Vegan and Vegetarian: Questions and Answers

 

I get asked a lot of questions about being vegan. This is an attempt to answer those most frequently asked. I’ll be happy to answer any additional questions in the comments.

Why did you decide to give up meat?

In a word: curiosity. I became interested in the benefits of vegetarianism in 2008, most of it sparked from reading Steve Pavlina‘s experiments with plant-based diets. I was especially curious about the increased focus and mental clarity which many people reported experiencing after moving to a vegetarian or vegan diet. I decided I would try vegetarianism for 30-days to see if it could work for me. I gobbled up some good gumbo at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party, then dived into my month-long trial.

What was your diet like before that?

Not bad. I wasn’t overweight and I considered myself to be in decent shape. I wasn’t picky with food; I’d eat anything that was put in front of me. Water was my drink of choice and I rarely binged on junk food, but I had meat with almost every meal beyond breakfast. I’d been living in New Orleans for a year at that point, and had grown fond of fried shrimp, catfish and the like. I wasn’t opposed to fast food, but I ate it rarely. I prepared most of my own meals. A typical home dinner for me was pasta, mixed vegetables and a nuked beef burrito, all covered in pasta sauce and shredded cheese.

Tell us about the 30-day trial of vegetarianism. How did that go?

I decided WalMart wasn’t especially veggie-friendly, so I switched to a local supermarket called Rouses. I went there to do my first big veggie shop on January 1st, and I was like a child in a supermarket for the first time. Everything was new and amazing. I was noticing vegetables I’d never known existed before, and taking time to browse each aisle and read the ingredients. I remember loading up on beans and mushrooms, figuring those would be good meat substitutes.

The days and weeks went by and I found the transition pretty easy. I would only crave meat after a night of drinking, bacon in particular. I was still eating about the same amount of food each day, but I became fairly dependent on cheese; I wouldn’t feel full after lunch or dinner unless I had a nice helping of cheese in there.

Mentally, I definitely felt sharper and I became more productive at work. I’ve considered the fact that those results might have been more of a placebo effect than anything else, but the diet change had been the catalyst nonetheless. I was getting the results I had hoped for, and I didn’t really care about the exact science behind them.

I also felt I knew and liked myself better after switching to vegetarianism. Somehow I felt more connected and in tune with the world. So much so that I couldn’t find a good reason to go back to my old diet after 30 days.

How do you feel about the traditional arguments for plant-based diets, particularly compassion for animals?

That was probably the most unexpected thing about going vegetarian: Once I was in it, all those traditional arguments made a lot more sense to me. Granted, I’d absorbed a lot of pro-veggie books and video and so my awareness of those issues was heightened, but it was more than that. Like I said, I felt more connected and in tune with the world. I’d long been reading about oneness and the connection between all living things, but it was only when I became vegetarian did I really start to understand and appreciate those concepts.

You may scoff at that, just like I would have done a couple of years ago. But if you take anything from this post, let it be this: It’s a lot different being on the inside looking out, as opposed to being on the outside looking in. Reserve final judgment until you spend some time inside, experiencing it for yourself.

That was the most important lesson I learned from all this, and it’s helped me keep an open mind and experience lots of great new things since.

Okay, but it couldn’t have all been sunshine and rainbows. What was the worst thing about becoming vegetarian?

I went through a preachy phase, and I really didn’t like myself during that time. I believe it was due to the overwhelming amount of information in favor of plant-based diets that I was absorbing. A lot of that info was shocking to me, and I became so repulsed by the standard American diet that I thought it would be a good idea to let people know what I’d learned. Of course, that just alienated me from a lot of those folks and all of a sudden I didn’t feel so connected and in tune anymore.

Eventually I was able to take a step back, reminding myself of Gandhi’s famous quote: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” Did I want the world to be preachy? No. I wanted everyone to be more accepting of each other, more tolerant of each other’s beliefs. So I needed to stop being preachy. I needed to be more accepting of other people, more tolerant of their beliefs. That realization was huge for me.

But surely you must get upset when people question your beliefs?

Not anymore. I’m comfortable with my choices. If other people don’t accept them, that’s their issue to deal with, not mine.

Do you think everyone should give up meat?

No. A plant-based diet works great for me, but I can’t be 100% sure it would work great for everyone. That said, I would like to see people experimenting more with their diets, and being more concerned about where their food comes from. If you must eat animal products, follow the Micheal Pollan plan and you’ll be doing yourself and the world a big favor.

What was it like going vegan?

I decided to do a 30-day vegan trial in June 2009. A co-worker had loaned me a book called Skinny Bitch and reading it convinced me to try eliminating all animal products from my diet. Going vegan was tougher than going vegetarian though. I found my energy levels jumped around quite a bit, I lost some weight (which I didn’t want to lose), and I found myself on the toilet a whole lot more. And I really missed cheese! But after about three weeks I generally felt more energetic, I seemed to recover faster (read: less hangovers) and I didn’t miss cheese any more. I got used to eating more frequently and I drank a few extra beers on the weekend to keep my weight where I wanted it. I also found that I didn’t need quite as much sleep as I used to, but the free time I got from that was canceled out by the extra time I spent preparing food.

And once again, I felt myself moving towards a Buddha-like state of harmony with the world, but the connection was stronger this time. It just felt right not eating animal products anymore, and so I stayed vegan beyond the 30-day trial. I’m about four months in as of this writing, and life has never been better.

So you’re 100% strict vegan these days?

I’d say I’m more like 95%. I compromise every now and then; call it a luxury of life tax. For example: when my parents are driving me home from the airport in Ireland and we stop off at a small-town pub for something to eat and the vegetable soup I order is suspiciously creamy, I’ll go ahead and eat it anyway.

I am and I probably always will be 100% vegan when I’m buying and preparing my own food. All other times, I do my best to avoid animal products. I’ll eat before I go out for the evening, or I’ll call ahead and make sure a restaurant has some vegan options. If I do end up hungry somewhere and the best they can offer is some cheese-flavored tortilla chips, I’ll dig in.

Have you found many vegan- or vegetarian-friendly restaurants in New Orleans?

Yes. There are a lot more than I expected. VeganOrleans.com has the most comprehensive list you’ll find online.

Aren’t plants living things, too? Why are you okay with eating them but not with eating animals?

Yes, I’ve seen those experiments on Mythbusters. I believe plants can feel pain and fear, albeit not at the same level of consciousness as animals. But we have to eat to live, and choosing a plant-based diet minimizes the pain and fear we cause. Seek improvement, not perfection.

Also, it must be noted that a meat-based diet is responsible for killing far more plants than a plant-based diet, since animals raised for slaughter eat a lot more greens than humans do.

Where do you get your protein?

The same place plenty of other animals do: from plants. It’s not hard at all. See here and here for more info. Don’t believe those other myths about plant-based diets being unhealthy, either. I haven’t needed any pills or supplements since giving up animal products and I’ve never felt healthier. The only vitamin you can’t get naturally from a plant-based diet is vitamin B12 (and you can find your tiny RDA of that in fortified rice or soy milk).

Backing up those claims is the American Dietetic Association, who finally came out in support of plant-based diets this past July:

It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, and adolescence, and for athletes.

(Speaking of athletes, ESPN.com has a great article on professional athletes who choose a vegetarian diet.)

What advice would you give someone who was about to make the switch to a plant-based diet?

Be prepared to be alienated. Some people will take offense to your choice, as if it’s a judgment on them. Just avoid the subject with those people. Remember the words of Epictetus: “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

Be prepared to up your food budget. I spend probably twice as much on food nowadays. If that concerns you, remember that you’ll be investing in good fuel for your body. That’s probably the best investment you can make.

Be prepared to laugh at yourself. At a restaurant, inquire about vegetarian or vegan options with a smile on your face. If people quiz you on your choices, respond with excitement and enthusiasm instead of getting grumpy and defensive. Keep your mood light and people will respond better to you.

You’ll also need to plan ahead, especially if you regularly attend social events or find yourself on the road a lot. If you’re going somewhere and you’re not sure they’ll have appropriate food for you, bring along something suitable or eat before you go.

And lastly, I’d advise anyone trying a plant-based diet to stick with it for at least thirty days. Don’t expect to reap the rewards immediately. It will take some sacrifice and will power before you start feeling the positive effects.

Update: Four years after publishing this post, I’ve written a follow-up to explain why I went back to eating meat: Why I Quit Being Vegan

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33 Comments

  1. Sounds like this has worked out great for you – I was going to ask about how you dealt with negative reactions from others (since this seems to be pretty commonplace from talking to any of the vegetarians I know), but you’ve got this covered. Anyway, thanks for sharing!

  2. Rock on Niall! So many good answers. My favorite, which I hadn’t thought of when some silly person brings up “killing plants” is: “…it must be noted that a meat-based diet is responsible for killing far more plants than a plant-based diet, since animals raised for slaughter eat a lot more greens than humans do.”

  3. And while we’re talking about doing the minimal amount of harm: eating less means less harm for plants, but also for our bodies. I remember reading about an experiment where mice got different amounts of calories and the mice that got the lowest amount (to a certain point ofcourse) lived the longest and were the healthiest.

  4. Great Q and A. I’m currently a part time vegetarian. Sometimes it’s just easier not to be, but those times are becoming less and less. The more I read stuff like this, the stronger my motivation gets. Will try to avoid the “preachy phase.” Thanks.

    • Hey Jill. Yup, 18 months later and I’m still 95% vegan, even in Ireland. I feel great. This diet definitely works for me, and it’s become almost automatic, rarely an inconvenience.

      Thanks for reading.

      • Cool! I’m newly vegetarian (1 month) and have felt the same effects as far as focus and connection. Also, something interesting is shortly after, I discovered minimalism (hadn’t heard of the concept before!) and see now after I’m getting more into (inspired) that many minimalists are vegetairian or vegan… Connection in conscioUsness? And I love modern/minimalist homes/furniture styles.. Always have. Perhaps I have found my tribe :)

  5. Very similar to my experience. I went straight from hard-drinking carnivore to tee-total vegan in one go, as a trial for a month. In six years I have never had a desire to go back, other than for the convenience. I’ve subsequently moved from UK to Germany and believe me, if you think Ireland is hard for vegans, try Germany. I made the decision purely on health/nutritional grounds but, like you, I have now become far more aware of the moral/ethical side of veganism/vegetarianism – and I have had a vegan, animal-rights-supporting friend for years so it is not like I was oblivious to this point of view. I think I read elsewhere in your blog that you will move to Spain. Well good luck!! That is one tough place to be vegan.

    • I find it MUCH easier to be a vegetarian in Germany than it was in Ireland! But then I guess its always easier if you speak the language fluently and know where to go to…

      If you think its hard to be vegetarian/vegan in Germany, try to go to Asia for a while :D. It`s nearly impossible to get some vegetarian food there and I sometimes spent a couple of hours to find a place where they would understand what I wanted :/

  6. Hi Niall :-)

    What do you use for sandwich fillers (or for packed lunches) as a vegan? We are vegetarian and rely heavily on cheese and eggs but I’d like to try being dairy free so please can you help? Thanks :-)

    • Hi Debbie! Falafel is by far my favorite filler, love that stuff, especially with hummus. Back in New Orleans I used to bring veggie wraps to work every day, with chopped up tomatoes, bell peppers and mushrooms. Add some vegenaise, a little mustard, and a nice helping of kale or lettuce, and it’s golden :-)

  7. I’m glad I came across your blog – everything I’ve read thus far has been so interesting! I’ve been, or at least tried to be, vegetarian since I was little (though I was just considered a “picky eater” rather than vegetarian back then haha – Imagine my surprise when I discovered a whole subculture of picky eaters just like me). Now I’m loving being vegan when I have the option – of course not always possible, such as on family outings to the local steak house. I enjoyed the international perspectives in the comments as I am used to having what seems like plentiful vegetarian options here in the U.S. I’d love to hear more about the challenges and solutions you’ve learned while traveling the world. (Maybe you’ve already blogged about this, and I haven’t found it yet) My year in South America is still fresh in my mind: there was actually a vegetarian restaurant in the main city where I lived, but when I told most places “soy vegetariana,” I had to list exactly what I didn’t eat, and sometimes I still ended up with ham in my salad, or intestines in my soup. Such is life as a travel-addicted vegetarian, I suppose. :)

    • Thanks so much, Kacie!

      I haven’t traveled extensively yet, really having only been in the US, Ireland, Spain and Italy. The US was by far the easiest place for me to be vegan, even down south in New Orleans. Ireland wasn’t too bad, especially because everyone speaks English and I can easily explain my diet to people. Spain and Italy have been more difficult, but still manageable.

      I did eat cheese in Italy, when I was at a restaurant and they brought me out a plate of pasta with mozzarella. I’d asked for no cheese, but they don’t consider mozzarella cheese. Rather than have them throw it out, I decided to go ahead and eat it. I’d rather not waste food.

      I don’t have a lot of eating options here in Spain. It’s quite difficult to get even simple things like falafel and hummus. I prepare almost all of my own meals, and eating out can be quite tricky. The hardest part though might be the social pressure, because nobody here really gets the whole plant-based diet thing.

      I plan to travel a LOT more in the coming years, so I’m sure I’ll be able to share many more stories then.

      Thanks again for your comment :-)

      • Maybe it wasn’t a mistake, the mozzarella. My bro’s wife ordered a seafood pasta dish in the north of Italy. When she asked for parmigiano, they refused, because it would ruin the dish! She was told, that’s a perfect dish as it is, no cheese. The end!

      • Haha, I love that story. I should being as insistent with some of my web design clients: “No, I won’t add a pink flashing logo to the sidebar. The site is perfect as it is. The end!”

  8. I enjoyed skimming through this essay/article/post. I am also vegan but was curious, you have a plant based diet that you consider vegan, but there are more aspects of veganism, or what is known as living a vegan lifestyle that extends from diet to every facet of what you’re consuming, whether it be clothes, shoes, accessories, health and beauty care products, etc. or researching the products you use to find out if they’re cruelty free and vegan also. Have you found yourself “digging in” (as I inevitably did) or do you feel that the diet aspect is quite enough for you?

    • Great question, Callise.

      I do find myself shying away from non-vegan products in general. When I needed a new belt earlier this year, I opted for canvas. I do have two pairs of leather shoes though, both bought this year. I put some time and effort into researching vegan footwear, but just wasn’t satisfied with the options available.

      As for deodorant and such, I do find myself avoiding brands know to test on animals. But again, I’m not 100% strict on this. Lots of room for improvement.

  9. Hey Niall,

    Thanks for recommending I read this. I’m planning on going vegetarian for 2012 and this article was a good read. A few good friends are vegan so I don’t see vegetarian as a ‘huge’ stretch (I still get pasta and cheese!)

    I hear what you’re saying about not being preachy, but don’t you find it annoying that meat eaters almost take offence at you not eating meat and then themselves become quite preachy about it?

    • Thanks for reading, man.

      I used to get offended by preachy meat eaters, but not anymore. Just like people who choose to drink alcohol and feel the need to justify that decision to me, I look at it as their issue, nothing to do with me. I’m comfortable in the choices I’ve made for myself. If others don’t respect that, I recognize pretty quick that they’re not the kind of people I want to hang around with.

  10. Hello. I am considering trying a vegetarian diet for the first time, but I had a few concerns. I was wondering if you could give me your opinions and insight.

    First: I have always had a fairly meat-heavy diet. I like meat, and I cook with it a lot. I’m concerned I may have a hard time giving it up, since most meat-substitute products I’ve tried were… Not good. Is there anything you could suggest to make a transition easier?

    Second: I am a bit of a picky eater. I’m not too fond of most beans (i.e. kidney beans, pinto beans, lentils. I like things like green beans, soy beans and lima beans, though), and I can’t stand mushrooms. Is this going to make getting the protien needed possible?

    Third: I have very little money. It seems like all health food I’ve seen available in stores is really expensive, and I’m kind of struggling financially as it is. Is there any way to do a vegetarian diet on a budget?

    I’m sorry if I sound like an idiot, but this is all very new to me. Thank you in advance. :-)

    • Thanks for the questions, Marci.

      First: It might be best to gradually transition into it, rather than immediately cutting all meat out of your diet. See if you can stick to a vegetarian diet Monday-Wednesday-Friday, and later try stick to it every weekday. Baby steps.

      Second: I’m no expert on protein needs, so best to consult a nutritionist about this. As I understand it though, it’s very rare to get too little protein, even on a plant-based diet. As long as you eat a relatively balanced diet, and not just the same few things all the time, I expect you won’t have any protein problems. Look into which vegetables have a high protein content. You’ll be surprised.

      Third: If you’re willing and able to prepare meals yourself, it doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s mostly the processed vegetarian/vegan food that’s pricey. Try cooking up soups, pastas and cous cous dishes yourself using raw ingredients. Make big batches that will keep you going for 2-3 days at a time.

      I hope that helps! All the best :-)

  11. I became a vegetarian at age four years old when my older sister found out where meat came from. I gradually became a vegan and now I have two vegan children. We are very keen on travelling and recently had a months trip to South America. We liked to go to the supermarkets and do self catering.

  12. I am a case manager working with foster youth. I have youth that come into our homes and are vegetarian and we do what we can to make sure they have the foods they want and encourage them to share recipes that we can all try. However, I currently have a young lady that only eats celery – 4 and 5 times a day. I am concerned that celery does not provide all the nutrients that she may need. I believe that this may be an unhealthy dieting choice. Looking for information regarding supplements that I can ask her doctor about that might ensure that her body is getting needed nutrients.

  13. I have been vegan for almost two years now, and vegetarian for six years. I love what you wrote about other people thinking you are foolish for improving yourself. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me “Where do you get your protein?” I’d be a rich woman. I am planning on Europe for 5 weeks this summer and I am a bit nervous about my eating options. Mostly I do not want to be a pain in the ass to my fellow travelers…

    • Niall, You have inspired me, I will try it for a month (as soon as i clean out my fridge of meat and dairy which shouldn’t take long being a bachelor). One of my big challenges is to start frequenting restaurants that have vegan offerings since I cook mostly by cell.
      Vicariously enjoying your ride.
      Daniel