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