I don’t eat a lot of red meat, and I don’t buy baby animals like veal or lamb (tough if I’m eating at someone else’s house and that’s what they’re serving, I’ll eat it and I’ll probably enjoy it, too). I used to buy eggs from free-run chicken, but since I found out that “free-run” isn’t actually as good as it sounds (since it doesn’t even mean that the hens can go outside, as opposed to free-range animals), I prefer organic or pastured eggs if I can find them. I do this for humane reasons, but as a bonus, those eggs are healthier, too! Now that I have the option of organic lactose-free milk, that’s also what I prefer. And I make it a point to cook satisfying vegetarian or vegan meals (though not necessarily on Mondays). I recently found out that there’s a term for my eating habits – apparently, I’m a flexitarian. I’m not sure I like the label, but whatever.
There are websites that group a lot of vegetarian and vegan meal ideas, though any Google search will give you thousands. Personally, I tend to prefer meals that don’t contain meat to begin with, as opposed to those that use mock meat. More and more restaurants are having vegan options on their menus, because as celebrities (like Alicia Silverstone, Natalie Portman or Chelsea Clinton, not to mention the fictional Todd Ingram with his vegan superpowers) announce they are vegan, it becomes more and more mainstream. And if you want to help change laws and create more humane conditions for animals, read how Europe has made eggs safer than North America by improving hens’ quality of life.
(I’ll get off my soapbox now.)