Several months ago, I was fortunate enough to interview three “new” vegans – three young adults who all went vegan at some point during 2013. Jessica, Ashley, and Chris (L to R) are all friends of mine through different ways – two are into metal, and I met through my band, and Jessica worked at a vegan-friendly cafe I frequent. I wanted to get their perspective about veganism as new vegans, to inspire, motivate, and put in perspective the ideals and beliefs that I and other long-time vegans hold so dear. Their thoughts are compelling, and I’m grateful for the time they took to answer each question thoughtfully.
TNTSU: All three of you have gone vegan in the last year, I believe, for a variety of reasons. I’d like to start by having each of you state how long you’ve been vegan, and a brief summary why (i.e. animal rights, health, environmental, or something else):
Chris: I have been vegan since around the beginning of June, 2013. Before that I’d been vegetarian since March, which is really where the whole transition began for me. I started taking an interest in an alternative diet since October of 2012 where I was dabbling with cutting meat out of my diet for weeks at a time and was feeling a lot better physically when I did. Around January, 2013 was when I really started thinking about doing it seriously. I saw a documentary called Vegucated that taught many sides of veganism I never knew about before. That when I started to care about animal rights and realized I didn’t feel right about what I was contributing to.
Ashley: I’ve been vegan since July 4th, 2013; figured it was a great American time to start. I used to be paleo for a very long time. I played basketball for my university and was on a strict 3,500 calorie diet. I used to chow down on large pizzas, pounds of chicken tenders, triple cheeseburgers, whatever was high in calories that i could get in by the end of the night. When basketball ended and I graduated, I moved down my calorie count and ate mostly chicken and vegetables. I wasn’t entirely happy with it, as my body wasn’t exactly adapting to the changes of intensity of workouts and leaning out.
Fast forward about 9 months, and I took a free class from Coursera titled U.S Food Systems. It was taught by [a] Johns Hopkins [professor] and the Center for a Livable Future. During this class, I learned about the destruction of the environment due to cattle and dairy farming, the changing fertility and soil degradation of the land in the United States, the malnourished of the world and how much it would change if we altered our eating habits [...] Chemical fertilizer runoff, the poisoning of marine life and dead-zones, federal subsidies and the connection between health and the increase in meat consumption, etc. The class kept a distance from the morality of eating animals until the last module, which was about 15 minutes long, but I felt that was a wise move from the professor. Those statistics and information were plenty to convince me (without sounding too preachy) about switching my diet around.
I switched to a vegetarian diet a week into that class (middle of March, 2013) and slowly cut out the small amount of dairy I was eating (I’m allergic to casein as it is). I would still eat a small amount of dairy here and there while I was at work, since it smooths things over with my mentally challenged clients if I do what they do. On July 4th, I finally officially made the switch and I’ve never been happier. I found more and more that I was being drawn into animal rights issues, which was something I tried not to get involved with when I was paleo. The more I dove into the ideology behind being vegan, the more it stuck and made sense. The more I read about environmental and health related issues (which made me switch to begin with), the more it confirmed my belief that I was doing a great thing for myself.
Jessica: I went vegan in March 2013. I was originally a vegetarian from age 15 to about 20. I slowly began incorporating meat back into my diet after I began culinary school and met my omnivore boyfriend. When I went vegetarian at age 15 I was all about animal rights; I knew and learned so much about the meat industry (never thinking dairy could be “that bad”) and I tried to inform my friends on why I was the way I was. It really struck a chord with me and stuck with me for a long time. So when I went back to eating meat, it was like I kind of put my knowledge of what was really happening in some closet somewhere in my mind and just ignored it. I thought learning all the cuts of meat and different ways to prepare it was so fascinating and I wanted to know as much as I could!
About a year and a half ago I decided to take control of my health because I was overweight and completely unhappy with my body and afraid of becoming diabetic and getting heart disease and suffering heart attacks like both of my parents. I started working out and eating “clean”. I was slowly cutting out the dark meats and stuck to chicken and turkey. I eventually lost about 30 lbs. I then did a cleanse called The Ultimate Reset by BeachBody (the same company who puts out Insanity and P90x and the other programs that helped me get in shape.) When I got the package I realized, “wow, it’s basically just going vegan for a month!” Tons of water drinking and tons of awesome veggies – I even got introduced to tempeh!
So during this “cleanse” I decided being vegan was the best option for my health and well being and was still avoiding the other reasons. I suppose I didn’t want to be reminded of all the things I pretended weren’t real before. In June of 2013, Earth Friend’s Café hired me to be the creative mind in her primarily vegan/vegetarian kitchen! I was so excited! I couldn’t believe I had found a place that serves vegan food! So as I began working with Earth Friends I was reminded of all the things I put in that closet a few years back [like] how truly terrible the meat/dairy/egg industries are. I began liking pages on Facebook that are pro-vegan and I started doing more and more research on the ethical side of veganism, not just the health side.
All in all I feel amazing both physically and mentally. I love being vegan and I will never put my knowledge of why it is good for not only me but also the animals and environment back in that closet in my mind.
TNTSU: It sounds like all three of you were initially drawn to veganism through vegetarianism, and then as the reasons began to unfold, on both a personal and global level, a true plant-based diet emerged. Do you feel like vegetarianism is a solid middle-ground for others to pass through? Is there a risk of getting “stuck” there, when, after the facts are presented, veganism seems like the logical choice?
Jessica: I definitely feel like vegetarianism is a solid middle ground for getting to veganism. For some people removing things slowly from their diets helps the transition be a more smooth one [however] I do feel there is a great risk of being stuck there. I was there at one point in my life as a teenager. I knew the dairy and egg industries were no better than the meat industry. For some reason I just ignored it or maybe I thought I was doing my part enough by being vegetarian. So I do beleive that some people could get stuck and I’m sure several do.
Ashley: I think it all depends on your motives and how much you’re willing to dive into the research part of it all. If you become a vegetarian [and] don’t know much about animal abuse, exploitation, environmental impact, and morality, you might just be cool with sticking to vegetarianism. I think it’s a great first step that can take you further once you become more aware of the reasons surrounding going vegetarian and vegan. In my case, the more I learned, the more it stuck with me and the more I felt the need to transition [to veganism].
Chris: It seems everybody is sort of on the fence about the middle ground aspect, and I am no different, either. I think it can be a great way to start off a transition to veganism. Without that “trial period,” if you will, I probably would have crashed and burned before ever getting comfortable enough to cut dairy and egg products out of my diet. That being said, at least they’re not eating meat, which is what I consider worst of all. My girlfriend is vegetarian, and seems to not have plans of moving on from there. So this is definitely something I have to deal with and think about regularly.
TNTSU: Chris – great point. We all have to deal with that “middle ground” in our lives all the time, especially with those we care about, and we don’t want to scare them away by being the typical militant vegan. At the same time, sometimes it doesn’t feel like enough. During that transition, at least for me, “faux” products really helped: soy sausages, non-dairy cream cheese, coconut ice cream, etc. How much of these do you the three of you utilize, and do they still represent a significant part of your vegan diet?
Chris: Absolutely. I use so many of these things on a daily basis. Rarely a week goes by that I don’t stock up on Daiya cheddar and Boca spicy chicken patties. It really debunks the myth that vegans eat super healthy because I certainly don’t. I make a lot of pizzas, “burgers,” “chicken” lo mein, that sort of stuff all the time. Bottom line, “faux” products helped me with a great deal of my transition and remain a steady part of my diet, as I love to get creative with them so much.
Jessica: While I was vegetarian for so long I definitely ate the faux meats. I loved Bocca brand products as well as the brand Quorn. They can be very tasty. As for now I cook more and more from scratch and focus less on consuming processed foods and getting my nutrition from whole foods. However I am still known to throw a pita pizza in tbe oven with some daiya cheese on it for a quick and tasty dinner. Along with my obsession with tofutti cream cheese, I lobe to add things like caper and garlic to spread on english muffins or toast. As well as the Olive Nut sandwich we serve at Earth Friends Cafe which has green olives laced inside the tofutti and it is to die for! But I try to stay away from products like these personally but only because I try to eat as little processed foods as possible. I do believe that the faux products are a great way to help meat eaters transition to vegetarianism and into veganism and am by no means against them because they are super tasty!
Ashley: I was all about the faux products when i started out – sort of like a way to show people i can eat what you can eat without the misery – anything you can do i can do vegan. Because I work four 17 hour shifts in four days (with only enough time to sleep between them), i stuck to amy’s frozen foods – teriyaki bowls, enchiladas, macaroni, rice bowls, etc. it’s gotten pretty bad, where i’m just reaching for a meal at work. starting next week i’m cutting out all faux products except daiya shreds out of my diet and focusing on macros and complete, whole food meals like i used to. faux products are great if you’re in a rush, but they can also be a slippery slope where they become too convenient and permanent
TNTSU: We’re almost to the point where “lab-grown” meat is a reality. Would you consider eat animal flesh if it was derived from animal without harming it? Say, using the cells from animal biopsy that didn’t result in the animal’s death or suffering.
Jessica: Personally, no I would not. I truly believe our bodies are not meant to process animal. I feel a huge difference in the way my body works when not eating meat, egg, and dairy, all things which are incredibly difficult to digest, for me that is anyway. However, I wouldn’t be as opposed to others eating it. I would still hope for my family and friends to make the choice not to solely for their health. But I would be way less opposed to it.
Chris: The whole lab grown meat concept has always hit as a solid compromise; animals get to live, meat eaters get their fix, and we all get a conserved planet and hopefully a brighter, more progressive future. I’ve never seen anything about lab meat and thought “awesome! I’ll be able to eat meat again!”. I’ve always been very optimistic about it because it is an overall better alternative. To me, being vegan is ridding yourself of using all animal products, despite if it is harmful to acquire them or not. I will not consume lab meat out of personal choice. I hope others will, though.
Ashley: This is an issue I’ve been struggling with recently. I would never touch it, but I am conflicted if it is a good thing or not. On one hand, as a vegan I find it great that less animals will be harmed, the environment can attempt to slowly recover, and the food used to feed animals could help feed the hungry all over the world, but I also don’t believe that food needs to be, nor deserves, to be made in a laboratory. You don’t need to genetically alter or spray food to get it how you want.
TNTSU: I had a great conversation with someone about the movie Blackfish today, and that really opens the door to discussing animal rights on a larger level. Is there a particular issue that has stirred you besides farmed animals and their relation to food? (ex. animal testing, animals in entertainment, dog breeding, etc.)
Chris: One thing I really looked into and was outraged by was the Ringling Bros. Circus. I looked further into [this] after seeing the things you were posting about it, Sam. I watched a video about the elephant camp they have in Florida, where they break baby elephants and train them and the techniques they used. It was no different from dairy cows when I saw how the baby elephants were separated from their mothers. Truly heartbreaking. I also watched footage of the elephant’s trainers handling them backstage at the circus, where they were beaten for no particular reason with bull hooks. The whole video was a court testimony of an ex-Ringling employee who had experienced all the events firsthand. This is what really opened my eyes to animal rights beyond factory farming.
Ashley: Same as Chris. Also, when trying to switch over to organic, vegan cosmetics and bath products, I was pretty outraged at how little there is compared to those who do test on animals, and how expensive it is compared to the rest of cosmetics. I’ve almost completely switched over to Tarte for my cosmetics, and I still haven’t found a shampoo or conditioner that works good with my hair.
Jessica: Something that really outrages me is the production of leather products. I recently decided to learn about it and watched some short videos about the cows they use. I often stray away from watching these videos because they make me so emotional that it hurts. But I decided I needed to be educated. Leather comes from some of the most beautiful cows I have ever seen! They are abused and left without food or water for days and it is even worse, I just don’t like to think about it. In the end meeting their inevitable deaths just so people can have shoes, jackets, and furniture. I actually just bought a sofa the other day and it was a faux leather one. The furniture salesman asked me why I was so happy it wasn’t leather and I explained I was vegan and that it would have compromised my ethics to buy leather. His response was “Leather will last forever though!” I didn’t say much to that, but it makes me sad that people are willing to take lives to have a piece of furniture that will “last forever” even when we will probably be buying a new couch in 5 years.
(Follow-up question for 2014)
TNTSU: Thoughts as we turn into the new year on veganism?
Ashley: Over the last month [December 2013], I’ve worked on throwing away all my makeup, bath products, clothing, shoes, and accessories that weren’t cruelty-free and replaced them with ones that are. Armed with the proper knowledge and experience of almost 6 months down the road, I’m completely stoked heading into the new year and watching myself grow even more. Cheers!
Chris: This new year, I am definitely out of the transitional stage of veganism and have decided its time to actually follow a plant-based diet, not just a lot of fake meat [products]. For the most part, I own nothing cruelty-free. I have a pair of work boots that do need replacing, but that’s about all I can think of. I also want to have at least one person I can turn onto being [vegan]. I have joked around quite a bit saying to friends and family “I’m getting at least one conversion this year”, but it really is a goal of mine. My one year anniversary without meat is coming up in March and I couldn’t be more stoked about that. My one year of veganism will be in June and I couldn’t tell you how the thought of committing to this for a whole year makes me feel. 2014 is definitely going to be a positive one!