I’ll save you the preachy lecture – there are tons of great resources on the Web detailing health-minded and ethical reasons to begin practicing a plant-based diet. Here, I’ve detailed my own personal journey towards veganism, transitioning from completely carnivorous to a plant-based palate.
portrait of a carnivore
Growing up, my dinners were far from fresh vegetables and flaxseeds. My family’s table would be framed by a (usually microwaved) unseasoned chicken, cow, or pig. There would usually be an side of canned green beans or carrots (with a heaping dose of preservatives, of course) and dinner rolls made from bleached white flour (or worse…Who really knows what goes into those doughy grocery store rolls, anyway?) I dined this way every night until my high school graduation.
When I went to college, I sustained myself on a solid regimen of McDonald’s fries, chicken nuggets, and double cheeseburgers. If I wanted to cook for myself at home, I’d pop a Lean Cuisine into the microwave and give myself a pat on the back for being so healthy.
About halfway through my first year in college, I realized I was rapidly gaining weight. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was also excessively tired, moody, and highly emotional. Clearly, my body did not agree with the garbage I was subjecting it to! However, my 19-year-old self didn’t even consider the connection between my rotten mental state and the rotten carcasses on my plate; all I wanted was the number on that scale to go down, and fast.
more butter, please
I spent my entire winter break that year binge-viewing the Food Network. My favorite shows were southern-style cooking how-to’s that featured variations on deep-fried lard. I stocked up on a pantry full of pre-made mashed potato mixes, red meats, and white pasta. I slathered my drumsticks in bleached flour, whole eggs, and Country Crock with pride and gave myself a gold star for skipping the drive-thru. For the rest of the year, I sustained my appetite on a homemade-waffle-with-extra-butter regime. However cringe-worthy this lapse in judgement may be to me now, it was an important time in my life: the moment I realized that I could open up a cookbook and do something with it.
girl: seeking health
It took me awhile to realize that homemade and healthy weren’t necessarily synonymous- just because it didn’t come out of a can didn’t mean it wouldn’t cause a muffin top. When I moved back in with my parents for the summer, I shifted my focus to eating fresh foods. I offered to cook our family’s meals and mostly served varieties fish, chicken, and fruit salad. I wasn’t a vegan by any means, and I still avoided vegetables like the plague, but it was admittedly a better diet than Cheez-Its and chicken fried steak.
When I returned to school in the fall, I read Kim Barnouin and Rory Freedman’s book Skinny Bitch. (I admit: I was still not concerned with health at this point. I just wanted to be skinny.) The book opened my eyes to the importance of buying organic, consuming more vegetables, and cutting back on meat. I completely cut out red meat and relied on chicken and fish only a few nights per week. Since the thought of consuming a raw vegetable by itself still freaked me out, I made big batches of pasta with some starter veggies (zucchini, squash, tomatoes, and bell peppers) tucked inside. I had no intention of becoming a vegan after reading that book. I still ate meat. I still ate dairy. Even so, the transition to organic food and reduced meat helped me drop about 15 pounds, without any effort at all. I felt great and had renewed confidence in my body; but still, I did not quite link it to the food I was eating.
on the carcass train again
In the middle of my sophomore year, I started dating my current boyfriend. A few months into our relationship, I had a stunning realization — I had gotten “fat” again. (Ah, young love.) All those dinner dates and pizza-and-wine nights had completely wrecked any progress I had made towards a healthy lifestyle. Around that time, I was introduced to the slow-carb diet and reveled in the testimonials of people who had rapidly lost 20, 30, even 40 pounds. If they could do it, so could I! My boyfriend went on the diet first and dropped his weight almost immediately. He looked so great, I thought the logic must be foolproof. I tossed all my progress towards fresh, organic cooking I out the window and embraced the life of the carnivore once again.
I followed this regimen on-and-off for about a year, and pretty much ate nothing but carcass. Breakfast was always an egg, or three. Lunch was chicken, salmon, or tilapia (reheated in the office microwave – yum.) Dinner was a different type of chicken, salmon, or tilapia; maybe with some steamed broccoli if I was feeling “healthy.” I did not consume any grains, except on “cheat” days when I would stuff my face with bleached flour products and cream cheese. Fresh vegetables became a thing of the past. Organic cooking was a forgotten hobby.
I won’t lie to you – I did lose weight, at first. However, the longer I remained on the diet, the worse I felt, and those pounds started to creep back onto my figure. Finally, I could not ignore it any longer. I was completely dissatisfied with my plate (I craved carbs daily), felt constantly bloated, and just heavy. (Of course I did. I was consuming an ungodly amount of animal hormones and additives. Duh.) One day, I grabbed my old copy of Skinny Bitch and read the entire book from cover to cover without stopping.
listening to my body
I decided right then and there, baking in the hot sun at an apartment complex pool, to become a vegan. I was afraid to do it at first. I hadn’t really shopped for organic vegetables in a couple of years, and cooking had become a thing of the past; but I was inspired. I drove to HEB in a wet bathing suit and tank top and bought a trove of vegetables, fruit, grains and processed vegan foods recommended in Barnouin’s book. I went home and made a gigantic Pinterest board full of vegan recipes and ideas. I read Barnouin’s Ultimate Everyday Cookbook from front to back, then back to front. I was going to do this.
I started preparing foods like black bean burgers, eating tamari-soaked tofu, and ordering soy milk in my morning lattes. I felt pretty good about the choices I was making; but I wanted to do more. I bought several vegan books off of Amazon and delved even deeper in the lifestyle.
to veganfinity, and beyond
The next book I discovered was Alicia Silverstone’s The Kind Life. Though Skinny Bitch had opened my eyes to some of the cruelties associated with factory farming, The Kind Life taught me even more – that the entire world could be fed and happily full if we all adopted a plant-based diet. I had never thought of myself as particularly privileged. I needed financial aid to attend college and had to work constantly to stay afloat while enrolled. The consuming a mass-produced animal that had been fattened with enough grains to feed a small country at almost every meal of the day blew my mind. By consuming that hamburger, I was directly and negatively affecting world hunger. I had cared about saving underprivileged cows before, but the thought of saving underprivileged humans through my meals truly struck a chord with me.
Today, I try to prepare food as close to its natural state as possible, incorporating as much vegetables as I possibly can. And as the title of this page asserts, being vegan is a journey. I have weak moments when a slice of Antonio’s cheese pizza finds its way into my belly. (That little Northgate pizza shop is the bane of my vegan existence.) I go to restaurants, realize my only option is a boring bowl of iceberg-lettuce, and sheepishly ask for a little goat cheese on top.
What’s important is that as I continue on my journey, these moments become far and few between. In the short two months that I have began to follow this lifestyle, my palate has changed. I no longer need the cheese to bear ordering a vegetable. I feel sick when I clog my body with processed foods, and I wouldn’t dream of touching meat again.
I hope you find this (obnoxiously long) post to be helpful and uplifting. Anyone who cares about their health can be vegan, or at least take steps to reducing their meat and cheese intake. I didn’t care about Bessie, my heart, warding off cancer, or saving third-world countries when I stopped eating animal products: I just wanted to be skinny. That shallow goal has turned into a deeper respect for the environment, our impact on it, and living things in general. It’s possible. Find your motivation.